Kids and gifts: Cultural differences in displaying and articulating emotions

A recent article in The New York Times was titled, “Please Don’t Make Me Open That Gift in Public.” In it, the writer, Lindsay Mannering, discusses the problem of baby shower offerings to the mother-to-be, specifically the enforced ordeal of oohing and aahing that goes with the territory as each gift is unwrapped in front of the guests. Japan escapes this problem usually, with its reverse custom of not opening presents for any occasion on the spot. The opportunity to see the delighted reaction of a recipient is lost, but so too is any potential awkwardness for anyone involved.

Even for adults, the pressure to look happy with an unsuitable present can be a burden, and for children, it can be even trickier. The manifestation or containment of reactions may also be influenced by culture. Cross-cultural child psychologist Ka I Ip and eight colleagues set out to consider this issue, making use of the Disappointing Gift Paradigm, a procedure to investigate children’s control of facial expressions that was developed by Pamela Cole, a child development researcher.

Ip and his co-researchers investigated differences between Japanese and American children. The Japanese group comprised 46 children in preschools in Musashino City and Suginami Ward — on average 4 years 5 months old — while the U.S. group comprised 45 children — one month older, on average — from preschools around Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The Disappointing Gift Paradigm consists of six phases designed to provoke children’s feelings in a kind of mini-drama that plays out in six minutes. In Phase 1 (Gift Ranking), the examiner asks the child to rank five items from least to most desirable. These range from fun or practical objects, such as a toy car or eraser, to useless or lackluster things, like a bottle cap or broken comb. At this point, the examiner says they have to leave the room to make a phone call and that another examiner will bring in the child’s most-favored item.

In Phase 2 (Child Waiting), the child is left alone for one minute to wait and presumably look forward to getting the item they had indicated. Yippee! Unfortunately for the child, things do not go as expected.

In Phase 3 (Undesired Gift-Unfamiliar Examiner), the new, unfamiliar examiner enters the room, but with the child’s lowest-ranked item, which they give to the child without saying much. Oh no! The new examiner then simply sits and reads a book, leaving the room after one minute.

In Phase 4 (Undesired Gift-Alone), the child is left alone for one minute to contemplate this unanticipated letdown.

In Phase 5 (Undesired Gift-Familiar Examiner), the first assistant comes back into the room, asks the child if they were happy with their item, looks at it, and apologizes when the child says “no,” or doesn’t answer, adding that the other examiner must have made a mistake. The examiner further asks how the child had felt when they got the wrong item and if the other examiner had known how they felt. The familiar examiner then asks if the child would like to swap the item for the one they had wanted.

Finally, in Phase 6 (Best Gift) if the child says “yes,” the substitution takes place, and the second assistant also comes in and apologizes.

The whole activity was videotaped, and the children’s facial expressions were coded frame by frame with behavioral coding software. Specifically, the researchers were interested in what the children’s expressions revealed in Phases 3-5. Expressions were classified as happy/joy; sadness; anger; fear/anxiety; disgust; confusion; surprise; and shame, based on mouth movement and eyebrow position, as well as overt behavior such as laughing or crying. When a child’s face was at rest it was coded as neutral.

Across the entire activity, Japanese children showed less emotion than their American counterparts. They had happy expressions 7% of the time, sad expressions 10% and neutral expressions 69%. On the other hand, the American children looked happy 16% of the time, sad 20% and neutral 48%.

Looking at a graph of the negative expressions across the six phases, the children of both cultures show identical arcs, with peak unhappiness in Phase 4 when they were alone with the unwanted item, but in every phase, the line representing the American kids falls above that of the Japanese kids. Similarly, the graph for the positive expressions across the six phases shows peak happiness in Phase 1 and least happiness in Phase 4. Happiness picks up in both groups in Phase 5, but, interestingly, the line remains flat for the Japanese children from Phases 5-6, while continuing to rise for the U.S. children, making Phase 6 nearly as high as Phase 1, but Phase 6 for the Japanese children is rather lower than Phase 1. In the end, the Japanese preschoolers got the gift they wanted, but they failed to capture quite the pleasure they had felt in anticipating its bestowal.

Despite the Japanese children’s lower proclivity to displaying emotions, they were more likely to articulate the disappointing situation when specifically asked. Eighty-nine percent of the Japanese children told the familiar examiner, when questioned, that they had not received the item they wanted, while only 78% of the American children did. Conversely, 18% of the American children responded affirmatively, twice as many as the Japanese children.

When asked how they felt, the Japanese children were generally candid, with 71% expressing negative feelings, a much greater percentage than the America children, at 49%. On the other hand, 18% of the American children said they felt neutral compared to 4% of the Japanese children who said so. Twenty-two percent of the American children gave no answer or made some other comment about the activity, more than twice the 9% of the Japanese group. Positive feelings were expressed by 11% of the U.S. kids and 16% of the Japanese kids.

It’s a fascinating study of cultural socialization. The Japanese children refrained more often from displaying emotions, while at the same time were likelier to elucidate them, if asked. Meanwhile, the American kids were prone to reveal their feelings on their faces, yet when questioned were more circumspect. As for me, I experienced surprisingly strong reactions as I read through the activity, feeling indignant sympathy in Phase 3 for the manipulated kids and a sigh of relief when they got their “Best Gift.” Whew!

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.