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The culture of emotions

How does society affect the way that we feel and perceive the world? Within this article we attempt to challenge the root of emotionality and social pressures.

I can’t imagine how stressed you have all been the last couple of weeks due to unrest  and frustration from exam season. Hopefully now you can take a breather and relax. However, sometimes these stressors are not so easily shaken; those persevering through mental health circumstances can find the pressures of everyday more overwhelming and disconcerting. This is why I am beginning to question how emotions and feelings consist as part of our culture. How do they materialize as a direct result of our society, and not just as a result of the individual?

Capitalism and the Working Class

One way to understand pressure and perceptions of low self-esteem, is as a result of our capitalist, individualistic society. The market promotes modern technologies like phones and television which in turn has created a more disassociated, less sociable society which prefers the indirect use of Facebook Messenger to communicate rather than the old-fashioned, biological means. Depression is often explained as being caused by a low amount of serotonin. This is true, it can be biological, but this direct statement also suggests that the problem lies solely within you, and does not challenge society on how certain factors within it may affect us. 

Another factor is the highly competitive traits of society within the labour-market. Within Sweden I have experienced such expectations of having good ‘personal spirit’ which assumes confidence and assertiveness. This can be hard to feign when under pressure from personal stressors, not to mention the intense recruitment processes that are prevalent today. This can leave one feeling as though they are not good enough when they fail to meet the societal universals dishes out by employers.

This is not limited to the West either, one instance that I know of is in parts of Africa where poverty is explained as a result of ‘individual flaws.’ It no longer blames the current models of development, inclusive growth and neoliberal poverty on its structural flaws, but directs it more personally toward the individual employees. Markets are seen to be just as crucial for youths as it is for the economy. Poverty can therefore be blamed on the individual flaws of the individual who does not possess the entrepreneurial qualities to allow them to be their own boss, which is a very admired position that most wish to achieve. In Kenya there are many courses in spirits of entrepreneurship and how to change your identity to one that best fits the business quota. While its residents might assume that these are normalised qualities and encouraging goals of self-employment promoted for their own personal benefit, it is also a highly motivated ploy to encourage people to buy products and then sell them in order to satisfy the global market. It also creates a self-reliant and reproductive society that makes it unnecessary for governments to create new jobs. Very advantageous for the government, but what about its citizens?

The Education System

This extends to earlier instances that we may be numb to by now, the education system. Exam results and examinations come with such pressure and personal torment, especially due to the immense prestige that educational authorities put upon them. It is assumed that you need to graduate with a 2.1 degree in order to get an offer for your dream-choice of post-graduate education.

From a sociological perspective this could be described as a spirit of limitless improvements. This suggests that nothing is ever good enough, there is always room for improvement and therefore leaves people dissatisfied and feeling unaccomplished because of their futile battle toward an unobtainable goal.

Stress is normalised within the education system. I remember a first year module where the teachers told us that she had always been crying when she was a student, and that it was normal to feel insecure about assignments. While it may attempt to promote resilience and perseverance, readying us for world of work, it can simultaneously cause students to perform poorer as well as affecting social relationships, they reside to their rooms to conquer the seemingly endless assignments with no time or wish to socialise. This stress can lead to exhaustion, mental health illnesses and reclusivity.

In moderation these high expectations can be crucial for motivational and aspirational purposes, but how much less restraining and suffocating might it be to think and dream without the insecurities and pressures exhibited? You can still be motivated without such arduous pressure and with the support of others.

Emotionality across the Globe

Emotions can be valued differently across cultures. Within Buddhist teachings they talk a lot about the ‘middle way.’ It suggests the notion of ‘not having too little but also not taking too much’: not starving yourself but also not being to glutinous. This is about balance.

Gender

Emotions are also related to gender and gender-dynamics. These can differ in different cultures and part of the world. For example, men holding hands in Asia is more accepted than in Europe. Gender can also impact life-choices. For example it is more common for men to apply for jobs when they are under-qualified and for women to not apply for the same job even if they have all formal qualifications. This could be related to men raised to be more competitive. For women it could have to do with the notion of ‘women not dreaming too big’ and challenging their male competitors. This resonates with a sense of limitation and oppression that should be challenged within society. 

This can be seen through the acceptance of female sensitivity and expressive emotionality as opposed to men. It is deemed inappropriate for men to cry ‘like a girl’, a term used to emasculate and embarrass those who do. This can be described as socialization, where women are taught to be empathetic, whilst men must resume an alpha positionality. This shows the internalisation of society within individual psychology and action. This is even more complex when considering intersectionality as well. Differing social factors can affect points of comparison, for example, a white middle-class woman cannot truly relate and empathise with a young refugee woman and the injustices she faces. This shows a complexity and intertwined notion of emotionality and pressure that must be considered and addressed.

Emotions to Empower

Some also uses emotions as a tool to gain influence. The Sussex University anthropology teacher, Julie Billaud, has been conducting fieldwork in Afghanistan following young women at a boarding school in Kabul. In the book ‘Kabul Carnival’, you can follow her fieldwork. The boarding school consists of women from the university and campus. Some of the women would use the threat of suicide in order to resist marriage, or to stop them from being forced to quit their education. This may seem extreme, but we must question how women feel so vulnerable that the tool they have to use is their body and threat of ending their life. Also we must consider how women may gain true agency within a country of gender injustice. Most women were attempting to balance their campus student-life with their cultural, home background which is a very confusing sense of positionality.

Knowing your Emotions and How to Utilise Them for Good

Emotions can make us feel ashamed and something we are taught to keep to ourselves. But if we do not talk then how can we know how to best support each other, and change the factors that are so detrimental to their recovery. Life can be hard, and sometimes emotions can take over, so it is important that there is support around to tend to your necessary needs.

Emotions can be utilised for good, like for activism and drive for changing society. Many can feel frustrated, sad and angry about injustices, and this can be used as motivation to push for change. Emotions can be isolating, but through activism people can unite through them. Women felt angry and frustrated 100 years ago when they were denied the right to vote so they united and protested.

To sum up emotions can affect all parts of our world. It is important to talk about emotions and break stigmas. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’. Emotions are also embodied into our society and culture. Emotions are complicated, but it is what you choose to do with them that is important…

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Full Discussion with Little Green Pig

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