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Where Does Culture Shock Come From?

2013 March 11
by Eric Horowitz

Culture is a powerful thing. It not only affects how much time you spend at work, how you treat others around you, and how much beer you consume before the age of 20, it can also influence the emotions you experience on a day-to-day basis. The simple story of how culture influences emotions is that the same situation can elicit different emotions in different cultures. For example, going out on your own and achieving an important personal goal may elicit more pride in an individualistic culture, but more shame in a collectivist culture (because you’ve abandoned the group.)

According to a new study (journal link, pdf), there is also a more deep-rooted explanation for how culture influences emotions: You’re more likely to encounter situations that elicit culturally condoned emotions and less likely to encounter situations that elicit culturally condemned emotions. In other words, cultures tend to afford situations that are likely to lead to particular emotions.

The core of the study involved American and Japanese students rating the frequency with which certain situations occurred. In prior pilot experiments each of the situations had been shown to elicit either shame — an emotion that tends to be condoned in Japan but condemned in America — or anger, an emotion that is condoned in America but condemned in Japan. The researchers found that Japanese students rated situations eliciting shame as more likely to occur and situations eliciting anger as less likely to occur. American students believed the opposite. In each culture, situations that elicited condoned emotions were perceived to occur more frequently.

The researchers see this as evidence that culture essentially “regulates” situations:

The findings point to a regulatory process at the level of cultures (De Leersnyder, Boiger, & Mesquita, 2013): The cultural selection of everyday situations seems to promote situations that elicit culturally condoned emotions and to suppress those situations that elicit culturally condemned emotions.

In the same way a teacher encourages situations that lead to teacher-condoned behaviors occurring more frequently, a culture encourages situations that lead to culturally condoned emotions occurring more frequently. The question is, how might might this anthropomorphized version of culture “select” certain situations? The authors propose a few explanations:

Antecedent-focused regulation may occur in a number of different ways. Certain cultural practices may generate certain kinds of emotion-eliciting situations and make them occur more frequently (e.g., practice of hansei or critical self-reflection leading to more shame-inducing situations). Social life may be structured in ways that affect the prevalence of certain situations (e.g., politeness rituals and highly structured social interactions reducing friction and keeping social transactions smooth). Finally, institutionalized values may afford the experience of certain kinds of situations (e.g., a strongly endorsed right for free speech increasing situations of dissent).

To get back to my attention-grabbing headline, I think the study hints at a mechanism for culture shock that goes beyond than the standard “you feel discomfort because things are different.” If cultures select for situations that elicit condoned emotions, entering a new culture ought to involve encountering situations built to elicit a less familiar set of emotions. This might mean an increase in situations that elicit emotions your native culture condemns, and a decrease in situations that elicit emotions your native culture condones. That change ought to result in some serious anxiety, and it has nothing to do the fact that restaurants are serving you dishes with strange animals in them.
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Boiger, M., Mesquita, B., Uchida, Y., & Feldman Barrett, L. (2013). Condoned or Condemned: The Situational Affordance of Anger and Shame in the United States and Japan Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167213478201

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