One of humanity’s major adaptive advantages is that we live in social groups, writes Lisa Feldman Barrett in her book ‘How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.’

And rather than passing on a universal human culture from one generation to the next through our genomes, emotions such as “anger” and “gratitude” become tools to help a society’s members manage their interactions in specific social bubbles we call cultures.

“We don’t load culture into a virgin brain like software loading into a computer; rather, culture helps to wire the brain,” writes Barrett. “Brains become carriers of culture, helping to create and perpetuate it.”

Understanding how to use cross-cultural concepts in content

Barrett explains that emotion concepts as elements of social reality shape the brain differently depending on the social rules within a culture. So “anger” in a brain shaped by American culture can contain different kinds of socially accepted actions, while a brain shaped by Utka Eskimo culture has no concept of “anger.”

Barrett’s book ‘How Emotions are Made‘ offers a compelling look at how the human brain simulates emotions in an interplay of mind, body and culture. Her findings help us explore the neuroscience behind emotions in ways that could help writers communicate complexity better.

In this seven-part blog series, I take highlights from Barrett’s findings and explore the implications of these processes for writing.

A brain wired by a diversity of cultures

Globalization through social media platforms has greatly increased the spread of cultural concepts cross-culturally. Once we accept that brains aren’t genetically wired, but are malleable and adaptive and continue to wire and re-wire themselves as we interact with the changing world, we see how it happens:

  • An immigrant to a new culture begins to change their definition of “sadness” or “happiness” and responds to their new cultural environment based on that culture’s norms. This process is called emotion acculturation.
  • An expat living in Southeast Asia might redefine what is “safe,” what is “food” and what is a “snack” based on the new cultural context they find themselves. They might eat a fried cricket or water bug and consider it a snack like the locals do.
  • Emotions can be redefined from being internal, inside the individual, to being an exchange and interaction that requires two or more people. “Empathy” and “Sympathy” might play out differently in Bali or the Philippines based on the way those cultures deem as the right or wrong ways to act in a given situation.

Barrett’s scientific findings give niche marketing something to explore

Reading Barrett’s book led me to pose the question: How can culture-specific and variable emotion concepts make marketing writers more attuned to their audiences?

We can see for ourselves how cultures, people within social groups, are constantly inventing words. This wordplay, this invention of language, this borrowing of concepts from other cultures, this co-opting of emotion concepts of one community to another is how humans evolve and stay relevant, adding layers of different meaning to interactions.

Effective marketing efforts have their ears to the ground, listening to these ever-changing variances of culture and language at play.

As we think about global marketing, beyond translating and localizing a marketing concept to different markets, we also must learn to look outside the lens of our own culture. If you function in an English-dominant society, your concepts can be very different in places where English is not the mainstream language.

A concept can fall flat, and may even be offensive if it doesn’t resonate with emotion concepts of your non-English speaking, target audience. Besides, there could be emotion concepts far better at describing a feeling that you want your product or service to emote. An entire world of emotions cannot be found in the Oxford Dictionary alone.

Take these culturally specific concepts that describe feelings we experience in imaginative ways, through the lens of a different culture’s context:

  • Kummerspeck (German): “grief bacon” weight gained from excessive eating from being sad
  • Gigil (Tagalog): extreme cuteness that urges one to hug or squeeze the thing that is so cute
  • Kontal-kontil (Malaysian): the swinging of long earrings and swishing of a long dress as a lady walks by
  • Lagom (Swedish): something that is just the right amount
  • Koi no yokan (Japanese): the inevitable falling in love with someone
  • Hygge (Danish): sitting around a fire in the winter with close friends
  • Voorpret (Dutch): pleasure felt about an event before it happens

Lots of creative marketing campaigns could come from playing with these cultural-specific concepts that might actually be far more appropriate for the feelings you want to convey.

What Barrett’s work points out is that emotion concepts from different cultures could help us create new wiring in the brain that could broaden our emotional granularity, improving the ways in which we experience and talk about emotions.

The limitations of taking a cultural tradition to a global audience

Times are pretty tough right now. So let’s explore with a lighthearted example….

When a company adopted the Finnish tradition of “kalsarikännit” (translated to English as “pantsdrunk”), as their new marketing strategy for The Finnish Long Drink (a company that spikes citrus soda with gin) one of the founders, Mikael Taipale, said he is happy Americans have taken to the Finnish tradition, but also notes that some are doing it wrong.

“The American version of this is wearing sweatpants or shorts,” he told the New York Times in an article about the growing trend of #pantsdrunk. “The proper way to do this is in your underwear.”

This Finnish pastime of getting drunk at home in your underwear connotes the Finnish emphasis on work-life balance, relaxation and a serious commitment to self-care, and a bit of self-deprecating humor; concepts not so different from the Nordic notions of hygge or lagom.

What Barrett says about an emotion concept is that you need to have one in order to experience or perceive the associated emotion. Without the holistic, cultural notion of pantsdrunk, you can’t predict it, categorize with it or construct diverse instances of “pantsdrunk” in different situations.

Essentially, without having been wired with the idea in your culture, we are otherwise, experientially blind to all aspects in which that emotion entails. In other words, we never fully “get it.”

And in this Finnish-to-American example, Taipale chalks it up to the fact that Americans aren’t doing pantsdrunk right because they are not comfortable being exposed; they didn’t grow up going naked in the sauna, and he hopes by adopting this concept they might loosen up some.

Netflix and kalsarikännit? Perhaps.

It goes to show that marketing strategies using emotion concepts from different cultures should be done with sensitivity:

  • Understand that not every culture will get the adopted tradition right. Like Taipale says, Americans aren’t doing pantsdrunk right, but they sure have the gist of it.
  • Examine if your take on an emotion concept of a different culture has any negative implications (e.g., make sure you are not inadvertently offending the culture).
  • Explore the cultural tradition for all its history and context; cultural appropriation that is insensitive, unaware and derogatory will certainly get your company into hot water.
  • Get to know the culture well if you aren’t hiring people from those cultures to make your marketing materials. Stereotyping and tropes can be a viewpoint that you bypass because you don’t see all the angles of that culture.
  • Any chance we get to learn about how others see the world, expanding our emotional granularity, is a boon and worth the effort.