Reading emotions

Since people are travelling thousands of kilometers within a few hours intercultural communication gets more important every day. Also the fact that people do not automatically live where they were born gives us the duty to read people’s intention more carefully than we used to do.

As long as we have the same goals (work) or interests (private) we have less communicational problems. We are more tolerant and lenient with wrong wordings or reduced talking speed from foreign people. The so called “foreigner talk” seems nice to us. We laugh about bad told jokes and don’t put every word on the scales.

But what if we don’t know each other or what if we don’t know if we are on the same side?

Learning a new language can be difficult and needs years not to appear uneducated in an intellectually stimulated discussion. It seems easier reading between the lines. And even in our community where people learned to control emotions since early childhood some extra psychologic skills are of advantage not to talk at cross purposes. But there are some important things to know about nonverbal communication.

Fifty years ago scientists hypothesized that some basic emotions are inherent and intercultural. A lot of studies since than confirmed that people all over the world show joy, anger, fear, disgust, surprise and sadness with a certain facial expression.

That is something we can work with. Yes, there are people who control their feeling successfully and we will never know what people really think about us in a certain situation. But these evolutionary manifested emotions cannot be totally hidden, even if the spoken words say something different.

Normally right in the moment when an emotion is provoked appropriate signals appear.

These signals are not only displayed on the face but the whole body is affected, including posture, attitude and voice. If we are sad the voice gets deeper and softer, our eyebrows lift above the nose bridge and move slightly closer. The stronger the feeling the clearer are the signals. However an emotion is sometimes built up slowly so the signals may be less obvious.

Joy, sadness and disgust

This is the moment to listen to our body because our feelings detect emotions from our counterpart way earlier than our mind. Unknowingly we are already responding to the received signals. A fascinating interaction you can observe whenever you watch two people from the distance. Words can be chosen well or can be missing (in case of a new language) but basic nonverbal communication is working ever since and through all cultures.

But there is another big point that gets insufficient attention. Anger, fear, disgust, contempt and grief are often pigeonholed. They are summarized as negative feelings in contrast to positive feelings like happiness, joy and surprise. Besides that surprise can be positive and negative, these feelings cannot be generalized like that. A scared person has other needs than a sad person. Anger and contempt explain different intentions. And fear and surprise are hard to distinguish but totally different feelings. These are the important differences to avoid all the misconceptions leading to rejection or exclusion which can really endanger our inner balance.

Surprise, fear and anger

So whenever we communicate with other people – no matter if they come from abroad or lived here ever since – we have to watch them carefully to get their message right. Something that may need some practice (maybe online).

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