The Language of Emotions Doesn’t Always Translate Across Cultures


Every culture has an ability to read another person’s emotions. We can tell if someone is genuinely interested in what we are saying by a certain look or the sound of their voice. We can gauge someone’s motivation by watching their reactions. Getting good at this helps us make better decisions, steer business meetings, plan marketing strategies and more.

But what happens when you cross over into another culture’s territory? Since emotions and how they are expressed and the meaning behind them vary tremendously between different cultures, you could find yourself in a communication minefield if you don’t understand the “lay of the land.”

American culture encourages showing enthusiasm whether its fervently expressing your opinions in a business meeting or passionately networking with potential employers. In America, expressed eagerness is —more often than not— interpreted by employers as proof of how highly invested you are in your job.

But leave the comfort of your north American shores and you may find it means the exact opposite. All that enthusiasm, especially in front of your boss, is not condoned in cultures such as Japan and China.  An American’s big smile, handshake, or hug, may be misconstrued as inauthentic and disingenuous. What we feel is genuine and sincere, may not look that way to your colleagues across the sea. In Eastern cultures, there are strict boundaries about when and where people display emotion. Japanese individuals are not typically emotionally expressive at work. They rarely show their excitement.  This may be different after hours and off the clock, but during the day, self-control and modesty are employed.

And this is not just a phenomenon reserved for East Asian Cultures. The same holds true for people of the United Kingdom. There, people act more subdued; words are understated. Moderation and self-control are valued. What an American may call “great,” a person from the UK may call “not bad.”  A new work initiative that Americans might consider exciting might pass without comment in Britain.

So, when you gather together to either collaborate, network, share ideas, or persuade someone of another culture, there are a few things to keep in mind.  And it all starts with being consciously aware of a few things.

Do not Judge. Observe.

Be careful not to judge a UK or Asian counterpart as one who lacks passion, drive, or interest if they react or work in an “odd” or “different way. Those adjectives may not be accurate. They may actually be all of those things, but they just have a different way of showing it.

Knowing these differences is half the battle of communicating across cultures. It really comes down to flexing your observational muscles.  Much like learning a language where you learn a word, a phrase, an idiom, if you concentrate on observing and essentially “learning,” your employees’ or colleagues’ emotions and mannerisms, you will understand them better. It is truly the language of emotions.

Learn who tends to express their emotions readily and who keeps them to themselves. When and where do they feel comfortable freely expressing their emotions? Diagnose any gaps between how you express emotions in your culture and how people you’ll be interacting with express emotion in theirs.

Respond constructively.

And then once you learn how their emotional language, tailor your responses to people of different cultures to ensure they are constructive. For example, if your Chinese boss does not smile after you eloquently present your amazing new idea, don’t assume that his blank stare indicates he dislikes your idea. Instead, gather more information to fully understand his point of view. Try asking follow-up questions. See if your proposal was clear. Also consider whether it is culturally appropriate to even ask questions like these to your boss.   By gathering data, you will decipher emotional cues and expressions more readily and it will make for a better working relationship, help forgo any misunderstandings and any emotional upheaval.

For instance, one of our clients reached out to us about an  employee who was not communicating in meetings.  Her work was suffering a bit as well. Being from an Asian culture, she never spoke up in meetings and over time continued to miss out on important meetings interactions and outcomes.  To rectify this, we observed that she had been too busy at work to schedule and attend her English-language classes which was the reason for her inability to interact and be part of the company in a more meaningful way. Her supervisors adjusted her schedule to ensure ESL class participation.  She was encouraged to speak up, talk to her supervisor in private if need be.  And as a result, her frustration lifted, her experience and her work and engagement improved markedly.  The most important thing was her supervisors observed and spoke up and we created a plan and an environment that included that employee and everyone won.  She is now adding her insight at work and learning a language in the process.

While not always easy, paying attention to the language of emotions is vital to happier employees and better relationships (both work and personal). Having this skill will help you understand others and yourself.  And you can choose to show others how excited you are to be an emotional language virtuoso by singing it from the top of your office building.  Or you can keep it all to yourself. That is entirely up to you.

By Ilona Knudson

#aiatranslations #crosscultural #emotions #translations

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