When it’s Cool to be Emotional

‘How are you?’ is a common greeting around the world, and one that invites very different responses depending on the cultural context. For example, when an American asked her Thai friend how she was doing, her monotone response was: “I am good.” To the American ear, the monotone response did not match the positive words, which prompted further questioning: “What’s wrong?” Truthfully, nothing was wrong, the Thai friend actually was ‘good’.

This simple exchange illustrates the difference between “Affective” and “Neutral” cultures. In Affective cultures, emotions are freely and openly expressed. In Neutral cultures (such as Thai culture), people tend to reserve their feelings in communication.

Neutral Affective
  • Control emotions
  • Non-emotional, monotone communication is preferred
  • Reason may influence behavior more than feelings
  • Likely to conceal feelings and inner thoughts.
  • Appear cool and in control
  • Express emotions
  • Emphasize sharing of feelings
  • Use a wide range of facial expressions and physical gestures
  • Enthusiastic and spontaneous
  • Consider emotions and intuition in the decision-making process
Examples: Japan, China, New Zealand Examples: Italy, Spain, Argentina

These differences can be enormous easily leading to misunderstanding and confusion.

In response to the statement, “In my society, it is unprofessional to show emotions overtly,” 74% of Japanese agreed, while only 33% of Italians agreed.

From Trompenaars, Fons. The Covid-19 Survival Guide: Dilemmas and Solutions (p. 36). Kindle Edition.

It is important to clarify that this is not about whether people experience emotions or not. All human beings have emotions. However, in some cultures, it is more common to express emotions than in others. Personality also plays a role. Though they may be challenging to find, Affective Germans and Neutral Italians do exist.

Where are you in the Affective-Neutral range? Where does your culture fit? For example, I am fairly neutral, and the segment of American culture that I am most familiar with lies somewhere between the two extremes. Because I land a bit to the left on this, I can easily be misunderstood even in my own culture. Like the Thai girl above, I naturally say “I am good” without much expression. It is important for me to recognize the adjustments I need to make, especially when meeting new people from cultures that naturally operate on the right side of the Affective-Neutral range.

A lack of awareness of these differences can lead to a host of misunderstandings. Whether in a business setting or in a social situation, it is important to read others accurately, and to respond appropriately. When in doubt, it is always a good idea to seek clarification instead of making assumptions.

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