Emotional Display Rules

Display rules Graphics courtesy of The AtlanticOpens in new window

The term display rules, coined by Ekman and Friesen (1975), refers to those rules that an individual has learned about managing the display of specific emotions in specific, usually public, contexts.

For instance, Ekman and Friesen suggest that in the United States, men are generally taught to conceal feelings of fear in public, whereas women are taught to conceal anger in public.

Display rules are also about the intensity of emotion that is expressed in public. For example, at the funeral of a man, we would expect the wife to cryOpens in new window more and appear aggrieved than the man’s female administrative assistant. It would be acceptable for the administrative assistant to show some griefOpens in new window, but if she carried on more than did the wife, this could raise suspicions about the nature of the relationship between the man and his administrative assistant.

Ekman and Friesen describe four reasons why people engage in this facial and bodily control that is dictated by display rules.

The first reason is to conform to one’s culture; these are cultural display rules. The preceding examples are cultural display rules, including gender-related rules.

Some research has been conducted on cultural display rules. For example, Matsumoto (1990) compared display rules in Japanese and American cultures. He found some cultural differences, for instance, Japanese rated experessions of anger toward those in a subordinate position as more appropriate than did Americans.

Matsumoto had predicted this finding because hierarchical relationships between people are intrinsic to Japanese culture, and anger expressions toward subordinates help to maintain the hierarchy, whereas Americans view people’s relationships as more egalitarian.

A second source of display rules is the idiosyncratic upbringing in one’s family. These are called personal display rules.

Families vary in the most fundamental level of display rules. For example, in some famiies, emotional expression is encouraged, whereas in other families, it is generally discouraged.

A third reason for controlling one’s emotional expressions is what Ekman and Friesen call vocational requirement.

People learn to display their emotions appropriately for their particular occupational context.

Failure to do so could be harmful to one’s job security or ability to get along with one’s work colleagues. Ekman and Friesen state that some professions (e.g., trial attorney, diplomat, salesperson, politician, doctor, nurse) may typically require more control of emotional expression than other professions.

The fourth reason is need of the moment, meaning lying to protect oneself.

A defendant guilty of murder pretends that he does not know the victim (whom he hated with a passion). A woman who has strong feelings for someone other than her spouse hides the ecstatic happiness she feels when she sees her male friend at a party that she and her husband are attending.

See also:
  1. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W.V. (1975). Unmasking the face. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Matsumoto, D. (1990). Cultural similarities and differences in display rules. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 195 – 214.