The Emotional/Relational World in Modern Societies: Chaos and Denial

The Emotional/Relational World in Modern Societies: Chaos and Denial

Western societies have conquered in the material and intellectual worlds, and even in outer space. But inner space remains a profound mystery and a secret. Just as much as the material world and free intelligence were mysteries for traditional societies.

In small traditional societies, such as the Maori in New Zealand, the emotional/relational world (the E/RW) was at least as important as any other (Metge 1986). Indeed, there were only a few competing worlds. But in modern societies, there are so many duties, opportunities and distractions that the E/R W is increasingly dim in Western imagination.

Modern societies focus almost exclusively on individuals and thought, traditional societies on relationships and feelings. In the Japanese language, the extent to which it focuses on relationships is suggested by the infrequent use of personal pronouns and names. Even in the family, relationship terms are used: older sister, younger brother. In traditional societies, relationships stand out, individuals are virtually invisible.

The psychological status quo in traditional societies emphasizes relationships/feelings to the point that individuals and intellect lead a shadow life. Modern societies focus on individuals and thought to the point that relationships and emotions hardly exist. Traditional societies subordinate individuals to relationships, and thought to feeling. Modern societies subordinate relationships to individuals, and emotions to thinking.

Both types of societies tend toward profound alienation. In Western societies, individuals are alienated from each other. Mobility and the quest for achievement make it difficult to connect with others. In traditional societies, individuals are alienated from self. Loyalty, conformity and the subordination of intellect to feeling leads the individual to give up vital parts of self, even creative innovation. The status quo in both types of societies is so taken for granted as to be invisible to its members, but they nevertheless maintain it in everyday practices.

The hiding of the e/rw in Western societies begins with the avoidance and disguise of feelings. There seem to be three main lines of defense against emotions:

  1. Ignoring them. Most discussions in lay language, and in the social and psychological sciences as well, donít mention emotions. Objects, behavior, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, images, and perception are discussed, but not emotions. This is by far the most prevalent defense. Until recently the social sciences had no sections devoted specifically to the study of emotions. Even after such sections had been established, they remain small enclaves lost in the vastness of the denial of emotions.
  2. When emotions are mentioned, as they are beginning to be, the references are usually at so abstract and general a level as to amount to dismissal. The word emotion, and terms like feeling, emotional arousal or upset, refer to such a variety of states as to be utterly vague and ambiguous. Just as the idea of "the rational man" in legal discourse leads to a dismissal of the vast domain of irrationality, so the use of highly abstract emotion terms negates the realm of emotions.
  3. The final line of defense is that even words that seemingly refer to specific emotions are wildly ambiguous and/or mask one emotion with another. Most of this essay will be devoted to outlining some of these usages, with specific reference to fear/anxiety, anger, pride, shame, embarrassment, grief/sadness, and love.

The realm of emotions in the West is beset by an elemental difficulty: the meaning of words that refer to emotion are so ambiguous that we hardly know what we are talking about. Virginia Woolf said it succinctly: "The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted" (Jacobís Room). Compared to maps of the material world, and the social science of behavior, thoughts, attitudes, perception, and beliefs, the realm of emotions is terra incognita.

Both lay and experts disagree on almost everything about emotions. For example, several studies have pointed out the lack of agreement on which emotions are basic. Ortony et al (1988, p.27) show no agreement on this issue among twelve investigators, some leading experts in the field. Even the number of such emotions, much less the specific emotions, is in contention; the fewest proposed is two, the most, eleven. There is not a single emotion word that shows up on all 12 lists.

This disagreement involves emotion words in only one language, English. The comparison of emotion words in different languages opens up a second sign of chaos. Anthropological and linguistic studies suggest that just as the experts disagree on the number and names of the basic emotions, so do languages. Cultural differences in emotion words will be mentioned here, but it is so large an issue that it will also be taken up in another paper.

The supply of emotion words in the West, particularly in English, is relatively small. Although English has by far the largest total number of words (some 600,000 and still expanding), its emotion lexicon is smaller than other languages, even small languages like Maori. In addition to having a larger emotion lexicon than English, its emotion words are relatively unambiguous and detailed compared to English (Metge 1986).

As indicated above, in Western societies, emotions are seldom even mentioned. Or if mentioned, only abstractly, avoiding specifics. The last stage of defense is that even when specific emotions are mentioned, usage of these words helps to confirm the emotional/relational status quo. Some examples.

Pride: This word has two distinct meanings in current usage, one positive, the other negative. The dominant one is negative, as in the Biblical "Pride goeth before the fall." This usage confounds the positive meaning, authentic or justified pride, with arrogance, egotism or self-centeredness. Negative "pride" may even be the opposite of genuine pride, since it may be a defense against shame.

Fear/anxiety. Before Freud, fear meant the emotional signal of danger to life or limb, and anxiety was a lesser fear. But after Freud, anxiety became broad enough to include any kind of diffuse emotion. Current vernacular usage is so enlarged that fear can be used to mask other emotions, especially shame and humiliation. "I fear rejection" has nothing to do with danger of bodily harm. It refers rather to the anticipation of shame or humiliation. (When I explain this nicety to my students, their eyes glaze over.) Anxiety has become an abstract, pliable word like emotion or arousal.

Love: in current usage, love is so broad as to include almost any kind of positive feeling, including extremely dysfunctional ones. The title of the mass market hit Women Who Love Too Much illustrates this usage. Women who are so pathologically passive and dependent as to allow their husbands to abuse them and/or their children explain that they donít leave because they love their husbands too much. Love, a positive word, is used to deny a highly negative relationship.

Current usage also confounds genuine love, which surely means loving someone that we know, warts and all, with infatuation, which deletes warts and any other blemish. Infatuation is an idealized fantasy of another person, often based on appearance alone. In this way, love is used to hide a failure to connect.

Grief/sadness. There is a collective misunderstanding in Westen societies about the nature of grief, the emotion of loss. Even in societies that maintain collective rituals of mourning, grieving the loss of a close attachment is apt to be lengthy and consuming. But in Western societies the person in mourning is usually given little time. After a few weeks, expressions of grief are not encouraged, if not actively condemned: get a grip, take a pill, see a shrink. In modern societies it is difficult to understand that a long siege of grief and mourning is natural and necessary.

Anger: the confusion over the meaning of this word seems to be different than any of the above problems. It involves confounding the feeling of anger with acting out anger. We donít confuse the feeling of fear with running away, the feeling of shame with hiding oneís face, or the feeling of grief with crying. But anger is thought to be destructive, even though it is only a feeling.

The feeling of anger is only an internal signal, like any other emotion. It is one of the many pain signals that alert us to the state of the world inside and around us. In itself, if it is not acted out, it is instructive, not destructive.

When anger is expressed in the form of a verbal explanation, rather than acted out as screaming or aggression, it is constructive. It explains to self and other where one is, how one is frustrated, and why. Both self and other need to know this information. The confounding of anger expression with acting out can be a seen as a way of justifying self acting out, rather than expressing anger, and the prevalence of acting out, as in spousal abuse and road rage.

Shame: In contrast to the pliability of the word love, current usage of shame in English involves only one meaning, and an extremely narrow one at that: a crisis feeling of intense disgrace. In this usage, a clear distinction is made between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment can happen to anyone, but shame is conceived as horrible. Embarrassment is speakable, shame is unspeakable. This usage avoids everyday shame such as embarrassment and modesty, and in this way sweeps most shame episodes under the rug.

Other languages, even those of modern societies, treat embarrassment as a milder version of shame. In Spanish, for example, the same word (verguenza) can be used to mean either. Most languages also have an everyday shame that is considered to belong to the shame/embarrassment family. For example, the French honte, disgrace shame, as against pudeur, which can be translated as modesty, or better yet, a sense of shame. If you ask an English speaker is shame distinct from embarrassment, they will answer with an impassioned yes. But a French speaker might ask Which kind of shame?

It is of great interest that some European languages are moving toward the English language model of denying everyday shame. In contemporary German, for example, since the word for disgrace shame (schande) is seen as old fashioned, the word for everyday shame (scham) is being used in its place. This usage is probably making shame less speakable, as in the English language model. A similar phenomenom may be happening with pride. The negative version (hochmut) is now seen as old fashioned, so that the positive version (stolz) is confounding a positive feeling with a negative one.


All of these confusions and limitations help maintain the status quo in the e/rw: individualism and the subordination of feeling to thought. The broad use of the word love, and the narrow meaning of the word shame may be central to this end.

Referring to all kinds of slightly positive or even negative relationships with the positive word love helps disguise the miasma of alienation and disconnection in modern societies. Similarly, defining shame narrowly, as only disgrace shame, helps mask disconnection. Since this latter idea is not obvious, it will be necessary to discuss it further.

Suppose that just as fear signals danger of bodily harm, and grief signals loss, shame signals disconnection. In modern societies, since connecting with others is infrequent, we can hide that fact. Instead of saying that we were embarrassed, we say "It was an awkward moment for me." It was the moment that was awkward (projection), not me that was embarrassed (denial).

In English especially, there is a vast supply of words that can be used as alternatives to the s-word (Retzinger 1995). She lists more than a hundred vernacular codewords that may stand for shame, under six headings:

Alienated: rejected, dumped, deserted, etc.
blank, empty, hollow, etc.
foolish, silly, funny, etc.
powerless, weak, insecure, etc.
: restless, tense, anxious, etc.
offended, upset, wounded, etc.

The broadening use of fear and anxiety seems to be another way of disguising shame. To say that one fears rejection, or to use a term like social anxiety, is to mask the common occurrence of shame and embarrassment.

We can also disguise the shameful pain of rejection by masking it with anger or withdrawal and silence. Similarly, the negative version of pride can be used to mask a defense against shame as too much pride. Studies of stigma and of indignities, even though these words signify shame, seldom take note of the underlying emotion, concentrating instead on thoughts and behavior.

Apologies suggest another instance of the masking of shame with another emotion. The ritual formula for an apology in the English language is to say that you are sorry. But the word sorry (grief) serves to mask the more crucial emotion of shame. "Iím ashamed of what I did is a more potent apology than the conventional "Iím sorry." (Miller 1996).


The process of industrialization and urbanization has been influencing spoken English longer than any other language, since it began first in England. In this paper I propose that modernization has led to the downplaying of emotions and relationships in spoken English to a greater degree than in any other language, in favor of emphasis on thought and individualism. As this process continues, the emotional/relational world seems to be vanishing from awareness in English speaking countries, and to a somewhat lesser degree, in other Western societies.

The banishment of emotions from discourse and thought in modern societies both reflects and generates alienation. One way of countering this trend would be to acknowledge emotions, rather than denying them. Rediscovery of the lost world of emotions and relationships might be a path toward a new way of life.


Metge, Joan. 1986. In and Out of Touch. Wellington, NZ: Victoria University Press.

Miller, William. 1993. Humiliation. Ithaca: Cornell U. Press.

Ortony, Andrew, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins. 1988. The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Retzinger, Suzanne. 1991. Violent Emotions. Newbury Park: Sage.

1995. Identifying Shame and Anger in Discourse. American Behavioral Scientist 38: 541-559)


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