Culture plays a big role in what we feel, how we identify these feelings and what we do to deal with our emotions. So, those raised in more “macho” cultures may be more likely to suppress emotions like sadness or fear.
Cultural products are often useful in explaining human behaviour within a cultural context. These “products” include stories, proverbs, novels and images.
They contain valuable cultural information that symbolises a specific society’s uniqueness and can help us to understand issues around emotions.
Most of what we understand about the interplay of culture and emotion regulation has focused on the Western world, the East, and differences between the two. In contrast, the way emotions are felt, dealt with and expressed in African settings is largely understudied.
We set out to understand at least one African context better by studying Akan proverbs. The Akan are a West African ethnolinguistic group found in Cote D'Ivoire and Ghana. In Ghana they make up at least half of the nation’s population.
Proverbs are generally regarded as cultural archives of folk wisdom and are used widely in African settings. By analysing what the proverbs talked about, we were able to map out the rules that the collection of proverbs lay out about emotion.
This is a useful study because it gives us an idea about Akan people’s expectations for how to comport themselves emotionally in everyday life.
Tackling negative emotions
We analysed 7015 Akan proverbs compiled in a book by authors Peggy Appiah, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Ivor Agyeman-Duah. Of these, 286 proverbs referred to emotions in some way and so were analysed further.
This deeper analysis focused on the type of emotion being described, and what the proverb told us about cultural expectations around emotions.
More than half of the selected 286 proverbs centred on negative emotions. These included hurt, pain and suffering – for example, “Obaakofoo di due-ne-amane-hunu” (a solitary person deserves condolences); fear; anger – for instance, “Abofuo de asententen na enam” (anger makes people talk too much); and hatred.
Some proverbs were descriptive:
Abofuo te se ohohoo, ontena baakofoo fie (anger is like a stranger, it does not stay in only one person’s house).
Others were prescriptive:
Opanin su a, osu ne tirim (a senior man does not give way to grief in public).
We found that 176 of the proverbs addressed some aspect of emotion regulation. For example, 13% of the proverbs suggested situation selection – that is, approaching or avoiding particular people, places, or things directly or indirectly. Others recommended modulating one’s response to any strong emotion.
Negative emotions such as anger and sadness were prominent in this category. Elders were not expected to grieve in public, for instance. Success should be acknowledged – but not to the extreme because that would lead to pride, which is a cultural no-no. People are expected to avoid behaviour that would bring shame on themselves, and by extension their kin.
Managing one’s emotions
The proverbs also suggested that, in Akan culture, people are expected to take individual responsibility for their own emotional experiences. One example of this expectation is found in the proverb, “Onipa ho anto no a, na efiri ono ara” (We are often the cause of our own discontent).
And it’s clear from our analysis that Akan people are expected to manage any behaviour that affects others’ emotions. Sociable behaviour is encouraged, too – with a suggestion that it will benefit an individual in the long run (for instance, one proverb urges “Kae wo bofoo wow o mmeranteberem ansa na nnabone aba” – always be grateful to your benefactor and he will continue to help you).
Our study joins several others that have explored emotions in proverbs across the world. Our hope is that others will be inspired to use African cultural products to conduct emotion research in other African settings.
Authors’ note: This article was co-authored with and Jane J. Kyei, Maxwell Twum-Asante, and graduate student Daniel Ahorsu .