Emotional intelligence is becoming more important in our lives and work to build healthy relationships. While we've learnt what Historian Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith calls 'a handful of basic emotions,' like happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise, there's a world of emotions we don't know. In her recent TED Talk, The History of Human Emotions, she points to historical and cultural context to help us understand how we could better describe what we're actually feeling. She gives the example of the Welsh word Hwyl, which describes the exuberance we feel when we get together in big groups of people. Or, the nostalgia we feel as we reach out to buy a familiar brand at the supermarket.
"We live in an age when knowledge of emotions is an extremely important commodity, where emotions are used to explain many things, exploited by our politicians, manipulated by algorithms," says Watt Smith in her talk. "Emotional intelligence, which is the skill of being able to recognize and name your own emotions and those of other people, is considered so important, that this is taught in our schools and businesses and encouraged by our health services. But despite all of this, I sometimes wonder if the way we think about emotions is becoming impoverished. Sometimes, we're not even that clear what an emotion even is."
She introduces us to words that different cultures use to describe specific feelings--Watt Smith describes them as "odd, untranslatable words for emotions," as a guide to help us clearly define our own:
Russian Toska: A longing with nothing to long for. This word evokes a feeling of maddening dissatisfaction, which is said to blow in from the great plains.
The Baining People of Papua New Guinea Awumbuk: A feeling of lethargy that descends when a house guest finally leaves. She says that while we might feel relief, in Baining culture "departing guests are thought to shed a sort of heaviness, so they can travel more easily, and this heaviness infects the air, which causes this Awumbuk."
Japanese Amae: The pleasure you get when you're able to temporarily hand over responsibility for your life to someone else. This makes everyone in the TED talk audience laugh, and Watt Smith even describes it as one of her favourite emotions. She gives important cultural context to explain emotions as an extension of our values: "anthropologists suggest that one reason why this word might have been named and celebrated in Japan is because of the country's traditionally collectivist culture, whereas the feeling of dependency may be more fraught among English speakers, who have learned to value self-sufficiency and individualism."
Dutch Gezelligheid: Feeling snug in a homely place with friends when it's cold and damp outside. In Canada or the U.S., we might use words like "cozy" or "comfortable" after an ice skate or day of skiing, though like Watt Smith argues, we could get a lot more specific about the feeling we're trying to achieve as we escape the cold.
French Depaysement: The giddy, disorientation that you feel in an unfamiliar place. Watt Smith turns to her own life to explain this word: "One of my favourite parts of being a historian is when something I've completely taken for granted is suddenly made strange again."
So, now what? Here's how to use this information with your team:
While emotional intelligence is regularly covered in the news, Watt Smith presents its importance in a new light: "To be truly emotionally intelligent, we need to understand where those words come from, and what ideas about how we ought to live and behave, rather than smuggling along with them."
So, get creative with words in the way other cultures around the world have. Roll out the whiteboard and with your team blurt out every situation you regularly find yourselves in that creates some kind of feeling. Then generate your own words the feeling.
There's an opportunity to create a balance of light-heartedness and understanding of how anyone on the team could feel at any given moment. You'll also build words around what you value most as a team and a company. As Watt Smith says, "learning new and unusual words about emotions will help attune us to the more finely grained aspects of our inner lives," the core of emotional intelligence.