Today we will discuss romantic values cross-culturally. Defining the universal similarities of attractiveness, the variable differences in romance, and potential explanations, based on the latest research, as to why these differences exist across cultures.
Can we define love and romance the same cross-culturally? Let’s first look around the world and recognize the vastly different styles of what makes someone attractive culturally. At first glance the most obvious characteristic is likely the clothing or fashion within each culture you explore. But, beyond the style of clothing someone wears on their back, we find some significant differences in what cultures perceive as attractive. For example; Thai women of the Paduang, elongate their necks with brass rings. Ethiopian women of the Mursi, stretch their lower lips with disks. Indonesian women of the Mentawai, sharpen their teeth like sharks. And western women paint their faces with makeup (Heine, 2016). However, among these tremendously divergent bodily decoration strategies, we also find numerous similarities that are much more subtle. For instance, a clear complexion void of imperfections appears to hold cross-culturally as an attractive feature (Ford & Beach, 1951; Montagu, 1986). Additionally, “evidence that people prefer symmetrical faces to asymmetrical ones has been found in all cultures studied” (Heine, 2016). Moreover, average-size facial features like nose, eyes, and smiles are perceived most attractive cross-culturally as well.
Additionally, from an evolutionary perspective, psychologists suggest that romantic love can be seen similarly cross-culturally. The theory suggests that because humans have a seemingly long vulnerable childhood and survival is higher in those in which the parents stay together, romantic love is the evolutionary glue. Therefore, since we all share the same genetic code we could assume this holds true across cultures. Which is true, however, we may share the same genetic makeup of romantic love, it’s obvious how we think of romantic love greatly differs cross-culturally. Take marriage for example, in western cultures an individual gets to choose their love partner, whereas in other cultures you find arranged marriages to be more common. Independent-based cultures look at arranged marriage as if a choice was taken away from them and the only way to love is if you choose it for yourself. Whereas, an interdependent-based culture would view the arranged marriage as doing what’s best for the family and the family has the individuals best interest in mind when making that decision for them. In this view, they did not see the family as preventing them from making a decision, rather they trust their family to make the right choice for them. Interestingly, it is not uncommon for those who are in arranged marriages to be just as satisfied as those who are in love marriages. It can be assumed then, that love can mature in many different ways. One cultural view of love is not right or wrong. An arranged marriage may not work for an individualistic thinking culture without the support of the collectivistic family structure. Vice versa, a chosen love marriage may not work in a collectivistic thinking culture because it could change the family network in negative ways.
Furthermore, there appears to be positive research that suggests we process emotions differently cross-culturally as well. “People in independent-based cultures (e.g. the United States) experience emotion in oppositional (i.e. bipolar) ways, whereas people in interdependent-base cultures (e.g. China) experience emotion in dialectic ways” (Bagozzi, 1999). This means that independent thinking cultures experience emotion linearly, one emotion at a time. They feel happy or they feel sad. In contrast, interdependent thinking cultures can feel both happy and sad simultaneously. This difference, according to Bagozzi et al. (1999) is due to different cultural philosophies. Western cultures perceive pleasant and unpleasant emotions as oppositional, whereas Asian philosophies don’t consider pleasant and unpleasant emotions to be contradicting. The question that arises then, does this different philosophy of emotional experience make a difference in romantic love? A study conducted by Shiota et al. (2010) examined the experience of love and a negative emotion with romantic partners. They found that love and the experience of a negative emotion were less negatively correlated with Asian Americans than with European Americans. Suggesting that, despite feeling a negative emotion with their romantic partner, they could still feel love. In contrast, the opposite holds true for the European Americans.
In conclusion, although we see dramatic differences in what is found to be attractive across cultures, we also see many similarities of what is attractive among genetic features. This suggests that, according to evolutionary reasons, regardless of culture we are attracted to healthy (average) partners that can produce the best chance of surviving offspring (Heine, 2016). Additionally, our cultural backgrounds can determine how we experience love and romance. We can set out in search of love ourselves or our family can make the choice for us, either way we learn to love within our cultural borders. And lastly, we can even experience emotions in entirely different ways. Some cultures bounce back and forth on a bipolar scale and others feel multiple emotions of the opposite spectrum all at once.
Bagozzi, R., Wong, N., & Yi, Y. (1999). The Role of Culture and Gender in the Relationship between Positive and Negative Affect. Cognition and Emotion, 13(6), 641–672. https://doi.org/10.1080/026999399379023
Ford, C. S., & Beach, F. A. (1951). Patterns of sexual behavior. New York, NY: Harper & Ro
Heine, S. (2016). Cultural psychology (Third edition.). W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Schimmack, U., Oishi, S., & Diener, E. (2002). Cultural influences on the relation between pleasant emotions and unpleasant emotions: Asian dialectic philosophies or individualism-collectivism? Cognition and Emotion, 16(6), 705–719. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930143000590
Shiota, M., Campos, B., Gonzaga, G., Keltner, D., & Peng, K. (2010). I love you but … : Cultural differences in complexity of emotional experience during interaction with a romantic partner. Cognition and Emotion, 24(5), 786–799. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930902990480