Response style, and the differences between Swedish and Irish Americans

Whenever I teach response style — the tendency people have to express themselves using a consistent and limited range of expressive behavior — I talk about my grandmother. Lavern Rasmussen was a small-town Minnesotan with deep roots in Swedish and Danish communities. When my family would call her to check in, she would let us know that things were great by saying things were “not bad” and that things were not going so well by saying, “Oh, well, you know…” In teaching my students in New York, I ask them to translate Grandma’s responses into those of a randomly selected individual from the 8 million in our fair city, and when they do this (usually both positive and negative responses involve language unsuitable for printing in these pages), it becomes obvious that there are cultural differences within the U.S. as to how people respond to questions.

Why do psychologists care about this? Many of us use responses to questionnaires as our representation of people’s emotions, and if a certain group of people are responding on the low end of the scale and another group on the high end and we want to compare them, we need to know the characteristics of each group’s response style in order to tell if they are in fact having different reactions or not. And now I have a study to help me explain Grandma’s response style.

First, credit where credit is due: it was Andrew Ryder of Concordia University that passed this study along, in a class on statistical models in emotion research. The class is part of McGill University’s Summer Program in Social and Cultural Psychiatry, which I am attending through the month of May. (In my humble opinion McGill has the best collection of thinkers on how culture shapes emotions, cognitions, and perhaps most importantly the practice of mental health.) Professor Ryder was discussing his own work on differences in behavior between depressed European-origin Canadians and depressed Chinese, and noted that each group had particular norms for emotional expression of happiness — for example, when to smile, what to smile at, even how to smile. Note here that emotion researchers make a distinction between emotions — the actual feelings — and emotion behaviors — the things you do to show the feelings.

When emotion researchers talk about happiness behavior, they almost always mention that U.S. Americans are really into expressing their happiness, as did Prof. Ryder. But, he added, there is significant variability in the expression of happiness in U.S. that is connected to cultural identity, even cultural identity four- or five-generations removed. And this brings us to Scandanavian Americans — those U.S. residents with ancestors from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. It turns out that they are different.

In Variation among European Americans in emotional facial expression, Jeanne Tsai and Yulia Chenstova-Dutton compared facial expressions among “Scandinavian Americans” and “Irish Americans” after inducing six emotions (happiness, pride, love, anger, disgust, and sadness) through a somewhat convoluted (if ethical) “relived emotion task.” And what did they find? What any Swedish grandmother will tell you: the Irish are more emotional. Or, to look at the other side, as Prof. Ryder did, “You have to control for Scandinavian Americans’ ‘Scandinavianness’ to get them to look like the rest of Americans.”

I don’t want to get too emotional here, but I kind of think my Scandinavianness is not too bad — although I don’t want to make a big deal about it.

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May 2011
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