Season 4: Ep. 2 Dancing the Dance of Emotions Between Us with Batja Mesquita
Exploring the research of Batja Mesquita and other cultural psychologists and social psychologists, this episode examines how emotions are enacted between humans. Challenging the US-centric worldview that emotions are only within an individual, Mesquita notes that emotions are continuously enacted within culture and relationships. Our podcast contrasts differences in Japanese orientations with amae, omoiyuri, and haji or shame. Drawing upon research on happiness, we examine how happiness has changed across time and how happiness differs across cultures. Within Latin American cultures, notions of simpatía and familísmo construct happiness as relational and go-with-the flow agreeablenes. The episode concludes with an examination of the relevance of emotions to conflict transformation and the importance of approaching emotional disconnects with a spirit of empathy, perspective taking, and curiosity.
Batja Mesquita is a social psychologist, affective scientist, and a pioneer of cultural psychology. She is a professor of psychology at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and director of the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology at the University of Leuven. Mesquita is one of the world’s leading authorities on the psychological study of cultural differences in emotions. Her most recent research focuses on the role of emotions in multicultural societies. She studies how emotions affect the belonging of minoritized youth in middle schools, and the social and economic integration of “newcomers” (i.e. newly arrived immigrants). Mesquita has been a consultant for UNICEF and the World Health Organization, and most recently, she was a member of the core group of scientific advisors for the Happiness and Well-being (SEH) Project, an initiative of the Vatican in partnership with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). In 2022 she was recognized for Outstanding Contribution to Advances in Cultural Psychology. And in 2023, she was named International honorary member of the American Academy for the Arts and Sciences.
1. What are the biases we carry about emotion and how they color our cultural ways of seeing our experience of relationships and the world?
2. What are emotions? What do emotions do for humans? How might cultures define emotions differently?
3. Pixar’s film “Inside out” constructed emotions as within us from a US-centric lens. What is the difference in constructing emotions as “between us” rather than “within us”?
4. Describe Japanese approaches to amae, omoiyuri, and haji and how these emotions are examples of an interdependent, collectivist orientation.
5. How are our constructions of emotion realized in what and how we pay attention? Do we look to one person or surrounding others in identifying a person’s emotion?
6. How has the concept of happiness changed in the United States across time?
7. How is happiness constructed differently in Latinx or Latine cultures based upon differences in language and culture?
8. How might we reimagine social-emotional learning as a champion for diverse ways of experiencing emotions within cultural contexts?
9. What happens when worldviews of emotion come into conflict through processes of immigration and migration?
10. How might we embrace a spirit of curiosity and question-asking as a culturally informed and culturally sensitive practice?
11. When are our understandings, experiences, and practices of emotions barriers to belonging? How might we embrace curiosity to open diverse spaces of emotional belonging?
6:35 Traumas of Belonging
8:55 Biases of Emotion
12:20 Defining Emotion
15:59 Japanese Differences
17:10 Japanese Haji
20:33 Emotion, Culture and Attention
22:09 Historical Happiness
25:41 Latine Happiness
27:23 Movements of Emotion
33:35 SEL and Emotional Literacy
36:12 Belonging, Hospitality, and Immigration
38:15 Magic of Vocabulary
41:20 Curiosity and Cultural Translation
45:03 Emotions and Belonging
47:43 Disconnected Dances of Emotion
Es, B. v. (2018). The cut out girl: A story of war and family, lost and found. Penguin Books.
Groeninck, M., Meurs, P., Geldof, D., Van Acker, K., & Wiewauters, C. (2020). Resilience in liminality: How resilient moves are being negotiated by asylum-seeking families in the liminal context of asylum procedures. Journal of Refugee Studies, 33(2), 358-370. https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/feaa031
Lederach, J. P. (1995). Preparing for peace: Conflict transformation across cultures. Syracuse University Press.
Masuda, T., Wang, H., Ishii, K., & Ito, K. (2012). Do surrounding figures’ emotions affect judgment of the target figure’s emotion? Comparing the eye-movement patterns of European Canadians, Asian Canadians, Asian international students, and Japanese. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6(72), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2012.00072
Mesquita, B. (2022). Between us: How cultures create emotions. W. W. Norton & Company.
Oishi, S., Graham, J., Kesebir, S., & Galinha, I. C. (2013). Concepts of happiness across time and cultures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(5), 559-577. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167213480042
Van Acker, K., Phalet, K., Deleersnyder, J., & Mesquita, B. (2014). Do “they” threaten “us” or do “we” disrespect “them”: Majority perceptions of intergroup relations and everyday contacts with immigrant minorities. Group Process & Intergroup Relations, 17(5), 617-628. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430214536062gpir.sagepub.com
Van Acker, K., & Vanbeselaere, N. (2011). Heritage culture maintenance precludes host culture adoption and vice versa: Fleming’s perceptions of Turk’s acculturation behavior. Group Process & Intergroup Relations, 15(1), 133-145. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430211417263
Interview with Batja Mesquita
Amae and Omoiyuri
Brain Science Episode
emotions, culture, happiness, relationships, people, belonging, shame, children, social emotional learning, person, moving, parents, peacebuilding, mesquita, ahmet, social, feeling, understand, question, angry
Kevin Shorner-Johnson, Batja Mesquita
Batja Mesquita 00:00
It all starts with that emotions do things in relationships, and that certain things are valued in a culture and expected and other things are not but it's one of the things that I think contributes to you belonging or not belonging that you emotionally perform in a way that relationships are done in that culture.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 00:20
You are listening to season four of the music and peacebuilding podcast, a podcast season focused on multifaceted textures of belonging. Our podcast explores intersections of peacebuilding, sacredness, community, creativity and imagination through research and story. Dr. Batja Mesquita is a social psychologist, effective scientist and a pioneer of cultural psychology. She is professor of psychology at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and director of the Center for Social and Cultural psychology at the University of Leuven. Mesquita is one of the world's leading authorities on the psychological study of cultural differences and emotions. Her most recent research focuses on the role of emotions in multicultural societies. She studies how emotions affect the belonging of minoritized youth in middle schools, and the social and economic integration of newcomers. Mesquita has been a consultant for UNICEF and the World Health Organization and most recently, she was a member of the core group of scientific advisors for the happiness and wellbeing project, an initiative of the Vatican in partnership with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. In 2022, she was recognized for outstanding contribution to advances in cultural psychology, and in 2023, she was named international honorary member of the American Academy for the arts and sciences. My narrations in this episode will weave together segments with Batja Mesquita, alongside reflections on research that fascinate me for the implications for peacebuilding conflict transformation, music, teaching, and social emotional learning.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 02:22
I found something in the end notes of your book that fascinated me, as I was going back and forth between the foreword and the endnotes, and I found the book, that's the biography of your mother, I found that you named that your father was in class with Anne Frank, and that there is a history of trauma there. And I think you jump over to the forward and know that you became maybe interested in emotions, because you were just curious about the inner, emotional worlds that were at play in your parents. And I wondered if you could start the story there is I find, I find that to be a really hard story, but a really interesting story about what's moved you toward emotion?
Batja Mesquita 03:08
Well, let me preface that by saying that you never know when you study a topic, I mean, people ask you, how did you get interested? I just was, right? The research just brought me that way. It was the people I met. But I think I've always been a psychologically minded child, even person, I always wanted to know what was going on and other people's head. And, and partly that was because my, I think because my parents had survived the Second World War as Jewish children. My parents were children when that war broke out. And they both were in hiding and in different ways. And so my father was a classmate of Anne Frank. And that may seem surprising, but it wasn't because all the Jewish children in the Netherlands were at one school so they happen to have about the same age and were in the same class. But that was really the only thing that was surprising about it, because that was the structure of the world in that in that case, and my mom, her parents were, her parents must have known more than they let on because they gave her away to the resistance. And so she was hidden by the resistance and her parents were arrested and died in in a concentration camp. So so she came out of the war, an orphan and of course, the whole experience was a very different one from you know, from the environment that I grew up in, which was a a pretty comfortable middle class family with two loving parents in the 60s, which was when the world was more or less peaceful, at least in my part of the world. And you know, and very hopeful, I would say so very different, circumstances of growing up. And I sometimes really didn't understand my parents, you know, the way my parents would get upset or, or uncertain or would suddenly be uncontrollably angry or sad when something happened that, in my view, didn't give reason to those emotions. And sometimes were happy also in a way. And you know, that was later on. I remember when my first son, that was the was when my son was born. That was my, my parents, first grandchild, and my mother said to me, so we really conquered Hitler, like, you know, we are reproducing. And, of course, that's not the first meaning that came to mind for me, I was I, you know, I've never been so happy as when I had children, but it wasn't for the same reason. So I think this, this, you know, this emotional world that exists that in a space that wasn't immediately accessible to me, I've always had to deal with. And I think that that's a little bit what you do when you look at emotions, in people from other cultures, is, you know, you see some parts, but you have to make a story doesn't immediately make sense always. And if it does make sense, it sometimes doesn't make sense for the right reasons. I mean, you just project what you would feel and what the reasons are, but it may be completely different in for those people and from their point of view.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 06:34
Bart van Es' book of Batja's mother, Lien, is a compassionate exploration of Lien's traumatized story of Jewish identity in World War Two. And Bart van Es' moved to seek repair and his family's intertwined story. Sensing danger within Nazi occupied Netherlands. Lien's Jewish mother and father made the impossible decision to hide Lien with another family as Dutch officers closed in Lien and moved from family to family until residing in a home that often contained unloving conditions, and sometimes new forms of trauma and assault. Van es notes that Lien frequently used metaphors of, quote, "low heat" to describe intersections of trauma, the absence of feeling and flare ups of unpredictable response Lien states "I think my main feeling was of having lost anything to hold on to, there were no borders, there were no fences, the biggest feeling the most important feeling was that I was free falling and that nobody could hold me." As the war ended, Lien learns that her parents and extended family died in concentration camps, Lien also experienced a quote, "damage to the confidence of belonging" when the overwhelmed Van Es family was at first unwilling to take her back. She as well as many of the other trauma survivors, experienced the feeling that quote, "I ought not to be here", a kind of continuous sense of unbelonging. I hold this delicate moving story of Batja's family alongside Batja's language that our emotions are grounded within our cultural relationships, and the stories, or maybe the traumatic absence of stories that color our emotional lives.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 08:55
In 2015, Pixar launched a beautiful film exploring the internal negotiation of five emotions within a developing character named Riley. As helpful and profound as this film is, it may have extended US centric myths and biases, that emotions are simply within us, rather than between us. I asked Dr. Mesquita, about the biases that have colored research into emotions.
Batja Mesquita 09:26
You know, most educated Western people, including I would say many psychologists think of emotions primarily as these feelings deep inside us. And so it's becomes really easy to think that there is something natural about them biological, universal, and psychology has done a lot to reinforce that picture, I think including helping the Pixar movie makers to make that wonderful, wonderful film. That's not the way in which you know, emotions as feelings inside us and as deeply part of individuals is not the way in which most cultures see emotion. So in most cultures, emotions are seen as happening between people. So I am angry. That is primarily something that happens between you and me, it's an act of, in this case of non acceptance, for example. And so what's happening is really between you and me, which also asks for very different kinds of questions like, Is it reasonable to have those emotions, if it's between you and me, if it's part of the relationship? It's subject to all the kinds of questions that you have about people's behavior in relationships? So is this a good thing or a bad thing? What are you trying to do in our relationship? What is your role? Am I accepting that role? I talk in the book about one of my first studies where my Turkish respondents in the Netherlands, where I asked them to simply list emotion words. And, you know, in my view, then, the Turkish respondents didn't know what emotions were, they listed things like shame and love and hate, but they also listed crying and laughing and helping all in the same list. And so my first response was, in fact, to say, to not accept that answer and to say, Well, those are not emotions. Now, also, what I say in the book is, do we really know what emotions are? No, we don't, we don't even agree on a definition, we all agree that emotions are those responses where you find something good or bad, that feels good or bad. We also all agree that emotions are embodied responses to things in the environment, that are important to us. I mean, I have an emotion when when something happens that is, importantly good or bad for me. So there we can agree, we certainly agree that often emotion comes with some bodily changes, not always, but often, but it stops about there. You know, so my saying to the Turkish respondents, this is not emotions, was purely reasoning from my idea of emotions have to be subjective feelings inside of a person.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 12:20
So if if we try to define emotion now, based upon where you are, and your research, I think in the book I read, that they use the analogy that they're the currency of our world, even if we use different currencies, that they're for acting in the social world that they come from breaks in routine, how would you start to define emotion? And describe like, what emotions are good for, for us in our lives? What did they do for us?
Batja Mesquita 12:45
I would answer that question slightly differently than you asked it. But I would say, we speak of emotions, when we have responses to events that are out of the ordinary that we have to respond to. So if I go about my, my everyday life, I usually know, you know, based on routine, I know, knowledge and experience, I know what to do. Emotions are typically those experiences that are a little bit out of the ordinary, because, you know, there are things that happen that are extremely good, like I meet this guy, and I think he could be marriage material. You know, that's a strong emotion, even you know, that's at the moment what I think, or there is something dangerous, or somebody is challenging my position, a typical reason to be angry, I would say emotions prepare us to deal with events that are out of the ordinary, but seem to be really important. That's when we talk about emotions. Now is emotion one thing? I don't think so, is not even, not even not cross culturally. But even you know, all the situations that we call emotions are not exactly the same. There's there's research with Belgian respondents Belgian student respondents, very narrow sample. And they look at when people say that they're angry, and they find that really, there is no characteristic of anger that is always there. So anger is, you know, sometimes anger, you use anger because you're frustrated. Some but sometimes you use it because somebody else is at fault. Some sometimes you use it because it's very unfair. And sometimes there is a combination of those things, but there is none of those characteristics that is always there when we speak of anger. So in other words, I have these categories of events that have something in common. And when you talk about a category of events that we call emotions, then what they have in common is probably that these are important events and that often because we prepare for a different kind of relationship with the world, our body is preparing for it. So we talk about emotions, when something is important is happening important to our lives, positive or negative. And when we need to find a way to deal with the world, that's when we talk about emotions. That also means that in different cultures or across different times, there are slightly different phenomena that are understood as emotions. And that even when I say for example, I'm angry that it's probably not the same when I'm angry at my partner, at my two year old child or at the state of the world. Those are probably different experiences that I can categorize as an anger experience or an angry emotion.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 15:59
Defining emotions is complex. Feldman, Barrett and Mesquita write that emotions are not universal categories, and Mesquita notes that not all languages have a word for emotion. And this category is, quote, "historically new and geographically unique." However, we can define emotions as relational acts between people. Emotions are an urge to action and an enactment of stories of culture and social community. I asked Mesquita about Japanese culture, because I was fascinated by her descriptions of Amae, Omoiyuri, and Haji. Mesquita defines Amae as a kind of nurturant indulgence that cultivates a child's dependence and interdependence. The related concept of Omoiyuri is an empathetic ability to feel what others feel and quote, "to help them satisfy their wishes." The emotions are at the center of a harmonious, interdependent worldview, our conversation turns to the interdependent concept of Haji or shame.
Batja Mesquita 17:10
Haji too, I think, is an emotion that is purely the that is purely felt, from the perspective of another person, what would it look like from the norms, the perspective, the the expectation of another person, or the other people, the others, so it's haji is the big is the big domain of embarrassment and shame. And the Japanese language doesn't really make a difference between the two. So it's, you know, there is it's not meeting the social expectations, the way I see haji and shame in other cultures, this is what you said was hardest for you to, to accept, but it's not. It's of course, not a pleasant emotion. Nobody feels a shame like emotions and thinks that's, that's wonderful. But it is different from the the Western understanding of shame, in the sense that it makes you a morally good person to feel that because it means that you have that you pay attention to what other people's norms are. And that you are a proper person who wants to take into account what the social expectations are.
Batja Mesquita 18:31
Haji means that you understand what you're doing from the perspective of other people. So it makes you actually a morally good person. If this is a morally good emotion, of course, other people are also responding to it in a different way. It's more inclusive. Shame, in general, is an emotion that tries to avoid exclusion from the group or exclusion by others. But in a culture where the group is so important and where other people know that what you're doing to remain part of the group is important. It also may be more effective.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 19:10
I think I also remember you writing that sometimes Japanese emotions lean into a sense of loneliness, because loneliness is the first step back to each other. And I found that really fascinating. Yeah,
Batja Mesquita 19:24
so loneliness and sadness are I found to be good emotions in the sense that they make you aware that you need a social environment. So in a sense, I think it's not. It's not you know, where loneliness is interpreted. I think in many Western cultures, as you know, that means that you need other people and don't don't have them so that that's a terrible condition. In Japan loneliness makes you aware of a state that you should be aware of, namely, that we were all in need of a relationship. And if I've heard other cultures that sadness or loneliness or missing, are actually very highly valued emotions because they show you that you're part of a bigger whole, of a social, of the network of social relationship. And so they show you as as a morally good person as a person who, who embodies the values of the culture.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 20:31
A study by Masada, Wang Ishi and Ito, compare Japanese students with Canadian students of different ethnicities and backgrounds on the visual identification of emotions. Researchers asked participants to identify the emotions of a central person, surrounded in a picture by four others who displayed matching or divergent emotions. They hypothesized that unlike Japanese students, Canadians of European heritage would focus on the emotional state of the central figure and ignore surrounding others. After finding significant main effects of culture upon eye fixations and emotional assessments, the researchers concluded, quote, The results suggest that instead of assuming that one's facial expressions are generated from his or her inner feelings. East Asians assume that facial expressions are a product of complex interpersonal relationships. And for North Americans who are encultured to attend to inner emotions, it made sense to ignore contextual information and focus solely on the central subject. Our beliefs about emotions may be culturally informed and enacted in our forms of attention and behavior.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 22:09
Alright so the thing that fascinated me in the book was about happiness in the United States and the historical study that's been done there. So you were citing a historical examination from Shigi Oishi and colleagues about happiness in the United States. And this is a notion that the very definition of happiness in the United States has changed in relationship to histories of consumerism. And I love that you put this picture in the book of the Hoover vacuum cleaner that states you will be happier with a Hoover. Yeah, noting that we transitioned kind of around that time from perceiving happiness as a collective to individual. So could you talk about this history of one emotion that is anything but static? And the American culture?
Batja Mesquita 22:54
Yeah, and the emotion that we think is so important and universal? Right? Happiness? Yeah, so Shigi Oishi has done several studies, actually, but, but in one, he shows how Presidents use happiness in the State of the Union, he analyzed the meaning of happiness in the State of the Union. And what he found was that first of all, happiness used to be much more the absence of bad experiences, the absence of bad fate, and it has become more focused on everything that's positive. But he also found that it's used much more as individual happiness instead of the happiness of the country or the happiness of the culture. And one of the explanations that there is for a larger emphasis on subjectivity, in general, but also on happiness is that we were starting to see more choice so people could could use their happiness. I mean, it used to be that you just got the one vacuum cleaner that was available, or no vacuum cleaner at all. But then with consumerism, there were all these vacuum cleaners and there was really no, I mean, this is true for a lot of things in life. People didn't have as much choice. You just, you just went into the business that your father ran, you just had to you know, married a husband, who was, who lived around the corner you you did what the priest said, and then suddenly there our lives evolved in a way that we had all these choices about marriage people, professional choices, choices of study, products. And with it came an emphasis on what you prefer or what makes you happy. And so the notion of happiness became more important when it became an informant for our choices.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 24:54
Prior to the 1920s most US culture definitions of Happiness included a sense of luck, fortune, or a group based orientation. However, an exhaustive examination of historical documents by Oishi and colleagues found a dramatic shift in the notion of happiness in the 1920s. The 1920s marked the first decade of urbanization and consumer culture in the United States, where happiness was marketed, bought and sold within products. If this kind of seismic shift can happen within one culture, what are the differences between cultures? Turning to Latine or Latinx cultures, concepts of happiness are grounded in the language of familismo, and simpatia. From this vocabulary, Latine happiness is rooted in Family Centered connections, loyalty, reciprocity, solidarity, and a simpatia, Go with the flow sense of agreeableness.
Batja Mesquita 26:07
The simpatia notion is not only that you're happy, but that you're happy, easygoing, warm, outgoing, as a way of cultivating a social environment. And so, the person who is happy is not happy, because they have achieved something but because they are achieving, they are weaving a certain kind of relationships, which may be also speak to, that the responsibility for not being happy or easygoing is a social responsibility, it has an effect on on your social environment. And so it's not being harmonious or not being outgoing and easygoing, may be at the detriment for the relationship. So may have another may be more salient in those cultures or in those environments, than it would even be in the United States in mainstream environments.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 27:08
Happiness, if this one concept can have so many nuances, how might we listen to the stories, the language, the relationships that color and inform other emotions? Mesquita's book includes a fascinating graphic that describes the logical possibilities of emotions as movements toward a way up and down in relationship. With love or happiness, I move closer to the Other. As I experienced fear, contempt or disgust, I might experience a distancing. I also express power through emotions, moving up in position through pride and anger, and moving down through shame or embarrassment. And finally, I may experience a centering of neither toward away or up down of calmness or acceptance. In his book, conflict transformation across cultures, John Paul Lederach noted conflict understanding and transformation quote, "will necessarily be rooted in and must respect and draw from the cultural knowledge of a people." Our critical awareness of emotional moves may give us the social emotional, and cultural insights to challenge power structures, and enact connections that sustain peace.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 28:46
So in the book, you shared a graphic that was so helpful to me about the ways in which emotions move us toward a way up and down in a relationship with the other. And I think that the diagram is so helpful for anyone who's entering situations of conflict or cohesion. So could you walk us through this diagram of logical possibilities within emotion?
Batja Mesquita 29:08
Yeah, so what, what I say in the book is that there are many things about emotions that are different across cultures, including how we categorize them exactly. But that doesn't mean that we can understand anything about the emotions of people from different cultures and that in every culture, we still have a number of relationships that we can engage in with other people. So one of the things is we can we can get closer or get further away from people. And so in our culture, we say, you know, emotions, like happiness and love are typically emotions where we come closer. I think that an emotion that we talked about earlier, the Japanese emotion of amae is also an emotion where you emphasize closeness between people, you know, the falling back inwards is, you know, it's moving towards or falling backwards is moving towards another person. And then we have emotions that move us away. And, of course, there are differences in the emotions that have that function. But in our culture, we would say, fear certainly moves you away. contempt and disgust do it in a different way, in the sense of, you know, condemning another person or not wanting to have anything to do with it, or your peace workers, this is actually important because it's, it's often a way in which we move away from other groups is to convince ourselves and our, our in group that this other group is, is contemptible is that they would be either dangerous, but usually morally inferior, and that's the distance. And then a lot of emotions can be understood along another dimension, which is the dimension of the hierarchy where you can say you are moving yourself up relative, often relative to other people. So anger is one of those anger in a way, I mean, you can be desperately angry. But in a way, as long as you're angry, you're putting yourself in a position where you can morally condemn another way, you can say, this is unfair, I deserve more, or the world deserves more, but you're, you're calling the shots in a way. You know, compare that to if my husband is late, and I'm angry that that means that I assume power in the relationship, if I don't assume power, I wouldn't be angry, I would be maybe sad, or, or rejected, but I wouldn't feel I wouldn't feel angry. So. So anger is a way in which we move ourselves up pride is to, we can do that, again, we can do it at an individual level. But we can also do it at a group level, national pride, it can be good, but it often also means that we move ourselves up relative to others. So it may it may be dangerous in that sense, in in that you're putting yourself ahead. And the other side of the dimension of moving up is of course, moving down. Interesting enough, moving down has such emotions as shame and embarrassment. And they can be peaceful in the sense that shame and embarrassment really tell you that I am not quite living up to the norms, but that I'm willing to do so. In a sense, you're subjecting yourself to the general norms or, or to others. So, shame and embarrassment can be peaceful, if they're not associated with too much taboo and too much stigma. And then I have a third and some are emotions, where there is no movement at all, that you stay still. And those emotions are things like calm or acceptance, where basically you don't move and you accept the state of the world. And of course, that's another possibility. Acceptance is a very good possibility in the face of, of differences, you don't have to move up. You don't have to say that this is unfair and unacceptable. You can also be accepting after differences and see how, how you can deal with them.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 33:35
So I'd love to talk about vocabulary and social emotional learning, and I'm going to read this quote back to you from your book, you write "many emotional literacy programs treat emotions as letters of the alphabet. The idea seems to be that just as every child has to learn the same letters of the alphabet, if they're to become literate, every child needs to learn the same emotions if they're to be socially equipped. But what about cultural diversity? What about the fact that children grew up in very different households, different neighborhoods, or in the case of immigrant children, different ethnic or national cultures, and that their respective emotion concepts and understandings are tied to the experiences that they had in these different cultural contexts?" So I sense that there's a both and here on one hand, you're offering a critique of some of the emotional literacy programs that idealize the sense of universal emotions. But you're also speaking to the value of developing vocabulary around emotional experiences. If you were to design an idealized model with social emotional learning that centers diversity, what does that look like? And how would we better imagine emotional literacy?
Batja Mesquita 34:45
Yeah, that's the million dollar question. You sense right? I mean, at the same time, I think that it's really important that we have, that we pay attention in education to social emotional learning. I also think it has being guided by the idea of universality too much, and I'm afraid in doing so that we exclude kids who don't recognize themselves in the emotion vocabulary that we teach. So I'm not really sure what the answer is to your question, I think we're starting to research that, I would say a slightly more open ended approach would satisfy me better in the sense that we could not tell them that these are the emotions, but ask them to describe their emotions. Some cultures also do not talk as much in terms of emotions as inner feelings. But it should also be possible to talk about relationship in terms of what you want to achieve or what you like and don't like or what you would like to see different. So I see great value in exploring with children, how they appraise their experiences and their social relationships to to help them interact with each other and trying to understand their own and other people's perspective.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 36:13
A series of studies examined differences in Flemish majority perspectives regarding Turkish and Moroccan heritage immigrants. Researchers in a 2011 study found that in this context, a minoritized group often engages in a difficult, nearly impossible identity dance between heritage culture maintenance, and host culture assimilation. Divergent expectations of belonging may become oppressive and a challenge to relationships. A later study that involves Mesquita and van Acker found that our biases and perceptions color the emotions we experience in cross cultural interactions. When majority culture members perceived threat, they experienced threat, when they engage perspective taking majority members often experience positive cross cultural relationships. I hold this beside the UNHCR's estimation that 79 point 5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2019. As human violence and climate change, increase the likelihood of the growth of this trend, we understand that our sense of hospitality and cross cultural exchange must become more expansive. The emotional experiences of our interactions across cultures may be colored by our biases and fears, AS WELL AS our restorative power to hold curiosity, and imagination for diverse perspectives.
Batja Mesquita 38:01
I am really interested in starting to work on developing ways in which we can engage children in the conversation without imposing certain ways of understanding emotions that are Western biased.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 38:16
I think you also talk about how there's a certain magic that happens between a parent and a child when the parent helps the child label an emotion. Can you talk about that really quick about what happens when vocabulary is applied?
Batja Mesquita 38:29
Well, I think yeah, it's a magic how children learn to speak and understand the world, as we do, right from being a blurb to being an articulated person. I'm not sure that's so different for emotions than for other things. But parents basically name emotions, they name very many instances. So they say, you know, they point to the, to the character in a book they point to somebody else, they point to themselves, they, they labeled the behavior of their child, and then say, this is all anger, they say you're angry, I'm angry. And so what the child learns bottom up, really is to understand this abstract category, that is anger. So basically, what parents and the whole environment do is include children in their culture of emotions. And so that's also how you how you can understand what happens when, you know a child who was raised in a different kind of emotional culture gets the social emotional learning in school that is not in sync with what they learned at home, that they're confused and that they're, you know, implicitly that they feel like they're not meeting the standards or not understanding the world as they should and I think we should avoid that. But of course, what we do in social emotional learning to some extent to the extent that we label emotions and label faces is, is expand that task of the parents to say this is the category, as we all know, it's what I'm worried about is that is what happens when a child gets different categories at home. And at school, it could be that they're plainly getting bicultural, which might be fine. But it could be that they're confused, and that there is also a judgement about how well they know their emotions, which of course, is a value judgment. And that I think is a danger. I also think it might be better or more effective if we could meet children where they are. And understand that there are different ways of making sense of the interaction between kids or between kids and their teachers. And that we're just interested in following the kids and seeing how they make sense of it. And helping them articulate that instead of imposing a reality that may not be theirs. From what I saw in the literature, we're really only at the very beginning of that people are starting to write about cultural diversity in SEL, in social emotional learning, with very few concrete recommendations, as I've seen it in the literature. And I think understanding that that's where we are is a good first step.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 41:20
Van Acker helped me to imagine how our emotional responses to cultural differences might be informed by a spirit of curiosity. As a cross cultural therapist, Van Acker cares for a war traumatized woman named Ramla. In one encounter, Van Acker asked Ramla what her tears mean, in that one question, van Acker opened opportunities for cultural translation with a spirit of curiosity. And in response, Ramla spoke of the meaningfulness of shame, shame for the debilitating pain that prevented Ramla from accompanying her Lebanese mother on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Ramla's shame offered a means of feeling loss, while remaining connected to her mother. Mesquita speaks to the power of asking cross cultural questions, and what our emotional responses mean, and want to do.
Batja Mesquita 42:28
What it means when somebody behaves in a certain way, like what does it mean that you cry? You know, you might think that the person is sad, but maybe that's not at all what they want to express, and also to ask what it means to feel shame? Or what the shame. What is the shame useful, where what does it lead you to? Another question that I think would help is, What would other people in your culture or in your environment think when they knew that you were ashamed, like, in the in the example that you quote, this is a person from an honor culture, whose mother whose mother lives in the in the native culture and, and she is disabled and traumatized, And what she would really like is to help her mother, and she can't. And so the idea is, What would her mother think if she knew that Ramla felt shame, and the mother would like it, because the mother in the in the eyes of the mother Ramla would know that she has this obligation, and she would like to have accompanied her mother to the pilgrimage. So in a way, I mean, the therapist might have said, Oh, you have nothing to feel ashamed about. I mean, that would happen in my culture from nothing to feel ashamed about. You can help it, you're sick, but no, the shame in the patient's eyes fulfills the role of still being a valuable person by having this virtuous emotion. And so other people would certainly recognize her as a virtuous person.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 44:03
When we embrace a spirit of humility and curiosity, we may engage in journeys of understanding and connection.
Batja Mesquita 44:12
But really, there is no cut and dry way of asking the right question. I think it's really the starting point is being humble. Recognizing that your emotions may not be the same as other emotions, your students' emotions, people from another groups emotions, and wanting to find out and sometimes that will be in iterations. It's good to know that that's the goal isn't to not to not think that you know already what, what other people feel.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 44:42
And I feel like there's where I feel the opening as a musician, as an artist, I'm trying to imagine like, what are the ways of asking those questions through music? Because, of course, the arts work so much within emotion and grounding emotion within the story that surrounds it. Can you talk about how emotions might be the vehicles of belonging and exclusion?
Batja Mesquita 45:11
It all starts with that emotions do things in relationships, right, and that certain things are valued in a culture and expected and other things are not. And the story that I tell in my book is a very innocuous example of me arriving in the United States and, and feeling completely out of place because everybody was really happy, praising grateful, and I felt that I was emotionally underperforming, I just didn't feel that I was dancing, the dance as it should be danced, that in itself feeling out of place, is, you know, is one way in which people can feel they don't belong. And what it really is, is falling short of the sort of shared relational goals that people in a culture have. So in the case of the United States, at least a part of the United States, middle class educated at a time, Michigan, where I arrived, people were constantly reassuring each other and making each other feel good about themselves. So if you know, if you did something, or did hardly anything at all, people would say, Oh, that's great. And I was just not playing that game. And I don't mean this in a condescending way. I mean, you know, I was playing another game, so to say, I was dancing, another dance, which is, in the Netherlands, you want to connect with people, but what is really important is that nobody feels better than anybody else. So telling people how special they are, are not part of that dance, or that that unspoken goal in relationships or interaction, so I wasn't doing it. And so people thanking me for something that was small, I wasn't doing that and I also didn't know how to respond to it. Now this is really innocuous but you can understand that there are more, and even there I think I really was out of place you know, I didn't quite dance, the dance and it has some daily, I came with a lot of extra advantage like being educated and being expected at the postdoc position where I was so it's not, and and speaking the language, but it's one of the things that I think contributes to you belonging or not belonging that you that you emotionally perform in a way that relationships are done in that culture.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 47:43
Emotions may not refer simply to mental states, quote, "but rather to stories in the world." Mesquita notes that quote, "our emotions differ because the world in which we live differ." The story of Ellen, a Belgian middle school teacher, and Ahmet illustrates how disconnected meanings can create barriers to belonging. Ahmet cast his eyes down after his teacher named a false suspicion that it was Ahmet who had left a mess in the library. As Ahmet channeled a shame response informed by his Turkish culture, he expressed shame that he would be suspected and Ahmet channeled shame as a means of repairing relationship. However, the teacher interpreted downcast eyes as a quote, form of penance, and an admission of wrongdoing. Our relationships can rupture in conflicting cultural interpretations of emotions.
Batja Mesquita 48:59
And there you can see that he is he thinks that he, he makes the right dance and instead, he dances a dance that is misunderstood by the teacher as he's done something wrong, and she doesn't trust them anymore. There's much more at stake at that story as me not knowing how to respond to compliments or to thank yous. But you can see that all of those small and large misunderstandings contribute to where you're not actually participating in relationships or interactions in ways that that other people understand and where, where you gain position, so to say. So I do think that emotions are, you know, as much as we have researched that having the right emotions, it's not so, so complicated to understand if you think that emotional competence is an important part of social competence, and that if emotional competence is cultured. Then You know, then if you don't have the competence of the right culture, you just don't come across, you don't pull it off in a new cultural environment. So I think that happens in a lot of small and bigger, and bigger ways that people misunderstand each other emotionally and what what is dangerous about that, treacherous about that is that when we think we do understand emotions that we often are not even aware of how we exclude people from our social interactions or from our social network.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 50:34
May we enter the space between us, finding the curiosity, the artistic imaginations, of perspectives, and meanings, asking our bodies to conjoin dances of cultures of feelings, and the melodic belonging between us and within.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 51:05
Special thanks to Batja Mesquita for her time and insights. Dr. Batja Mesquita's book is published by WW Norton and company. This podcast cited a number of articles and texts that are referenced on our website. This is the music and peacebuilding podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner-Johnson. At Elizabethtown college we host a Master of Music Education, with an emphasis in peacebuilding. thinking deeply. We reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music peacebuilding.com