Arts and Culture

Decoding our emotions in a highly coded world

The first step in allowing technology to understand us, is to first understand ourselves Image: Flickr/Fotologic

Rana El Kaliouby
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Affectiva
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Behavioural Sciences

Being placed in lockdown for weeks at a time is undoubtedly an emotional experience. While many are rediscovering the comforting nature of books, there is still a lot to be learned about how and why certain emotions manifest. Read an extract from computer scientist and entrepreneur Rana El Kaliouby's 'A Girl Decoded' to learn more:

Emotion is universal. We are born in different countries, practice different religions or no religion at all, and live very different lives, but our emotions unite us. People of every background and zip code draw upon the same emotional palette: joy, fear, anger, disgust, love, hate. Nevertheless, there are significant cultural, ethnic, and even gender differences in how we reveal our emotional states to others.

In some cultures, you are criticized for being too emotive, or for exhibiting the wrong emotions in front of the wrong people. For example, based on my company’s research, in China and India, where group goals supersede those of the individual, people are likely to dampen or mask their emotions in the presence of strangers, especially negative emotions such as anger and contempt. Those emotions are considered self- indulgent. Women around the world smile more often than men— we are socialized to please— but younger women smile a lot more than older women. The exception to the rule is Great Britain, where men and women smile about the same amount.

Cover art of 'Girl Decoded' by Rana El Kaliouby
Cover art of 'Girl Decoded' by Rana El Kaliouby

Egyptians are one of the most expressive, emotive people in the world. In a way, my education in the science of emotions began on my family’s annual visits to Cairo for summer vacation, sitting around my grandmother’s dining-room table, surrounded by my parents and sisters and two dozen or so aunts, uncles, and cousins. I watched with fascination as members of my big and warm extended family talked (all at the same time), gestured with their hands, laughed out loud without restraint, interrupted one another, and engaged in lively, spirited conversation and debate, amid heaping plates of food.

Looking back, I see that it was at my grandmother’s that I began to notice the cultural differences in how emotion is expressed, a fact that I took into account only later, when I was designing software that would have to read and interpret our emotion cues accurately, whether it was observing someone who was Eastern or Western, male or female, young or old, emotive or reserved.

My grandparents lived in a 1950s development of several dozen vanilla-colored, oblong low-rise concrete structures. Each floor had a terrace with horizontal metal railings. Their house was originally built with two floors, like most of the other homes in the neighborhood, but my grandparents eventually “popped the top” and added three additional stories, creating a flat for each of their grown children. The backyard is a lush garden— it was my grandmother’s pride and joy— a fresh, green oasis among the sand and dust of a country that is 90 percent desert, offering relief from the sizzling hot summer temperatures that often top 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

My grandmother Dodo grew flower palm trees for precious shade, grapevines for their delectable grape leaves, guava plants for the medicinal value of their leaves (an old-time remedy for digestive problems), and the beloved mango trees for their luscious fruit. There are at least ten different varieties of mangos in Egypt, each with its own unique properties, all succulent and bursting with flavor (unlike the yellow, hard, odorless mangos sold in the States). My favorite is the Ewesi mango, sweet and fragrant, reddish on the outside, soft and golden on the inside. Our summer vacations coincided with peak mango season, when the Ewesis were literally dropping off the trees in my grandmother’s garden.

The minute we landed in Cairo, we’d drive directly to Dodo’s villa, where we’d make a beeline to the back-door stairs leading to the kitchen. Dodo would be sitting at a table in the middle of the kitchen in her turban— my grandmother covered her head even indoors, for modesty— slicing, dicing, stuffing, and giving detailed instructions to the two maids helping with the cooking for our family’s annual reunion. Her kind face would light up with a big smile when we hugged her.

Excerpted from GIRL DECODED copyright © 2020 by Rana el Kaliouby. Used by permission of Currency, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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