Intersection Between Culture & Emotion

by Margaret Ambrose

As part of a professional development speaker series, the Cornell Law Library recently hosted Eugenia Charles-Newton, who delivered an excellent presentation on emotional intelligence and cultural competence.


Picture by Pietro Zanarini of Flickr CC

One of the many highlights of the presentation was Eugenia’s personal narrative as a Native American woman finding that the more traditional conceptualizations of emotional intelligence, as largely filtered through the lens of the white male experience, does not, and perhaps can not, entirely reflect the experience of minorities and women.  More is needed, specifically, a greater emphasis on cultural competence.

This is especially important when considering that more and more universities and work places are culturally diverse. Whether working in academia, or in a private law firm, the components to a good reference interview are still the same. The ability to connect with patrons to better understand their needs and correctly interpret their reactions is key to satisfying the patron. At an instructional level, scanning a room to ensure comprehension and engagement is equally important, and extends beyond knowing that one should speak more slowly when dealing with an ESL audience. Last but not least, a core component of librarianship is networking with colleagues, and ensuring a safe work environment for all. Whether you are the head of reference, chairing a committee, supervising the circulation desk, or are the director of the library, being fluent in emotional intelligence and cultural competence is increasingly a necessary skill for success.

Generally speaking, if emotional intelligence is about managing and correctly interpreting your own emotions, and the emotions of others, than cultural perceptions necessarily play an important role. One example of the role that cultural perceptions can play is illustrated in a Harvard Business Review article written by Andy Molinsky. In this article, Molinsky discusses the difference between how people in the United States typically express enthusiasm (enthusiastically!) as opposed to how people in the United Kingdom and from many Eastern Asian countries typically express enthusiasm (more subdued and understated).


Picture by Kat on Flickr CC

As Molinsky concludes, managing emotions can be a “tricky business” when crossing cultures.This example of how cultural competence can play a role in emotional intelligence, while complicated, is a rather benign example. A less benign example might be a man refusing to shake a woman’s hand because of the man’s background from a religion or culture that prohibits such contact.

I have to admit something on a personal level – when I first heard this example I was shocked on behalf of the woman who had experienced what I perceived to be a disrespectful interaction, cultural differences or no.  Eugenia’s presentation, however, inspired me to look into the issue a little bit further, and this is what I found.  In Jewish and Muslim cultures, the prohibition of handshaking between the sexes is not due to a perception of ‘uncleanliness’ – rather the rationale is deeply rooted in respect for the familial relationships between men and women, and respect for the other person.

Knowing what I know now, I can only hope that if faced with a similar experience, rather than being unsettled, I would be better equipped to handle the situation with an open mind. I would try to understand how my own cultural perceptions as an adopted American-Asian woman, might be distorting what is actually going on. As Eugenia’s presentation highlighted, it isn’t enough to be aware of other people’s emotions and cultures, you also need to be aware of how your own cultural background may be affecting your own perceptions and emotions as you react in real time to situations and circumstances.

At the end of the day, while recognizing and respecting cultural differences is an important component to emotional intelligence, so too is recognizing the similarities that cut across gender, culture, and religion. I have inherited my late grandmother’s love of Norman Rockwell so I will end this article with a link to Norman Rockwell’s The Golden Rulewhich due to recent developments, is perhaps even more relevant today than it was when it first appeared in 1961.


About margaret.jane.ambrose

I work as a Access & Research Services Librarian at Cornell Law. I am also a Board Member of ALLUNY.
This entry was posted in Current Events, Customer Service, Issues in Law Librarianship, Patron Services and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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