Communicating across Borders: Language, Emotions and Everything in between

Is the way people think influenced by what languages they speak? Do semantic and lexical differences have an impact on how people communicate with each other? What role does culture play in social interactions? Delving into what decades of research on cognitive psychology have highlighted, this article helps you better understand how and why languages (and cultures alike) are an important cornerstone in cross-cultural communication theory and practice.  

Think about yourself: your native language, your cultural background, its values, customs and unwritten rules. Regardless of whether you are still living in the same environment or moved across the world (maybe even several times), your upbringing has shaped your ability to express and interpret feelings and emotions more than you think. Yes, that’s right: studies have shown that emotions are categorized in very different ways depending on the language and culture in which they are framed. Whether these differences are more or less noticeable, what is important to emphasise is how the development of our emotional granularity is strictly related to the “word-sensation map” we construct as kids.  

Language is the prime means through which we express and interpret our inner feelings - and decode others.’ The way we think about and understand a specific emotion deeply affects, from our early days, the way we feel towards it. Societal perceptual changes over time aside, the inner decodification process is - in fact - primarily based on the linguistic construction of each individual sensation. What that means is that not only the idea of being able to perfectly represent the world with one language thus ceases to exist, but - as we are only able to identify and label feelings we have learnt to recognise - the more complex the (unfamiliar) emotion is, the more difficult its interpretation will be.  

The challenge just gets even harder when dealing with unfamiliar cultural settings and environments:

  • Have you found your ikigai (Japanese: reason for being; someone’s values and life beliefs) yet? Are you looking forward to a weekend of hygge (Danish: mood for coziness, safeness, togetherness)?

As shown by Tim Lomas’s positive lexicography index, the list of untranslatable words worldwide is incredibly varied and diverse. Many are indeed the words whose meaning changes across cultures, and even more are those words expressing peculiar sensations or states of mind (e.g. Chinese: Bēi xî jiāo jí 悲喜交集 - intermingled feelings of sadness and joy; Tagalog: Gigil - the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished; Portuguese: Saudade - a melancholic longing for a person, place, or thing that is far away).

How can misunderstandings be avoided then? How can we make sure we understand foreign cultural scripts and act accordingly? How is it possible to be effective communicators in international settings? It is argued that, in order to tackle cultural discrepancies, cultural sensitivity is one crucial skill one should learn and train.

Why is that? The answer can be found in the relationship between display rules and cognitive styles, i.e. what constitutes cognitive mechanisms. The evolvement of cultural norms shapes emotional display rules according to societal circumstances. It is a process that implies the creation of specific and unique culturally-bounded expectations that can be then socialised and normalised through coherent patterns of idiosyncratic cultural agreement. Breaking the norm would then not just disrupt group harmony and affect one’s integration in society but potentially also affect one’s perceptual decision-making. Hence, as cultural values underpin the establishment of specific display rules, we cannot but then rely, in order to detect messages and signals, only on our cognitive abilities. Well, our cognitive abilities and our awareness of specific cultural differences, i.e. our cultural sensibility.

Consciously or not, we basically learn how to make use of our emotional intelligence, and, altogether, utilize our cultural intelligence to fill in the remaining gaps. If it is true that our ability to reflect and interpret said content determines our own cultural sensitivity, it is additionally worth expanding on how display rules affect intercultural communications in more practical terms. While, for example, non-verbal communication signals (i.e. generally speaking body language, facial expressions, etc.) are allegedly not culturally conditioned, the intensity - or rather their interpretation - can greatly differ. Indeed, people are believed to be better at recognising and interpreting facial expressions from their own culture, and emotional intelligence capabilities aside, specific societal characteristics (e.g. see Hall 1976 “Beyond Culture”) are also found to influence different levels of emotional suppression or endorsement.

The discourse changes based on what kind of emotion is being analysed as well. Establishing the intended emotion in one single expression and ensuring the absence of others is close to impossible, especially in real life dynamic interactions. Even if very few studies so far have attempted to shed light on said non-intended emotions and facial expressions, it is right to say that a smile is never just a smile - at least in most occasions. Online platforms aside - lots could be said on emojis and their meaning in today’s society - complex feelings such as pride or love do appear to be way more complex than others, and different degrees of attention to contextual backgrounds could - in those cases - easily lead to misinterpretation.

Despite the very different cognitive styles and behavioural practices existing worldwide - sometimes even within the same culture, two major cultural blocks are always identified to showcase core discrepancies: the East and the West. Ignoring specific symbolisms, habits and social norms that characterizes them, what is peculiar to highlight from a more theoretical perspective is their difference in arousal levels. Interestingly, Eastern societies value more low arousal emotions. In comparison to the West, affective states develop and are therefore displayed in a substantially different way, leading to different manifestations of pleasure/displeasure responses. Responses somehow more difficult to read from someone from the other block. Similarly, the extent to which more than one emotion is perceived from a single expression varies as well. Easterns tend to experience a blend of emotions and are less disturbed by apparent contradictions, as opposed to Westerners who have a tendency to focus on one emotion at a time, but more intensely.

In hindsight, besides all that cognitive psychology can teach us, what matters the most is that we recognise how both culture and language shape - at least to a certain extent - the way we think and feel about the world around us. Emotions themselves are not biologically determined, but influenced by the external socio-cultural environment. Making our expressive behaviours a more conscious experience and being more aware of perceptual differences present themselves as incredibly powerful tools to develop our own inclusive communication style, and more easily fit in a variety of different environments.


Emotional granularity refers to the specificity of representations/experiences of emotion, or, in other words, the ability to make fine-grained, nuanced distinctions between similar emotions (Smidt, 2015).

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth (Mayer & Salovey, 1997). It is characterised by 5 components: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills (Goleman, 1998).

Cultural Intelligence, also known as Cultural Quotient, is a person’s capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity (Ang, Van Dyne, & Koh, 2005). Also defined as  “an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would” (Earley & Mosakowski, 2004). CQ performance levels are calculated on four capabilities: motivation (CQ Drive), cognition (CQ Knowledge), meta-cognition (CQ Strategy) and behavior (CQ Action) (Ang & Van Dyne 2008).