Emotions and Social Interaction

Emotions and Social Interaction

When we interact with others, certain emotions—feelings that begin with a stimulus and that often involve psychological changes and a desire to engage in specific actions—often come into play. To understand social interaction, it is helpful to understand how these emotions emerge and how they affect and are affected by social interaction.

Emotions and Social Interaction

Not surprisingly, evolutionary biologists and sociologists differ in their views on the origins of emotions. Many evolutionary biologists think that human emotions exist today because they conferred an evolutionary advantage when human civilization began eons ago (Plutchik, 2001). In this way of thinking, an emotion such as fear would help prehistoric humans (as well as other primates and organisms) survive by enabling them to recognize and avoid dangerous situations. Humans who could feel and act on fear were thus more likely to survive than those who could not. In this way, fear became a biological instinct and part of our genetic heritage. The fact that emotions such as anger, fear, hate, joy, love, and sadness are found across the world and in every culture suggests that emotions are indeed part of our biological makeup as humans.

In contrast to the evolutionary approach, a sociological approach emphasizes that emotions are socially constructed (Turner & Stets, 2006). To recall our earlier discussion of the social construction of reality, this means that people learn from their culture and from their social interactions which emotions are appropriate to display in which situations. In particular, statuses and the roles associated with them involve expectations of specific emotions that are appropriate or inappropriate for a given status in a given social setting. Someone attending a wedding is expected to look and be happy for the couple about to be married. Someone attending a funeral is expected to look and be mournful. Emotions are socially constructed because they arise out of the roles we play and the situations in which we find ourselves.

The origins of emotions aside, emotions still play an essential role in social interaction, and social interaction gives rise to emotions. Accordingly, sociologists have discussed many aspects of emotions and social interaction (Turner & Stets, 2006), a few of which we outline here. One important aspect is that insincere displays of emotion can be used to manipulate a situation. For example, a child or adult may cry to win some sympathy, a display popularly called “crocodile tears.” A staple of many novels and films is to pretend to be sorry that a rich, elderly relative is very ill in order to win a place in the relative’s will. By the same token, though, people who display inappropriate emotions risk social disapproval. If you are attending a funeral of someone you did not really know that well and, out of boredom, think of a recent episode of The Simpsons that makes you chuckle, the glares you get will make it very clear that your emotional display is quite inappropriate.

As this example suggests, a second aspect of emotions is that we often find ourselves in situations that “demand” certain emotions we simply do not feel. This discrepancy forces most of us to manage our emotions to avoid social disapproval, a process called emotion work(Hochschild, 1983). Having to engage in emotion work in turn often leads us to feel other emotions such as anger or frustration.

A third aspect is that gender influences the emotions we feel and display. In sociology, work on gender and emotions often falls under the larger topic of femininity and masculinity as expressions of gender roles, which  Chapter 11 “Gender and Gender Inequality”  examines at greater length. Suffice it to say here, though at the risk of sounding stereotypical, that certain gender differences in emotions and the display of emotions do exist. For example, women cry more often and more intensely than men, and men outwardly express anger much more often than women. A key question is whether gender differences in emotions (as well as other gender differences) stem more from biology or more from culture, socialization, and other social origins.  Chapter 11 “Gender and Gender Inequality”  again has more to stay about this basic debate in the study of gender.

A final aspect is that emotions differ across the social classes. Jonathan Turner (2010) notes that some emotions, such as happiness and trust, are positive emotions, while other emotions, such as anger, fear, and sadness, are negative emotions. Positive emotions, he says, lead to more successful social interaction and help gain needed resources (e.g., a cheerful demeanor and self-confidence can help win a high-paying job or attract a romantic partner), while negative emotions have the opposite effect. He adds that positive emotions are more often found among the upper social classes, while negative emotions are more often found among the poorer social classes. Emotion is thus “a valued resource that is distributed unequally” (Turner, 2010, pp. 189–190). The upper classes benefit from their positive emotions, while the lower classes suffer various problems because of their negative emotions. In this manner, the social class difference in positive versus negative emotions helps reinforce social inequality.

Nonverbal Social Interaction

Social interaction is both verbal and nonverbal. As Chapter 3 “Culture” discussed, culture greatly influences nonverbal communication, or ways of communicating that do not involve talking. Nonverbal communication includes the gestures we use and how far apart we stand when we talk with someone. When we do talk with someone, much more nonverbal interaction happens beyond gestures and standing apart. We might smile, laugh, frown, grimace, or engage in any number of other facial expressions (with or without realizing we are doing so) that let the people with whom we interact know how we feel about what we are saying or they are saying. Often how we act nonverbally is at least as important, and sometimes more important, than what our mouths are saying.

Body posture is another form of nonverbal communication, and one that often combines with facial expressions to convey how a person feels. People who are angry may cross their arms or stand with their hands on their hips and glare at someone. Someone sitting slouched in a chair looks either very comfortable or very bored, and neither posture is one you would want to use at an interview for a job you really wanted to get. Men and women may engage in certain postures while they are flirting with someone. Consciously or not, they sit or stand in certain ways that convey they are romantically interested in a particular person and hopeful that the person will return this interest.

Learning From Other Societies

Personal Space and Standing Apart: Why People From Other Countries Think Americans Are Cold and Distant

As the text discusses, one aspect of nonverbal interaction involves how far we stand apart from someone with whom we are talking. To amplify on a point first mentioned in Chapter 2 “Eye on Society: Doing Sociological Research”, Americans and the citizens of Great Britain and the northern European nations customarily stand about three to four feet apart from someone who is a stranger or acquaintance. If we are closer to this person without having to be closer—that is, we’re not in a crowded elevator, bar, or other setting in which it is impossible to be farther apart—we feel uncomfortable.

In contrast, people in many parts of the world—South and Central America, Africa, the Middle East, and Western European nations such as France, Spain, and Italy—stand much closer to someone with whom they are talking. In these nations, people stand only about 9 to 15 inches apart when they talk. If someone for some reason wanted to stand another two feet away, a member of one of these nations would view this person as unfriendly and might well feel insulted (Ting-Toomey, 1999; Samovar, Porter, & McDaniel, 2010).

Your author once found himself in this situation in Maine. I was talking to a professor from a Middle Eastern nation who was standing very close to me. To feel more comfortable, I moved back a step or two, without really realizing it. The professor moved forward, evidently to feel more comfortable himself, and then I moved back. He again moved forward, and I again moved back. Within a few minutes, we had moved about 20 to 30 feet!

When Americans travel abroad, anecdotal evidence indicates that they often think that people in other nations are pushy and demanding and that these citizens view Americans as cold and aloof (Ellsworth, 2005). Although there are many cultural differences between Americans and people in other lands, personal space is one of the most important differences. This fact yields an important lesson for any American who travels abroad, and it also illustrates the significance of culture for behavior and thus the value of the sociological perspective.

As with emotions, gender appears to influence how people communicate nonverbally (Hall, 2006). For example, a number of studies find that women are more likely than men to smile, to nod, and to have more expressive faces. Once again, biologists and social scientists disagree over the origins of these and other gender differences in nonverbal communication, with social scientists attributing the differences to gender roles, culture, and socialization.

Research finds that women tend to smile more often than men. Biologists and social scientists disagree over the origins of this gender difference in nonverbal communication.

mhobl – colourful and smiling – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Gender differences also exist in two other forms of nonverbal interaction: eye contact and touching. Women tend more than men to look directly into the eyes of people with whom they interact, a process called gazing. Such gazing is meant to convey interest in the interaction and to be nonthreatening. On the other hand, men are more likely than women to stare at someone in a way that is indeed threatening. A man might stare at a man because he resents something the other man said or did; a man might stare at a woman because he eyes her as a sexual object. In touching, men are more likely than women to touch someone, especially when that someone is a woman; as he guides her through a doorway, for example, he might put his arm behind her arm or back. On the other hand, women are more likely than men to touch themselves when they are talking with someone, a process called self-touching. Thus if a woman is saying “I think that…,” she might briefly touch the area just below her neck to refer to herself. Men are less likely to refer to themselves in this manner.

Social Interaction and Reality

Reality is shaped by perceptions, evaluations, and definitions

– Nature of social interaction and what constitutes reality varies across cultures

· –  Ability to define social reality reflects group’s power within a society

· –  Important aspect of the process of social change involves redefining or reconstructing social reality

· Elements of Social Structure: Statuses

· Status: any of the full range of socially defined positions within a large group or society

· – Person can hold more than one at same time

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Ascribed and Achieved Status – Ascribed status: status one is born with – Achieved status: status one earns

• Master Status

– Status that dominates other statuses and determines a person’s general position in society

– In U.S., ascribed statuses of race and gender can function as master statuses

Figure 5-1: Social Statuses


Social Roles

What Are Social Roles? – Social role: set of expectations for

people who occupy a given status

• Role Conflict – When incompatible expectations arise from two

or more social positions held by same person

• Role strain – Difficulties that arise when same social position

imposes conflicting demands and expectations

Role Exit – Process of disengagement from a role that is

central to one’s identity to establish a new role

– Ebaugh’s four stages: • Doubt

• Search for alternatives • Action or departure stage • Creation of a new identity


Group: any number of people with similar norms, values, and expectations who interact on a regular basis

• Primary and Secondary Groups – Primary group: small group with intimate,

face-to-face association and cooperation

– Secondary group: formal, impersonal groups with little social intimacy or mutual understanding