People from different cultures express sympathy differently, say researchers

The researchers found that cultural differences in whether or not people wanted to avoid negative emotions played a role in their expressions of sympathy. Credit: Shutterstock

Sympathy is influenced by cultural differences, new Stanford research shows.

For instance, when told about a tragedy or troubling situation, Americans of European descent are more positive in how they articulate sympathy while Germans are more direct about the negativity of the circumstance, according to Stanford psychologists.

The research showed that how much people wanted to avoid negative emotion influenced their expressions of sympathy more than how negative they actually felt, wrote Stanford psychology Associate Professor Jeanne Tsai along with her co-author, Birgit Koopmann-Holm, a former Stanford doctoral student in psychology and now a lecturer at Santa Clara University.

In an interview, Tsai said, “Most research in psychology has focused on how people actually feel, but this work and other work in our lab shows that the emotions that people want or don’t want to feel are just as important in everyday life.”

The paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved four studies investigating cultural differences in the expression of sympathy between a total of 525 American and German students in universities in the United States and Germany.

The key findings showed that:

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