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3.2: Expressing Emotions

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    Emotion sharing involves communicating the circumstances, thoughts, and feelings surrounding an emotional event. Emotion sharing usually starts immediately following an emotional episode. The intensity of the emotional event corresponds with the frequency and length of the sharing, with high-intensity events being told more often and over a longer period of time. Research shows that people communicate with others after almost any emotional event, positive or negative, and that emotion sharing offers intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits, as individuals feel inner satisfaction and relief after sharing, and social bonds are strengthened through the interaction.1

    Our social bonds are enhanced through emotion sharing because the support we receive from our relational partners increases our sense of closeness and interdependence. We should also be aware that our expressions of emotion are infectious due to emotional contagion31, or the spreading of emotion from one person to another.2 Think about a time when someone around you got the giggles and you couldn’t help but laugh along with them, even if you didn’t know what was funny. While those experiences can be uplifting, the other side of emotional contagion can be unpleasant. One of my favorite skits from Saturday Night Live, called “Debbie Downer,” clearly illustrates the positive and negative aspects of emotional contagion. In the skit, a group of friends and family have taken a trip to an amusement park. One of the people in the group, Debbie, interjects depressing comments into the happy dialogue of the rest of the group. Within the first two minutes of the skit, Debbie mentions mad cow disease after someone orders steak and eggs for breakfast, a Las Vegas entertainer being mauled by his tiger after someone gets excited about seeing Tigger, and a train explosion in North Korea after someone mentions going to the Epcot center. We’ve probably all worked with someone or had that family member who can’t seem to say anything positive, and Debbie’s friends react, as we would, by getting increasingly frustrated with her. The skit also illustrates the sometimes uncontrollable aspects of emotional contagion. As you know, the show is broadcast live and the characters occasionally “break character” after getting caught up in the comedy. After the comment about North Korea, Rachel Dratch, who plays Debbie, and Jimmy Fallon, another actor in the scene, briefly break character and laugh a little bit. Their character slip leads other actors to break character and over the next few minutes the laughter spreads (which was not scripted and not supposed to happen) until all the actors in the skit are laughing, some of them uncontrollably, and the audience is also roaring with laughter. This multilayered example captures the positive, negative, and interpersonal aspects of emotional contagion.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Facial Expressions. Photo is in the Public Domain 

    In order to verbally express our emotions, it is important that we develop an emotional vocabulary. The more specific we can be when we are verbally communicating our emotions, the less ambiguous they will be for the person decoding our message. As we expand our emotional vocabulary, we are able to convey the intensity of the emotion we’re feeling whether it is mild, moderate, or intense. For example, happy is mild, delighted is moderate, and ecstatic is intense, and ignored is mild, rejected is moderate, and abandoned is intense.3 Aside from conveying the intensity of your emotions, you can also verbally frame your emotions in a way that allows you to have more control over them.

    We can communicate ownership of our emotions through the use of “I” language. This may allow us to feel more in control, but it may also facilitate emotion sharing by not making our conversational partner feel at fault or defensive. For example, instead of saying “You’re making me crazy!” you could say, “I’m starting to feel really anxious because we can’t make a decision.” However, there may be times when face-to-face communication isn’t possible or desired, which can complicate how we express emotions.  Developing an emotional vocabulary, as you will see in the next few pages, will also help you with your ability to share your emotions.

    In a time when so much of our communication is electronically mediated, it is likely that we will communicate emotions through the written word in an e-mail, text, or instant message. We may also still resort to pen and paper when sending someone a thank-you note, a birthday card, or a sympathy card. Communicating emotions through the written (or typed) word can have advantages such as time to compose your thoughts and convey the details of what you’re feeling. There are also disadvantages, in that important context and nonverbal communication can’t be included. Things like facial expressions and tone of voice offer much insight into emotions that may not be expressed verbally. There is also a lack of immediate feedback. Sometimes people respond immediately to a text or e-mail, but think about how frustrating it is when you text someone and they don’t get back to you right away. If you’re in need of emotional support or want validation of an emotional message you just sent, waiting for a response could end up negatively affecting your emotional state and your relationship.

    Managing and Responding to Emotions

    The notion of emotional intelligence emerged in the early 1990s and has received much attention in academic scholarship, business and education, and the popular press. Emotional intelligence “involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.”4

    As was noted earlier, improving our emotional vocabulary and considering how and when to verbally express our emotions can help us better distinguish between and monitor our emotions. However, as the definition of emotional intelligence states, we must then use the results of that cognitive process to guide our thoughts and actions.

    Just as we are likely to engage in emotion sharing following an emotional event, we are likely to be on the receiving end of that sharing. Another part of emotional intelligence is being able to appraise others’ expressions of emotions and communicatively adapt. A key aspect in this process is empathy, which is the ability to comprehend the emotions of others and to elicit those feelings in ourselves. Being empathetic has important social and physical implications. By expressing empathy, we will be more likely to attract and maintain supportive social networks, which has positive physiological effects like lower stress and less anxiety and psychological effects such as overall life satisfaction and optimism.5

    When people share emotions, they may expect a variety of results such as support, validation, or advice. If someone is venting, they may just want your attention. When people share positive emotions, they may want recognition or shared celebration. Remember too that you are likely to co-experience some of the emotion with the person sharing it and that the intensity of their share may dictate your verbal and nonverbal reaction.6 Research has shown that responses to low-intensity episodes are mostly verbal. For example, if someone describes a situation where they were frustrated with their car shopping experience, you may validate their emotion by saying, “Car shopping can be really annoying. What happened?” Conversely, more intense episodes involve nonverbal reactions such as touching, body contact (scooting close together), or embracing. These reactions may or may not accompany verbal communication. You may have been in a situation where someone shared an intense emotion, such as learning of the death of a close family member, and the only thing you could think to do was hug them. Although being on the receiving end of emotional sharing can be challenging, your efforts will likely result in positive gains in your interpersonal communication competence and increased relational bonds.

    Key Takeaways


    1. Bernard Rime, “Interpersonal Emotion Regulation,” in Handbook of Emotion Regulation, ed. James J. Gross (New York: Guilford Press, 2007), 466–68.
    2. Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 69.
    3. Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 166.
    4. Peter Salovey, Alison Woolery, and John D. Mayer, “Emotional Intelligence: Conceptualization and Measurement,” in Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Interpersonal Processes, eds. Garth J. O. Fletcher and Margaret S. Clark (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 279–307.
    5. Laura K. Guerrero and Peter A. Andersen, “Emotion in Close Relationships,” in Close Relationships: A Sourcebook, eds. Clyde Hendrick and Susan S. Hendrick (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000), 171–83.
    6. Bernard Rime, “Interpersonal Emotion Regulation,” in Handbook of Emotion Regulation, ed. James J. Gross (New York: Guilford Press, 2007), 473–78.

    Contributors and Attributions

    This page titled 3.2: Expressing Emotions is shared under a CC BY 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Victoria Leonard.

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