Sympathy towards the suffering is culture-dependent. People from “simpatico” cultures such as Brazil or Costa Rica are more likely to help people in need, as are people from economically poorer nations compared to wealthier counterparts. Now new research explores differences in how sympathy is expressed within two Western countries. Americans encourage sufferers to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, the study finds, while Germans are more comfortable gazing at its dark walls.
Birgit Koopmann-Holm and Jeanne Tsai began by looking at a mass representation of sympathy: the bereavement card. Their rating team analysed over 700 cards, finding that American ones used fewer negative words or images denoting death (e.g. shrivelled leaves), and a more upbeat message than their German equivalents.
Koopmann-Holm and Tsai suspected these differences would be because Americans are keener to avoid negative emotions. They surveyed US and German students, finding both experienced positive and negative emotions at a similar rate, but that the Americans wanted to avoid negative emotions such as fear, loneliness, or anger more than the German participants did.
Did this attitude affect bereavement card preference? It did. Participants were asked to choose one from several pairs of cards for a recently bereaved acquaintance. One card’s message was always positive (e.g. “let time heal your soul”) and the other negative (“A severe loss . . . take time to grieve”). Across the three trials, 72 per cent of Germans chose the negative card at least once, whereas only 37 per cent of Americans did; the Americans also rated the notion of giving such a negative card as significantly more discomforting. And critically, the more a participant wanted to avoid negative emotions, the more uncomfortable they were about the negative card.
So Americans avoid negative takes on bereavement because they would rather avoid negative emotions. Why? The researchers argue that “frontier values” originating in American pioneers portray overcoming adversity as a virtue, whereas wallowing in bad circumstances as more akin to a sin. Participants rated themselves on values such as success, intelligence, and ambition, and anti-frontier values such as protecting the environment. Those with a high frontier value score were keenest to avoid negative emotions.
The researchers suggest understanding these cultural differences helps us make sense of the contrasting positions of Sigmund Freud, an Austrian, and Aaron Beck, the American founder of CBT. Freud argued for the necessity of exploring negative emotions, whereas Beck’s focus is on mood repair. The new results may also aid our understanding of how these different types of treatments are received by people of different cultures – whether analysis is most suited to a Germanic temperament, for example. Lastly, the study speaks to the argument over whether the influential and recently revised American DSM-5 psychiatric manual should categorise bereavement-related depressive symptoms as pathological, with European doctors (and broadsheets) objecting that deep sadness can actually be healthy. As the poet Goethe wrote, epitomising the German sentiment: Let me pass the nights in tears / As long as I want to cry.
Koopmann-Holm, B., & Tsai, J. (2014). Focusing on the Negative: Cultural Differences in Expressions of Sympathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0037684