Culture and Self-Expression

Cultural differences in verbal expression lead to distinctive patterns of cognitive performance, stress responses, and social support.

By Heejung S. Kim

Heejung KimHeejung Kim is currently an associate professor at the department of psychology, UCSB. She received her first BA in French Literature from Ewha Womans’ University in Seoul, Korea, and her second BA in Psychology from the University of Southern California. She received her MA and PhD in Social Psychology from Stanford University in 2001. Her research interests are in cultural psychology, looking at how culture influences a range of psychological processes. Her research has been funded by multiple grants from the National Science Foundation as well as a grant from Social Science Research Council. She is the recipient of the 2001 Society of Experimental Social Psychology Dissertation Award and one of the most cited Assistant Professors in Social Psychology (Dialogue, Fall, 2007). She was also named one of the Revolutionary Minds in science by Seed Magazine (August, 2008).


If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter

-George Washington, 1783

Cultures differ in their values for speech as the expression of individuality. Speech and self-expression hold particular importance in individualistic cultures (e.g., European American cultures) (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Kim & Markus, 2002; Kim & Sherman, 2007). Whether it is a catch phrase in an advertisement or a song or a book title, the phrase “express yourself” is an ubiquitous inspiration and encouragement in the U.S. cultural context. Self-expression is a notion that is closely associated with a horde of positive concepts, such as freedom, creativity, style, courage, self-assurance, and even healing and spirituality. The freedom of speech symbolizes one’s ultimate freedom to be oneself. Thus, speech enjoys a special privilege in these cultural contexts, and the freedom of speech is one of the most important rights of individuals in the U.S.

In contrast, speech and self-expression do not hold the same degree of importance in the more collectivistic cultural contexts, such as East Asian contexts. Thoughtful and self-disciplined silence is often valued above speech and speech is practiced with relatively great caution because the potential negative social implications of speech are more salient in these cultures than in the U.S. (Kim & Markus, 2002; Markus, Kitayama, & Heiman, 1996). Thus, speech and self-expression are not commonly and routinely encouraged or emphasized in East Asian cultures (Kim & Markus, 2002; Kim & Sherman, 2007).

These different cultural assumptions and practices influence whether and how individuals express their thoughts and feelings, and in turn, how acts of expression affect psychological and biological outcomes for these cultural participants. In the present article, I will describe findings on these topics, focusing on two areas: the influence of speech on thought and the use and effects of social support.

Cultural Differences in the Effect of Verbalization on Cognitive Performance

Speech is especially important in the Western cultural context as a primary means to express and clarify one’s thoughts, as seen in examples such as the use of Socratic methods in teaching. In contrast, speech is not as valued in the Eastern cultural context. Rather, it is viewed as a distraction to thinking. Much research has examined these contrasting views in terms of cultural values (e.g., Azuma, 1986; Gudykunst, Gao, & Franklyn-Stokes, 1996; Marsella, 1993; Minami, 1994; Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989). Building on these findings about values, my research has examined the effects of speech on psychological functioning and, in so doing, examined cultural influences on psychological processes, such as cognitive problem solving.

In the first set of studies (Kim, 2002), Asian American and European American participants were instructed to solve a number of problems from the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (Raven, 1941).  They were randomly assigned either to a silence condition or to a verbalization condition in which they were to verbalize their thought processes during the problem solving task.  The results of these studies show that verbalization of thought processes impairs cognitive performance among Asian Americans but not among European Americans. In other words, the actual effect of verbalization of thoughts is concordant with commonly shared cultural beliefs.

A large body of literature shows that there are meaningful differences between Westerners and Easterners in their dominant modes of thinking, with Westerners tending to engage in more analytic modes of thinking and Easterners tending to engage in more holistic modes of thinking (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001 for a review). This difference has implications for how compatible one’s mode of thinking is with speech, as analytic thinking, characterized by linearity and logic, is more readily verbalizable than holistic thinking, characterized by circularity and assmption of change and contradiction of the nature. Consistent with this approach, a study (Kim, 2002, Study 3) found that the difference in the effect of verbalization on cognitive performance seems to be due to a cultural difference in the degree to which Asian Americans and European Americans rely on language in their thinking. An experimental manipulation to suppress internal articulation (i.e., saying the alphabet aloud repeatedly) interfered with the performance of European Americans, but not of Asian Americans. These results support the idea that European Americans engage in more verbal thinking, compared to Asian Americans.  Verbalization of thoughts appears to be a more complicated task for Asian Americans who have to convert their non-verbal thoughts to words than for European Americans who merely need to vocalize the internal articulation.

Another set of follow-up studies (Kim, 2008) showed that these cultural differences in the degree of cognitive load imposed by verbalizing one’s thoughts during a cognitive task could lead to divergent experiences of biological stress. In particular, I conducted one study in which participants provided saliva samples for cortisol analysis along with the problem solving and silence/verbalization task described above. In this study, the task of talking led to significantly higher cortisol levels, a measure of biological stress response to the task, for Asian American participants than for European American participants.

These findings have important implications for education and health in light of the fact that practices in most U.S. institutions are based on Western cultural assumptions. High levels of stress and other problems may arise when institutional practices expect a particular cultural meaning of speech from people who do not share the same cultural meaning. By assuming one mode of expression or interaction as the only or superior mode, society could bring inadvertent but systematic advantages to the cultural majority (see Kim and Markus, 2002 for further discussion).

Culture and Social Support Seeking

Cultural differences related to self-expression have implications in a more interpersonal domain, namely social support seeking processes. Traditionally, support use has been thought of in terms of specific events during which one person seeks specific aid from another person in the context of a specific stressor via disclosure of stressful events and feelings. Research (Taylor, Sherman, Kim, Jarcho, Takagi & Dunagan, 2004) has found that this type of social support use involving direct interpersonal disclosure and support seeking is less common among Asians and Asian Americans than among European Americans. In these studies, individuals completed questionnaires about recently experienced stressors and how they had coped with them. A wide range of stressful situations, including social, academic, and health stressors have been examined in these studies. Across stressors and studies, consistent patterns have emerged. For individual coping strategies, such as planning, positive reframing, or active efforts to cope, there were no cultural differences in reported use or helpfulness. But for social coping strategies, there were consistent cultural differences. Asians/Asian Americans were significantly less likely to report drawing on social support for coping with stress than were European Americans. This difference can be explained by the fact that Asians/Asian Americans experience greater interpersonal concerns stemming from disclosing their problems. Asians/Asian Americans were more concerned than European Americans that seeking support would cause them to lose face, disrupt group harmony, and receive criticism from others, and these relationship concerns appear to have discouraged them from drawing social support from close others.

Indeed, follow-up research (Kim, Sherman, Ko & Taylor, 2006) found that European Americans’ willingness to seek support was unaffected by relationship priming, whereas Asian Americans were willing to seek support less when the relationship primed was closer to the self. That is, Asian Americans’ willingness to seek social support was lower when they were primed of ingroup goals than when they were primed of outgroup or personal goals, supporting the idea that their reluctance to seek support is due to the concern about disturbing existing social relationships. These findings underscore the importance of considering culturally divergent relationship patterns in examining the nature and effects of social support transactions.

In addition to investigating why people from different cultures diverge in their willingness to seek social support, my collaborators and I have been examining whether there are more culturally appropriate forms of social support use. Accordingly, we proposed a distinction between explicit and implicit forms of social support transaction. We define explicit social support as explicit sharing of one’s problems and feelings and implicit social support as enjoying the company of close others without disclosure of problems and feelings (Kim, Sherman, & Taylor, 2008; Taylor, Welch, Kim & Sherman, 2007). In one experiment, Asians/Asian American and European American participants were randomly assigned to either explicit social support salience condition (i.e., writing a letter to a close other about their stress) or implicit social support salience condition (i.e., writing about the important aspects of the group or close others) prior to going through an acute lab stressor of speech giving. Indeed, Asians/Asian Americans experienced lower distress and showed lower cortisol response to the task following priming of implicit social support than of explicit social support; the reverse was true for European Americans.

These findings suggesting that explicit social support is particularly used and beneficial among those from individualistic cultures may have important implications for research on the mental health services provided for Asians/Asian Americans in the U.S., and in particular for understanding their underutilization of such services (e.g., Sue, Fujino, Hu, Takeuchi, & Zane, 1991). We suggest that the utilization of social services may be an extension of culturally specific patterns of disclosure and social relationship.

Our research raises the possibility that focusing on the explicit disclosure and discussion of one’s distress as the main form of support use may have exaggerated the “problem” regarding Asians/Asian Americans’ reluctance to solicit social support. When implicit forms of support were also considered, Asians and Asian Americans experienced similar benefits. Social coping is most effective when it takes the form that is congruent with the relationship expectations prevalent in a culture. In short, it appears that at least in the case of social support use, members of each group function in an adaptive way within their own cultural system.

Concluding Thoughts

Not everyone in a culture views the actions of speech and disclosure in a culturally normative way. Behavioral patterns differ as a function of individual experience, and of such factors as acculturation, type of relationships, personality, and participation in cultural sub-groups.

Nevertheless, the research described in the present article shows systematic variations in psychological and behavioral patterns by culture, and underscores the important influence of collectively shared meanings and practices. These studies aim to contextualize the act of expression and demonstrate cultural differences in the meaning of expression. Depending on the dominant assumptions and expectations of cultural systems, self-expression has different psychological, physical, and social impacts. These findings provide evidence of the psychological consequences of the foundational cultural views rooted in historical and institutional practices in particular cultures. Although our understanding of the nature of cultural differences and similarities in the effects of self-expression is still limited, the evidence is sufficient to provide a framework for future research on culture and divergent effects of expression. Findings from these studies, I hope, could provide an alternative way to theorize about the effect and role of verbalization in psychological processes.


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