Joy to the World

Big smiles wait behind the doors of Wal-Marts across the United States. But when the company opened its first German stores, the enthusiastic greeters stationed at the entrances startled customers, who thought the salespeople were openly flirting with them. Happiness may be a universal emotion, but it has an accent, with every culture interpreting it—and expressing it—differently.

Illustration of a man in a musem, looking between a picture of Europeans in a cafe and black people dancing under palm trees. Money. Family. A great job. A big house. Many Americans would say those are the essential elements of happiness—and the realization of the “American dream.” But beyond our borders, the view shifts. In Latin American cultures, happiness is more abstract, says Carlos Orihuela, Ph.D., of UAB’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Facing poverty and undemocratic governments, many people find the pleasures of material goods or domestic comfort out of reach. For them, Orihuela says, happiness is something related to spiritual and emotional satisfactions.”

The situation is similar in Africa, where people generally emphasize collective happiness, focusing on family and community, versus individual bliss, explains Askhari Hodari, Ph.D., assistant professor of African-American studies. And in China, according to foreign languages instructor Lily Yang, four characters express the tenets of happiness: fu for safety, luck, contentment, and peace; lu for prosperity and professional or academic success; shou for a long life; and xi for a good marriage. Chinese traditionally value education as the key to joy, she adds, and happiness for their families is worth any sacrifice.

The Arab world, on the other hand, takes an approach more familiar to Americans, with a “universal dream” of financial, career, and material success, says Lamia Zayzafoon, Ph.D., who teaches Arabic at UAB. “There is a general consensus that achieving happiness on earth is a core element of the Islamic faith,” she says. “Muslims must be actively engaged in God’s heavenly and earthly kingdom. Salvation comes through work, not just fasting and praying.”

Catherine Daniélou, Ph.D., foreign languages interim chair, believes all people essentially view happiness the same way. “What all human beings yearn for is a sense of human connection,” says Daniélou, a native of France, where a recent survey rated family, children, health, love, and friends as the crucial components of a joyous life. Americans, she says, “often acknowledge the desire to have, buy, and afford more, although they usually justify it with a simple desire to give their families the very best.”

So if we’re happy and we know it, how do we show it? Americans often share their happiness openly and energetically, which many overseas visitors find welcoming but also surprising. Foreign students and scholars see us as “superficially very friendly, but they indicate that it is often difficult to make really good friends here,” says Carol Argo, director of UAB International Scholar and Student Services. “When greeted, they see a smile and hear a comment—‘how are you?’—but quickly learn that this is not really a question; it is a greeting as people pass by.” Argo and her staff help new arrivals to UAB adjust by discussing crosscultural communication at orientation sessions, focusing especially on nonverbal cues such as smiling, hugging, and direct eye contact; special programs also encourage interaction with American students, families, and community groups.

The United States is not the only nation where happiness is a public affair. In African cultures, people are often very demonstrative, explains Hodari. Special occasions—such as the announcement of a baby’s name—involve entire communities in lively celebrations of music and dance, and everyone is expected to participate. Orihuela sees similar excitement in Mexico and the Caribbean, where people “like to externally express their thoughts and feelings,” he says. “They enjoy inviting others to their parties, celebrations, and food, even though they may be poor.”

In Zayzafoon’s native Tunisia, those who don’t spread their good feelings run the risk of making people quite unhappy. Whether you get married, graduate, celebrate a birthday, or buy a house, “you must share the mabrouk, your happiness, with others by bringing baklava to work or inviting your friends and colleagues to a party at home.” Displays of happiness are part of Muslim tradition; Zayzafoon explains that the medieval philosopher and man of science Al-Farabi prescribed music as a cure for depression.

International expressions of happiness must respect boundaries, however. In Tunisia, as in Germany, “people do not smile at strangers in public,” warns Zayzafoon. “It might even be interpreted as flirtation if you smile to the opposite sex.” Daniélou sees similar restraint in France. “They only smile when they mean it. They are not unfriendly but rather polite and reserved” and “laugh, smile, and enjoy a good life at home or with their friends.”

In some cultures, happiness requires no smile at all. One Chinese idiom declares, “Sometimes you will just feel like shedding tears when you are too happy,” says Yang. Even in Africa, where people in many cultures are “more visually, facially expressive with regards to excitement,” says Hodari, contentment is standard practice. “Even if they’re not happy, they generally don’t tell you. People tend not to bemoan something that’s happened. The whole sentiment is ‘Everything is no problem, man.’”

By Charles Buchanan
UAB Magazine