Emotions – ubiquitous and yet unfathomable

Hi – how are you feeling today?

We are often asked this question when exchanging greetings in our daily lives. But on this occasion, I would like to ask you to take a moment and answer it honestly to yourself.

How are you feeling today? Turn your gaze inwards and observe the state of your emotions. If it helps, close your eyes briefly and breathe deeply in and out a few times. What emotions are there to be detected? Do you find them easy to name?

Expressing emotions in words – or the other way around?

We have a certain number of words at our disposal for communicating our feelings. The classics are enjoyment, anger, disgust, fear, contempt, sadness and surprise. Paul Ekman calls these emotions the basic emotions. Yet can we really fully describe our feelings using these words? Cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith advocates the opinion that this conception of emotions falls very short. A much more differentiated vocabulary is required to cover the entire emotional spectrum, because language has a dual function in the context of feelings. On the one hand, it serves as a vessel for sharing our feelings, and on the other, language itself substantially influences our experience of feelings. In “The Book of Human Emotions”, Watt Smith demonstrates that emotions are not fixed reflexes in the brain, but rather are strongly characterised by society. For example, this is how she encountered emotion-related expressions unknown to us such as iktsuarpok, basorexia and oime. By contrast, there are terms for emotions that only exist in German, such as the words “fremdschämen” (being embarrassed on someone else’s behalf) and “Wanderlust” (a strong desire to travel). The world of emotions is thus more colourful and more diverse than it may seem at first sight, owing to cultural, social and contextual differences.

But what do iktsuarpok, basorexia and oime actually mean? These three emotions will be defined at the end of this article.

What are emotions for?

Evolutionary theory is one of many theories that attempts to explain the function of emotions. This theory states that emotions are necessary for survival. Every emotion has a purpose and fulfils certain basic needs. Fear, for example, has a protective function. Anger helps us to overcome obstacles and reach the desired target, whereas surprise makes us more observant. So feelings give us the necessary drive for certain behaviours.

In addition, emotions influence our perception as well as our behaviour. Mood-congruent information processing describes the phenomenon by which we more easily perceive and better process stimuli that match our current mood. If, for example, you are in a good mood, a smile from your neighbour attracts your attention more, the hairdresser conveniently has a slot free right now and missing the train really isn’t that big a deal. By contrast, if you are in a bad mood, you see everything through a negative lens.

Regulating the emotions

Imagine the following scenario: you wait in a queue for 30 minutes to buy two tickets to see your favourite band. Then someone comes from the side and pushes their way into the queue ahead of you. You feel your heart starting to beat faster, you feel yourself getting warmer and you really want to tell this person not to be so rude. Yet you only look around you indignantly instead, and say nothing. Does this sound familiar? That is not surprising, as suppressing emotions is one of the most commonly used emotion-regulating techniques. The reason is often that we think of emotions as negative or feel that they have no place in our society. Research, however, shows that suppressing emotions can damage our health by weakening the immune system. That is why people who do not permit themselves to show emotion over the long term are ill more often than people who share their feelings. In the workplace, suppressing emotions can result in lower engagement and productivity.

Based on these and other negative consequences, it is important to talk about your feelings. Regardless of whether they are positive or negative.

“How are you?” – the ABC of emotions

Even though it is important to open up and talk about feelings, many people find it hard, above all when negative feelings come into consideration. They are afraid of appearing weak or vulnerable. Negative feelings like this are much more common than you might think. One person in two will suffer from a mental illness over the course of their lives. Open, honest communication can boost mental health and so counteract a negative trend.
The “How are you?” campaign is raising awareness of this and encourages people to talk about their feelings and particularly about the pressures they are under. It is worth talking about your own mental health, because the faster you are able to open up and accept help if you need it, the simpler it is to create new strength. Then it won’t be long before you are on the mend and everything looks different. Download the new “How are you?” app (https://www.youtube.com/embed/5x39V1mX3xU) and use it to regularly check the your emotional state. You will learn about the ABC of emotions, which will help you to name your feelings.

Additionally, you will find helpful tips that you can use before, during and after a conversation:

  • Iktsuarpok: The fidgety feeling while waiting for visitors to arrive
  • Besorexia: The strong urge to kiss someone
  • Oime: Unease when one is too indebted to someone else

Want to know even more on the topic, check out the interesting TED Talk with Tiffany Watt Smith!


Cote, S. (2005) A social interaction model of the effects of emotion regulation on work strain. Academy of management review. 30, 509-530.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions. Guilford
Watt Smith, T. (2016). The Book of Human Emotions. Little, Brown and Company.

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