Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions

Image of Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions
Release Date: 
July 19, 2022
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

Batja Mesquita, PhD is an affective scientist and a social psychologist. Her goal is to explain “the role of culture in emotions” and how our larger cultures in different countries and world regions form our emotional learning and elaboration.

Emotions are not biologically provided or hard-wired, she says. They happen through “experience and learning” within different cultures. By culture, Dr. Mesquita means the way of life or customs of a region. She cites studies on Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, the Utku Inuit, people from the United States and the Netherlands, Germans, those from Cameroon, and others.

She elaborates how, in different cultures, emotions exist either within people as “inner states” or between people as “systems of social interactions.” She terms these two systems the “MINE model” and the “OURS model.” The MINE model views emotions as emerging individually from inside us. These are “internal feelings and bodily sensations.” The OURS model views emotions “as [arising in] emotional acts between people.” The author examines the emotions shame, fear, calmness, anger, pride, love, happiness, and connectedness.

Dr. Mesquita reports on her own studies as well as on laboratory studies where students self-report values placed on emotions––their control or expression. Other studies refer to research done by anthropologists, psychologists, and social scientists.

The shortcoming of the book is its exploration of emotional learning and expression by geography, country, or broad ethnic regions. Her research ignores the most influential “culture”: that within individual families. Family culture has far more influence than physical geography, especially in early childhood before age three.

Her work presumes children in different countries are reared similarly within their broad lifestyle and mores and learn the same emotional messages. This influence then forms their emotional makeup. Nothing is further from being so.

We know children in the same family across varied geographies are reared differently with distinctly different emotional messages about how to manage and elaborate their emotions––when to show them, which ones to reveal, how much, and to what people.

Existing psychological and psychiatric studies reveal children are reared in emotionally conditioned roles. A child from China may be similar to or different in emotional makeup and emotional style from one in Mexico. The manner of individual emotional conditioning is the key. Emotional conditioning resides in the way parents emotionally shape each child born in their family. Parents condition each child distinctly.

Some children are reared to be expressive with their emotions. Others are raised to suppress most emotions. The psychopathology that comes from these emotionally conditioned styles has been well documented. Between Us does not mention the psychological pitfalls of broad cultural clout on emotions with Dr. Mesquita’s MINE and OURS models.

The book is poorly organized with redundant explanations and citations. More editing would have been welcomed. Paragraphs are long, making reading difficult.

Overall, one cannot recommend this book. Its premise, using a very broad definition of culture as a way of life affecting emotional repertoires, fails to incorporate existing psychological and psychiatric research and findings about the shaping of our emotional repertoires that occur within the small but powerful culture of early family life.