Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Serbs Are So Emotional - Now, What Does That Mean?

Nearly every Serb I've ever known has at some point told me, "Serbs Are So Emotional" as though it's a statement about the entire Serbish race that would give me, a non-Serb some terrific insight into them.

The problem is, to a native English-speaker the word 'emotional' conveys an image of someone who is terribly weepy. A crybaby bursting into tears at the slightest provocation.

I've met a lot of Serbs and if I've seen one cry, I can't remember it. So, this afternoon when a girlfriend of mine described her retired military officer father as "hugely emotional", I immediately cut in. "Describe exactly what you mean by 'emotional'," I asked, "because I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean what you think it means."

"Oh it's someone who has a lot of empathy and compassion, who feels grief because they can put themselves in the shoes of other people. An emotional person is so much more involved in the people he or she loves. They are always taking care about you, worrying about you, and wanting to control your life because they are sure they know what's best for you."

I thought for a minute. I have met my friend's father many times. Only the very last part of my friend's description is anything remotely like that tough, old battleaxe. I replied hesitantly, "Empathy? That's not exactly how I'd describe him. How about 'angry'?"

She said, "Well perhaps a better description of emotion is to be very sentimental - not crying in a sad way always, but still sentimental."

Huh? I really don't think sentimental is the perfect description either. If you know a better explanation for what Serbs mean when they describe themselves as having "very strong emotion" please be my guest. Otherwise, it's a mystery to me.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am not a native speaker. For me, an emotional person is a person whose actions are driven by emotions (be they positive or negative) rather then by reason. And that's what by English dictionary says. In that sense "emotional" is the right word to describe most of the people in Balkans. But if "emotional" does not convey the right meaning to a native speaker, maybe "impulsive" would be a better choice.

Anonymous said...

Rosemary,

My wife (a Serb) has been a fan of yours for a long time. I've been asked to weigh in on this issue on her behalf.

"Emotional" is such a broad description it almost covers the entire human race and every culture. More to the point, I think the people who define themselves as such are simply saying they're reactive.

Emotion covers all that we are. One might be empathetic or angry, weepy or joyful, all accurately described as "emotional". Anyone who is self-described as emotional is simply giving themselves permission to be overly reactive.

This is, of course, just my opinion and I am in no way a psychologist or mental health professional.

Sinisa said...

Good post. Many Serbs will use that word, that's correct. I think "emotional" in Serbian actually means that they are too often ruled by emotions rather than reason.

I also believe that it is somehow derived from the long history of oppression - being both the oppressed and the oppressor /mostly the opressed./ That's why many Serbs a) are obssessed with history, b) cherish a specific cult of suffering (if I have to suffer at least I am going to make it a value - thus the emotions. c) don't believe much in authorities and the government because it has been so many times imposed on them. As a consequence, they tend to rely more on chance and their own instincts than on society regulations and organization. Some would also say that they are "emotional".

FInally, many people refer to so called "Slavic soul" in Dostoyevsky vein. Westerners don't like Dostoyevsky because he is so utterly unpractical, soul torturing, and complicated. :) Again, "we" are emotional, "you" are not.

I am possibly wrong about my notion of "Serbian emotionalism" but that's the best I can do. Regards, keep writing!

Anonymous said...

Hm... 'aggressively sentimental'? :D

Azza said...

Long time reader, first time poster.

I think what the other commentators have said is true, 'emotional' for a Serb is being emotional engaging or invested, ALL THE TIME. I'm not sure if it has to do with the history, as Sinisa points out, but I've come across alot of 'Western Serbs' and again, they're very intensely emotional people.

Rosemary Bailey Brown said...

My own husband has now chimed in to tell me that Serbish emotion is the weight, sincerity and intensity put behind their words when they are talking and looking you straight in the eye.

While I understand what that means, I'm somehow yet further confused. I guess it's the culture gap!

Anonymous said...

It's the Slavic soul - complicated, intense, melancholic, and difficult for rationalist Westerners to decipher ;)

Anonymous said...

Rosemary, I've noticed you say "Serbish" a lot. Is it intentionally for entertainment purposes as in Serbian-English fusion? I don't want to come accross as a stickler who doesn't get the joke but, the word is Serbian.

Rosemary Bailey Brown said...

Great catch - I never realized consciously that I sometimes use the word "Serbish" when I mean "Serbian". It's almost certainly something I picked up from my husband who just learned English a few years back. I probably assumed it must be correct because he the Serb uses it occasionally; and he probably assumed it must be correct because I the Amerikanka didn't correct him ;-)

ieishah said...

i'm going to say, 'soulful'. like that's going to help. love your blog, by the way.

Mario said...

I lived in Serbia for formative 19 years graduating electronics at Belgrade University. I consider them irational due to lack of education and world knowledge. It is so much easier to use old myths. Beware of the difference of cool Lala and Dinara exploding types. However, I like them - just celebrated double holidays in Jagodina!

Imogen Moore said...

Having once been called an 'automaton' by a Serb, I can say I've puzzled over this question too.

We know that parents will rush into a burning building to save their child, even if the chances of success are slim. This makes sense in Serbia, because 'success' is defined through the effort, not the result. And the heart does not have a language to explain itself with, while the mind does.

Maybe that's the difference. Some things can be explained using words and everything else is Serbian.

Mira said...

My Serbian friend has said that he usually will root for the underdog in a sports match, for instance. This seems a more emotional rather than rational choice. He also commented that this is a typical choice that many Serbs might make.

Anonymous said...

I am serbian and yes, I too am very emotional. I cry for the smallest things but on the other side I am tough and almost heartless. I feel i am way too strict with my children at times and there are times I let them slide. No middle area. I am frustated by it often, I feel like a wreck...no cosistency whatsoever. I will cry around if I see somebody mistreat a kid but then yell around with my own for the smallest things. I'm rambling I know...but I feel emotios have brought me many 'eye rollers' by others, making me seem very unstable.

Anonymous said...

Hello,
I'm a Serbian from Canada and it's interesting to read what people form other cultures think about us.

You're right to say "emotional" doesn't mean the same thing in Serbian and English.

Being "emotional" means indulging in all the human emotions to the fullest. When you're angry, you're angry to a considerable extreme, when you are sad you despair utterly, when you're happy you're happy to the point where tears stream down your face, and when you see someone you love you tend to choke them to death in a warmhearted bear-hug...

But at the same time, being compassionate/empathetic is absolutely crucial. Serbian society is "collectivistic", while Western is individualistic, and experiencing someone's suffering as your own can and should also cause the "emotional" roller-coaster...

Third, you have the Orthodox Church, the philosophy of which is a philosophy of suffering, and this got transferred into the culture too I believe (the "Slavic soul"-as mentioned before).

Don't be worried about your friend's father. The anger/yelling is extreme but dissipates quickly almost to be completely forgotten. Same goes with everything else.

You've probably seen the Serbian behavior when listening to music that "touches the heart". Hands up, eyes closed in a semi-crying mode, mouth open and a body posture of someone who just experienced the most intense moment of ecstasy/pain/joy...

Key is to learn how to live with these things. Serbs often dislike being "reserved" because it "doesn't seem sincere" or human.

Hope this helps. :)

Anonymous said...

I would say they are explosive and unstable emotionally that go wherever is more beneficial to their needs and all due to their past history of wars, may be..I had bad experience with serbs, gave me good impression initially but ended up always exploding in rage and going afterwards where the power was, no feelings.