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Book Review:
Do we "inherit" our emotions?

Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions

Batja Mesquita, 2022

The August 8, 2022 issue of The New Yorker  contains an excellent review by Nikhil Krishnan of the recently published book, Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions by the Dutch psychologist, Batja Mesquita. According to Mesquida, "emotions aren't simply natural upwellings from our psyche - they're constructions we inherit from our communities." She questions the idea that there are a small number of "hard wired" emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, surprise, happiness, sadness that are much the same among humans around the world based on analysis of words different cultures use to describe emotions. She offers numerous examples of cultures that use a range of words to distinguish emotions like shame from embarrassment, or couple shame will shyness, awe or obedience. Mesquita asserts that the Japanese "are shocked to learn that English has no word that's equivalent to "amae", a complete dependence on the nurturant indulgence of their caregiver." Mesquida concludes "that languages organize the domain very differently, and make both different kinds as well as different numbers of distinctions." 


Krishnan states: "Mesquida wants us to consider this alternative model. Instead of treating motions as"inner," perhaps we should conceive of them as "acts happening between people: acts that are being adjusted to the situation at hand rather than as mental states within an individual." In this perspective, emotions are learned rather than given in biology; emotions are Relational and Situated - Ours." Mesquida believes emotions are culturally specific. Per Krishnan's summary of this perspective,  "Not even our deepest feelings turn out to be free of the shaping hand of language and convention," which seems obvious and does not contradict the idea that all humans have standard range of emotions. 


It appears that Mesquida's book is a combination of the psychology of emotion,  social anthropology and the philosophy of language at which Krishnan excels. He asks: "What are we to take away from the fact that another language doesn't have different words for shame and embarrassment? That its speakers have no way of knowing which situations call for which emotions? " And: "Mesquita makes much of the claim that Luganda has a single word that refers to anger and sadness, Doesn't the English term "upset" have the same range?"  Krishnan opines: "The practice of translation -- undertaken daily by millions of migrants talking about their experiences -- should leave us with more hope for what we can say with the words we have. .. Even if my language needs two or three words where yours needs only one, it hardly follows we cannot understand each other without learning the other's language." 


Krisnan criticizes Mesquida's analysis of emotion for depending too much on that lack of one to one correspondence between words for common emotions in various cultures. Krishnan argues that abstractions create puzzlement while concrete examples clarify meaning. He asserts: "Once we start trading in examples rather than abstractions, we come closer to knowing what we really think. And what we learn is that our language for emotions is already "situated", already "relational," already involves a judgment about the world "outside" our minds. Like many other inventions thought to come from another part of the planet, the OURS model of emotion turns out to be a common human inheritance."    


I plan to read Mesquida's book in the near future. Intuitively, and from observation of foreign students,  I agree with the idea that other cultures express emotional states in different ways that seem odd to me, but this does not mean I cannot with effort understand or appreciate another culture's experience of shame, or romantic love, or resignation, but sometimes it takes persistent effort and interpersonal relationships to achieve a modicum of understanding. I question whether language analysis is the best way to appreciate cultural differences in emotions; art and literature seem an easier way to access the inner world of people who have emotional reactions different than Americans or Westerners. 


One subject Krishnan touches on but does not clarify is the distinction animal biologists and some neuroscientists make between emotions expressed in behavior and feelings understood to be private. This seems like a dubious distinction to me, but many scientists take it as a given. It seems more likely that emotional states have both public and private dimensions. People can hide feelings and emotions to some extent though usually not fully, but to understand the meaning someone attaches to feelings, it helps to ask rather than making up plausible stories. 

-- Dee Wilson

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