We need common references to social emotions to function successfully as a culture.
This is problematic in a melting pot country like our own – we don’t know how to communicate non-verbally to others in ways that they will understand emotionally. Emotions must be spoken to in the language of emotion. Words can be used, but words are useless out of the context of appropriate behavior.
Example: In the reign of King David, wearing sackcloth (burlap) and ashes or tearing one’s clothing was a sign of public repentance, public apology. If the leader did this, it was the sign of corporate repentance. We don’t have the ability now to express sorrow non-verbally without taking on additional, perhaps unwanted, context. If someone did put on sackcloth and ashes, they’d be so over-the-top as to seem absurd. No one would believe it, because the action would be outside the box of our cultural norms. (It’s a soggy box with missing walls, but there is a box).
There is no way for me to express sorrow for a friend, sorrow for my nation, except through words, and we have been taught by experience that words are usually empty. Actions are so quickly co-opted by various groups and have their meanings added to that one can’t use them for more than a breath. The wearing of black used to connotate mourning. Now? Black is ubiquitious.
I am made unable to express my heart to the hearts of those around me. This is less problematic with those who know me, of course. We have history. We have intimate social context for action and personality. But what if I want to express grief to my town? I have to put up a sign and enter into public debate. Emotions aren’t debatable, they simply are. “This makes me sad”.
Without these more subtle social cues, we have to coarsen our public discourse – we have to scream at one another – to be heard. And then only those who scream loudest are heard at all. When one is screamed at, one generally feels attacked. Screaming produces anger. It produces resentment. There is no silent statement of emotion, unarguable, unmovable.
And it is not only sorrow that one can no longer express. My wedding ring is no longer a symbol that I am not interested in pickup lines. Should I wear a sign on my chest? We are discouraged from expressing joy or pleasure, because someone out there has not.
We have lost the art of speaking to one another’s hearts, and if we are to survive, we must learn again how to use non-verbal communication to express emotion socially.