It’s snowing, but nobody’s outside to enjoy it. I sit alone beside the window, watching the snowfall and wishing my brother were awake. If he weren’t snoring into his pillows upstairs, I’d be outside playing with him instead of listening to the feverish clackclackclack from my dad’s keyboard down the hallway.
“Meimei?” Little sister.
My head whips to the right, heart swelling with hope, only to deflate at the sight of my mom, shuffling towards me in her house slippers. She holds out a bowl of cut fruit and a mug of hot water. I pause to look down at thick apple slices, peeled orange wedges, Asian pear chunks, and green grapes through wisps of steam slowly curling from the cup.
“Give this to daddy,” my mother instructs in Mandarin. My eyes snap back up to hers as she passes the bowl and mug into my hands. “Tell him to drink some water,” she finishes, and all but disappears into her study, leaving me to recalibrate as her shuffles grow distant. Little do I know that those cut fruits place me right in the intersection of what are known as implicit and explicit cultures—the differing communication styles playing out in my home.
With a bowl of fruit, clear orders, and nothing better to do, I stand and make my way down the hall, shouldering open the door to my father’s study. He’s still typing furiously as I round the desk to the side of his chair, my eyes just barely peeking above the armrest to look up at him. “Baba?”
“Yeah?” he says a bit too loudly, startled. He looks down at me, eyes dropping to my hands, and I watch his face melt into a megawatt smile. “Why, thank you. Is this for me?” he asks, already reaching down to take the fruit and water.
I nod up to him once he has taken them. “Mom says to drink some water,” I tell him in a childish mix of Mandarin and English, pointing to the mug.
Chuckling, he strokes my hair with one hand and takes a sip of water with the other, swallowing before kissing my forehead with an exaggerated mwah! He pulls back, thumb rubbing the crest of my little head. “Tell your mother I say thank you, and I love you,” he says, grinning at me. Two pats on the back and another kiss to the top of my head later, I’m running up the stairs to my mom’s study, giddy with affection. I knock twice and open the door, poking my head just far enough past the door frame to see my mother looking at me.
“Daddy says he loves you,” I report in Mandarin, watching as the corners of her mouth twitch up into a smile.
“Tell him to eat more fruits,” she replies in English, loud enough that her voice carries down the stairway. I turn without closing the door and rush back to the stairs, but I can already hear the momentary lapse in my dad’s typing, and the apple crunching between his teeth.
I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but eventually I would come to recognize that my mother was letting him know, in a roundabout way, that she loved him too.
That’s a sweet sentiment, some might say, but it is not the same as telling someone you love them. While kindhearted, a gentle reminder to eat is not a straightforward expression of love. In the literal sense, they are right: my mother didn’t actually say she loved my father, making that specific interpretation of her gesture a subjective decision. They would not be alone in thinking so.
Investigating a similar premise, reporter, editor, and producer Catherine Winter asked the titular question in her 2015 article and program episode: “Does the West have a monopoly on romantic love?” Western cultures, she noticed, have an incredibly overt brand of romantic communication—so much so that, in comparison, cultures with more reserved romantic communication come across as almost loveless to the Western eye. And it is true: individuals raised within Western cultures tend to have difficulty understanding more implicit expressions of love due to a fundamental difference in the way cultures generally approach communication. It is important that each of us gains a better understanding of the ways humans express love in order to better navigate our relationships: with each other, and even with ourselves. Whether it be familial affection, romantic adoration, or friendly love, our understanding of implicit and explicit cultural influence on our relationships only enriches our lives.
To argue a point about communicating love is to recognize its expressions, and to recognize expressions of love is inevitably to name them. In 1992, Dr. Gary Chapman did just that. Chapman is best known for pioneering the concept of “love languages,” outlined in his book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Chapman’s concept holds that humans use five primary “languages” to communicate their love for each other: words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, acts of service, and gift giving (see fig. 1).
Every person, he maintains, utilizes all of them, but places varying degrees of significance on each type. Each one of us has a primary love language. This is the language through which we most effectively communicate our love for others (both romantic and otherwise) and understand that we are loved. These two categories of communication intersect when we look at the differences in how people of certain cultures express their love, much like the one that can be seen in my parents’ interaction that snowy night. Through Dr. Chapman’s concept of love languages, we stand to gain an understanding of how my parents’ cultural backgrounds create the differences in the ways they show affection, shaping their romantic dynamic. When it comes to romantic communication, a fundamental difference in how cultures view the individual causes explicit cultures to favor the love languages of words of affirmation and physical touch, and implicit cultures to tend towards acts of service and gift giving.
But what exactly are explicit and implicit cultures? The words explicit and implicit are used to describe this fundamental difference in how cultures place the purpose of the individual, which stems from where they understand individual significance to be—namely, whether the cultural focus prioritizes the individual or the collective. This difference manifests itself in the creation of two types of cultures: individualistic and collectivist. Individualistic cultures value personal independence, placing the purpose of the individual in living a personally gratifying life. In contrast, collectivist cultures value personal interdependence, placing the purpose of the individual in contributing towards the collective good. So-called Western cultures—such as those of Italy, Spain, and America—tend to be more individualist. Within such cultures, an American Field Service (AFS) Intercultural Programs article describes, individuals more commonly “see themselves as separate from others, define themselves based on their personal traits, and see their characteristics as relatively stable and unchanging” (”Individualism & Collectivism”). The individualist’s sense of self is defined more by who they are “inside,” a focus which minimizes the bearing of external contexts, factors, and people on who they are. As a result, “individualists tend to communicate in direct styles—they say what they mean, prioritizing that information is conveyed explicitly and unambiguously” (”Individualism & Collectivism”). The social environment and cultural worldview of individualists is such that this overt, explicit communication is expected, and therefore acceptable.
An opposite effect is observed in collectivist cultures, such as Asian and African cultures. Professor Harry C. Triandis, a pioneer of cross-cultural psychology whose research focuses on the cognitive aspects of attitudes, norms, roles, and values in different cultures, investigated the influence of individualism and collectivism on personality in a study aptly entitled “Individualism-Collectivism and Personality,” finding a wealth of insights on how collectivist cultures shape the personalities of the people in them. As he summarizes in the following abstract:
People in collectivist cultures, compared to people in individualist cultures, are likely to define themselves as parts of groups, to give priority to in-group goals, to focus on context more than the content in making attributions and in communicating, to pay less attention to internal than to external processes as determinants of social behavior, to define most relationships with ingroup members as communal, to make more situational attributions, and tend to be self-effacing. (Triandis)
Here, Triandis identifies a number of values collectivist rather than individualist cultures tend to hold; my own experience sees his conclusion hold true that collectivist cultures tend towards context rather than content-oriented communication. In the context of affectionate communication within relationships, the collectivist cultural focus on context over content means that a direct proclamation is not necessary to tell a loved one just that. If someone raised within a collectivist culture were put in my father’s shoes, they would approach my mother’s cut fruit from a situation-based perspective: a close loved one made an intentional effort to give them something nourishing in the middle of a task at an inconvenient hour, at no apparent benefit to themselves. All the context clues add up to love; someone who did not feel love for them would not have done something so intentionally altruistic at such an inconvenience.
Additionally, counter to the individualistic self-view, people in collective cultures see themselves primarily as connected to others, defining themselves in terms of their external relationships (rather than who they are inside), and see their characteristics as more likely to change across different contexts. More than an individualist, a collectivist’s sense of self is shaped by who they are in the context of other people, or by their membership in a group. In tandem, these two attributes manifest in a more implicit, sensitive cultural pattern of communication: “[Collectivists] tend to communicate in indirect styles—collectivists imply what they really mean, but might say otherwise to avoid conflict or embarrassment” (”Individualism & Collectivism”). Those raised in a collectivist cultural context would have no trouble understanding my mother’s fruits as an “I love you,” and likely show affection in similar ways to their loved ones. The implicit nature of the primary communication in these cultures merits them a second title: implicit cultures. In contrast, those who would see the act as a “sweet sentiment” were more likely than not brought up in an individualistic—or explicit—culture, and thus learned to use more direct and explicit communication, both in terms of everyday speech and love languages.
Arguably the most directly communicative and explicit love language, words of affirmation, hold a primary significance in the romances of explicit cultures. Dr. Chapman defines the concept through the practices included in it: “Verbal compliments, or words of appreciation, are powerful communicators of love … best expressed in simple, straightforward statements of affirmation” (Chapman). In action, this looks like my father’s “thank you” to my mother for her act of service, affirming her effort (albeit indirectly), and telling her he loves her, affirming her emotionally. Dr. Chapman broadens his definition beyond such exchanges, however, elaborating that “giving verbal compliments is only one way to express words of affirmation to your spouse. Another dialect is encouraging words” (Chapman). Encouraging words would have been at play in a words of affirmation exchange if my mother had told my father she loved him too and that he was handling his responsibilities well, rather than passing along the message to eat more fruit.
This kind of explicitly affectionate verbal communication is the currency of daily communication exchanges in individualistic cultures such as America. Professor Michael Shengtao-Wu, Associate Professor of the School of Journalism and Communication at China’s Xiamen University, gathered a team of researchers to explore the effects of culture on affectionate communication in China (a collectivist culture) and America (an individualistic culture). In the study, “the American English corpus and simplified Chinese corpus of the Google Books Ngram Viewer were used to track the frequency of affection words from 1960 through 2008” (Shengtao-Wu et al 3). To paraphrase, the team tracked the frequency of affection words through every piece of literature in Google Books written over the span of forty-eight years in American English and simplified Chinese. Below are the graphed data for three common affectionate phrases (figs. 2-4):
Fig. 2 charts the frequency of the term “love you” used in both American and Chinese literature, fig. 3 charts the same for “like you,” and fig. 4 measures “kiss.” Together, the graphs show that the frequency of using affection words in American books was consistently significantly higher than that in Chinese books. The data is clear: “Individualism was positively related to the frequency of affection words in both Chinese and American books” (Shengtao-Wu et al 1). As the authors further observe, “This suggest[s] that, by and large, the frequency of using affection words was higher in the highly individualistic United States than in the less-individualistic China” (Shengtao-Wu et al 3). While “love you” and “like you” clearly designate a presence of words of affection, “kiss” suggests not just the presence of words of affection in romantic communication, but also indicates physical touch.
Research has identified a strong presence of physical touch communication in romantic communication particular to explicit cultures. Where physical touch abounds between lovers, words do not always have to. On the power of the language of physical touch, Dr. Chapman states, “To the person whose primary love language is physical touch, the message will be far louder than the words ‘I hate you” or “I love you’ … [A] tender hug communicates love to any child, but it shouts love to the child whose primary love language is physical touch” (Chapman). To make the point personal, my father’s immediate tendency towards kisses, head strokes, and hugs, as well as my strong, positive reaction to him—feeling giddy and happy; gaining energy—were both clear indicators that he and I primarily spoke the love language of physical touch.
Among the gestures included under the physical touch love language are hugs, hand-holding, cuddling, and perhaps the most recognizable, kissing. William Jankowiak, an internationally recognized authority on love, and his team investigated whether or not the romantic kiss is a ubiquitous phenomenon. They published “Is the Romantic–Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?” in 2015, in which they detail their discovery that romantic-sexual kissing—defined as “lip-to-lip contact that may or may not be prolonged”—is nowhere near universal. In fact, the act of romantic-sexual kissing is present in the minority, at about 46 percent of the cultures sampled. For example, Jankowiak and his team found that “across Europe, a peck on the cheek is a common cultural greeting; one on the lips is indeed a romantic gesture. In India, Bangladesh and Thailand, [kissing is] a private practice” (A Kiss Is Not A Kiss). Upon further investigation, the team found that variety in touch frequency by geographic location varied even more than first indicated, with the finding that “in Italy, Estonia, Romania, Spain, and Mexico only about 2 percent of the participants declared not touching their partner at all during the week preceding our study, while in the US it was almost 16 percent, in Uganda more than 20 percent, and in China 43 percent” (”Expression of Affection Through Touch Across Cultures”). Notice, though, that among the cultures observed there is a common thread between those surveyed to have a high level of physicality between peers and romantic partners: individualism and explicit communication styles.
To more specifically understand how this interplay between cultures and physical romantic communication manifests in real life, I reached out to a cross-cultural couple in Queens, New York—one of the biggest cultural melting pots in the world. Teina and Austin Lochan-Dodd, who have been married for three years, come from vastly different cultural backgrounds. Teina, who was raised in the rich Guyanese culture and grew up surrounded by Guyanese immigrant families, primarily “speaks” physical touch and acts of service. Citing her upbringing, she notes of herself the following:
My way of showing love matches my mother to a T. I remember one huge thing for my mom was physical touch. She would always, almost literally, grab us, kiss us, and hug us. When the time was right, she’d just want to sit on a couch with us and hug, or be touching. I know a lot of Guyanese people are handsy like that with their kids, so for me, I recognize that in my mom as a cultural trend. And I know that’s not just a my generation thing, either; my mom tells me stories about how she was raised, and I can identify the things she did with me—all the hugging, the kissing! (T. Lochan-Dodd)
The way in which Teina’s upbringing shaped her style of affectionate communication is an example of the influence of affectionate tendencies within cultures on the love languages of the individuals included within them. On a deeper level, the similarity between Teina and her mother in the way they learned to be affectionate with loved ones points to overt love languages being strong attributes of explicit cultures—in this case, physical touch within Guyanese culture. The two women’s experiences tell the story of others who learned to love within explicit cultures, like that found in Guyana: cultures develop explicit communication precedents over time, which shape the ways its members express love and affection to those they share relationships with for generations. A detailed understanding of how explicit cultures tend to communicate love lays the groundwork to explore where they differ from implicit cultures.
Exploring the differences in how explicit and implicit cultures communicate romantic love naturally leads to this question: what are the ways implicit cultures show it? The love language most relevant to romantic communication in implicit cultures is acts of service. The truth of this can be seen acutely in the Asian-American experience, especially in how the increasingly Westernized younger generations are raised. In the following excerpt from his 2019 essay “A Bowl of Cut Fruits Is How Asian Moms Say: I Love You,” third-generation Malaysian-Chinese American Yi Jun Loh highlights his own experience with the service-based affection of his mother, who was raised in the implicit Chinese culture:
In high school, when I was trying to wrap my head around the imaginary numbers for an Additional Mathematics paper, I’d find a plate of papayas stealthily left on my desk even if I said I wasn’t hungry. … But most of all, when [my mom and I] argued—whether I’d been caught lying about my grades or had refused to practice Chopin’s Waltz No. 9 for the 28th time in a day—the simple utterance of ‘Come eat fruits’ was a signal of a truce being drawn. And when dinner ended with an extra plate of cut fruits, those harsh words and hot tears didn’t sting so much. (Loh)
Loh’s story is an example of the context-based communication precedents within implicit cultures. Where members of explicit cultures might sit and talk about what was said, what was meant, and reaffirm their love for each other following a fight, members of implicit cultures might instead choose to fix the other person a cup of their favorite drink, finish their laundry for them, or grab a package of their favorite snack on the way home from work the next day. Indeed, as Loh himself takes care to note, these cut fruit memories of his are “hardly an idiosyncrasy of my family, but rather a sort of unspoken rule in Asian families” (Loh). While Loh’s cut fruit memories (fig. 5) served as his reminder of the love his mother had for him, mine was proof of my mother’s matrimonial love for my father.
My mother, a first-generation Taiwanese immigrant, shows affection in a subdued, service-oriented manner, similar to Loh’s mother. She rarely ever says the words “I love you,” and even more scarcely touches my father lovingly. Instead, she brings home a box of one of his favorite snacks on a bad day, puts away food and wipes down the counters in the kitchen after dinner so that he does not have to, or offers him a variety of well-intended (if not always well-timed) advice on how to expedite a task at hand—and, of course, makes hot water and bowls of cut fruit on particularly stressful nights. It was how her parents loved her, she explained one day when I asked, citing my grandmother’s style of expressing love in particular. In time, the more I experienced this love language of hers, the more I saw her acts of service as akin to gifts—which hold their own significance in the scheme of culture and love languages.
While notably present in both explicit and implicit cultures, gift giving holds an especially strong role in the romantic communication of implicit cultures. Out of the love languages, gift giving does not exclusively belong to either implicit or explicit cultural romantic communication; rather, it has a well-developed and firmly established part in both, but with some key differences; namely, in certain implicit cultures, it is the socially accepted currency of affection on significant occasions.
Japan, an implicit culture, has a rich romantic gift-giving tradition unique to its culture. Dr. Yuko Minowa, a Professor of Marketing at Rutgers University, has researched the Japanese gift-giving tradition. Among the Japanese women analyzed in her research, romantic gift giving was a common occurrence with two trends: practical gifts according to personal tastes, and handmade knitwear. Japanese women chose practical gifts that caught their eye (most commonly clothing) to give to their male partners, a trend shared with their American counterparts, Minowa observed. Unlike women in America, however, Japanese women laid a special emphasis on hand-knitting clothes for their partners. Many women cited their own gratification from the knitting process as the most memorable part of the gift-giving process. The study found that these hand-knit gifts were received especially well in comparison to other gifts by Japanese men, who, on the whole, tended to cite such gifts as the most memorable or meaningful types of gifts to receive.
When Japanese men gave gifts to express love, it was often either as a strategic means of reconciliation after a quarrel or as an assurance of their relationship, both to the man and the woman. The Japanese men surveyed prioritized the element of surprise when giving gifts: one considered giving an unexpected gift to be “more exciting and interesting.” Although romantic gift giving was not absent among Japanese men, it was noted by Yuko’s team that male partners felt uncomfortable shopping for women’s gifts, a reaction attributed to “the value system and distinctive gender roles reminiscent of feudal Japan,” wherein “it is not considered as an ideal masculine behavior to please a woman with material goods.” However, the cultural context appeared only to enhance the experience of receiving a gift from a male partner: Japanese women appreciated the “quiet, subtle thoughtfulness” indicated by male gift giving and the fact that effort was made for the sake of their pleasure (Yuko et al). It is here, in my opinion, where the heavy influence of culture on romantic communication is seen most clearly: cultural context, communication patterns, and gender norms intersect in a communication of affection unique to and uniquely understood by the members of the culture.
Some might read up to this point and think, “certainly culture cannot be the only factor in dictating romantic communication.” They’re right: it’s not. The other side of my interview with Teina and Austin comes in Austin’s story. After giving a brief explanation of the love languages and asking if the love languages Austin grew up experiencing made sense in the context of the cultural heritage he was raised in, he replied that he was not sure. Austin’s upbringing was estranged from any distinct sense of culture because whichever generation of relatives had immigrated over were dead by the time he was born, or otherwise equally as estranged from the family. Rather than a childhood immersed in culture, Austin remembers being “raised under the influence of how my parents were raised—or at least my mom.” When asked to clarify, he elaborated, stating:
My dad was a salesman, so I just remember him being around on holidays, and communicating more through acts of service. Doing things for me and my siblings, bringing me places I needed or wanted to go, so on. Later on, he tried to get involved in all the things I was doing—maybe that’s quality time? I’m not sure. My mom, on the other hand, always showed love to us through words of affirmation, because she felt like she didn’t get enough of that from her parents, and gifts, because she wanted us to have all the things she didn’t have growing up. None of that was really what I wanted from her, though. I guess I reacted to my upbringing like she reacted to hers. I just wanted quality time with people. I still do now, and I kind of communicate more through acts of service with Teina today. Kind of like how my dad did. (A. Lochan-Dodd)
Austin’s story brings to light another weighty variable in people’s learned communication habits, especially when it comes to love: how they were parented. While culture is still a major component of this factor as well, it does not cover it in its entirety, and we would do well to acknowledge it when understanding the way people in our lives communicate love. Whereas acts of service tend to be a feature of everyday affectionate communication within implicit cultures, in the context of Austin’s upbringing (not within an implicit culture), these acts were his father’s way of trying to show up for his son despite his occupation demanding the majority of his time. Though it ran counter to the precedents set by the explicit cultural influences he was raised with, it was this aspect of the way Austin was parented that he learned to implement in his relationship with his wife, “showing up” for her in their everyday lives through acts of service—an implicit love language. Similarly, he learned to prefer the implicit language of quality time when receiving affection from his own loved ones. Austin’s story demonstrates the influence that parents’ styles of affectionate communication in particular have an impact on the ways their children communicate love in relationships.
Learning about cultures and love languages individually takes little more than comprehension; for the most part, anyone can do it. Practically applying that knowledge, however, takes personal effort and the ability and willingness to see beyond yourself—and that is where its significance lies. Culture provides the context in which we can best understand the people around us, and learning their love languages informs us of the ways they reach out to us and how we can most meaningfully reciprocate. When we take the initiative to understand those we love on these two levels, communication can flow uninhibitedly, because each side has a deep understanding of who the other is, why they communicate in certain ways, and what they mean when they do. So next time your brother drops a hand on your head in passing, or your Taiwanese friend brings you soup when you’re sick, take a minute to think about what language they are speaking to you. You might find that you already know how to speak to them in return.
Bever, Lindsey. “A kiss is not a kiss. In some cultures it’s just gross, researchers find.” The Washington Post, 27 July 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/07/27/romantic-kissing-is-not-a-s hared-practice-across-cultures-research-shows/.
Chapman, Gary. The Five Love Languages. Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 1992.
“Individualism & Collectivism.” Culture Points: Educator’s Articles, AFS-USA, www.afsusa.org/study-abroad/culture-trek/culture-points/culture-points-individualism-an d-collectivism/.
Jankowiak, William R., Shelly L. Volsche, and Justin R. Garcia. “Is the Romantic–Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?” American Anthropologist, 6 July 2015, anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/aman.12286.
Lochan-Dodd, Austin, and Teina Lochan-Dodd. Personal interview. 12 Dec. 2021.
Loh, Yi Jun. “A Bowl of Cut Fruits Is How Asian Moms Say: I Love You.” Taste, 19 Apr. 2019, tastecooking.com/bowl-cut-fruits-asian-moms-say-love/.
Minowa, Yuko, and Stephen J. Gould. “Love My Gift, Love Me Or Is It Love Me, Love My Gift: A Study of the Cultural Construction of Romantic Gift Giving Among Japanese Couples.” The Association for Consumer Research (1999): 119-24. ACR Proceedings Database, www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/7894
Shengtao-Wu, Michael, et al. ”Culture Change and Affectionate Communication in China and the United States: Evidence From Google Digitized Books 1960–2008.” Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2019): 1-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6540734/pdf/fpsyg-10-01110.pdf.
Triandis, Harry C. “Individualism-Collectivism and Personality.” Journal of Personality (May 2002).
Winter, Catherine. “Does the West have a monopoly on romantic love?” The World, PRX, 19 Feb. 2014, theworld.org/stories/2014-02-12/does-west-have-monopoly-romantic-love.
About the Author
Christiana Hubbard is a first-year student at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus. As a dual-heritage person raised in a mixed household, she is particularly attentive to cultural differences as well as how those differences translate into the ways people relate to each other. While she’s still investigating her career options, what commands her interest these days are things related to interpersonal connection and human behavior.