When I was 21, I went to work a summer as an Au-Pair in the UK and I remember being extremely frustrated about not being able to express affection to the kids I was babysitting in English. The word were failing me and I felt like I was failing the children. I am usually a very self-controlled person and I know that I can come across as cold or too brainy. Without the right vocabulary I felt like a robot trying to occupy children rather than lovely Mary Poppins tending to their emotional needs. Over time and as I got more fluent with the English language I thought I had successfully crossed this hurdle and solved the problem of intercultural emotions. I was WRONG!
Expressing Emotions is not just about finding the right word…
Since childhood I was taught like most of my friends that expressing strong emotions in public was only rarely socially accepted. It is okay to cry at a funeral, tolerated while watching a sad movies but not okay in social interaction. If I felt like crying or being very angry at someone, I was encouraged to collect myself, think of the trigger of those emotions and express them with carefully chosen words instead.
After minutes in India, I realized that there are many more ways to express emotions than just using words. Indian are the master of emotions, they are very talented at unleashing emotions (especially through arts) or simply using emotions as an efficient way of communication. While it might sound for some like a simplistic way to express oneself, I found that it is a very powerful one that also foster empathy in one’s counterpart. It is also liberating and in fine healthier to vent emotions directly without putting much thought into it.
Imagine you are having an argument with your imaginary husband and you feel sadness because it does not feel like he is listening to you. A french lady would probably try to argue that he is not listening to her, an Indian lady could do that or just simply start crying to gain her husband attention. The outcome is probably the same in both Indian and French case but the Indian way reaches result faster. Of course, an Indian lady would not abuse of this as this might frustrate and anger the husband on the long term but it spares the sometimes long and necessary discussions.
Similarly if you are lucky enough to be invited to share a meal with an Indian family, they will want you to feel welcome and well taken care for. Where a french host would say “Welcome, we are very happy that you came to our house today and hope you have a good time”. To express the same thing and Indian host would also be attentive to your every need, offer a refill couple of time and insist one or two times if the guest said no.
We read situation differently based on our cultural background
While spending time with my husband family, I felt a couple of times that a drama was unfolding in front of me when it was actually just a minor conflict that was quickly to be resolved. The same way my husband told me that it is a common belief in India that westerners had no emotions. It is wrong to think that westerners are thinkers who restrain their emotions and Indians are feelers who can not rationalize their emotions through words. At the end of the day it is all about how you read and interpret words and emotions based on your own cultural realm.
With time and spending more time with my husbands family I feel that we are getting better at understandings the signs that indicate emotions in one another. I don’t switch to panic mode anymore if I see a family member bursting into tears, the same way my husband is starting to understand that I sometimes need to isolate myself in the middle of the discussion to recollect myself and put words on what I feel. It is a learning process and as we live together we grow more and more in our understanding of the rules in each other’s culture.