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Summary of “Emotions Have Many Faces: Inuit Lessons.” by Jean L. Briggs

“Emotions Have Many Faces: Inuit Lessons.” by Jean L. Briggs is a personal account of an anthropologist visiting the Arctic to live amongst the Inuit in a remote camp, trying to explore what is different about their culture. Briggs was taken into an Inuit family and quickly learned how distinct their way of life is. Through detailing her experiences living with the family, more specifically trying to make sense of how she became ostracized due to her instinctive behavior, Briggs uncovered the intricacies of Inuit social life in her attempt to become a better member of the Inuit community. Some time into staying at the camp, Briggs felt off, attributing it to homesickness, however Briggs later found out that the feeling was caused by the Inuit people ostracizing her for her inability to adapt to established Inuit social behaviors. Briggs acted in such a way that was seen as unsuitable for the Inuit community; her way of reacting to situations and interacting with the community in general revealed her unawareness of the deeper emotional meanings that Inuit people ascribe to their actions. After discovering the fact that there are crucial differences in how the Inuit people communicate their emotions, Briggs started to look deeper into how meanings of certain words are construed in the Inuktitut language. Through studying conceptual differences between the Inuktitut language and English, Briggs came to the conclusion that there is no universal set of emotion concepts. She describes how the Inuit way of life brings about the creation of words that contain multiple English concepts, as well as creating separate words for a single English concept. For instance, the English concept of “love” is divided into a couple distinct words to express either a positive or a negative connotation of the feeling. The conceptual differences in language are meant to create a hyper awareness of other people’s intentions and emotions behind their words. Briggs mentioned the living conditions of the Inuit and how the remote nature of the camp makes the community highly interdependent, and creates the need for understanding these subtle linguistic cues in order to avoid conflict. The importance of proper communication for the Inuit is seen in the way the Inuit children are taught these concepts from a young age. The children are oftentimes asked difficult questions that force them to think and make decisions based on how the words they hear make them feel. Over time the children start forming associations between feelings and certain words and the scenarios that they were encountered with. The formed connections lead children to develop a deeper understanding of the importance of selecting the proper words to express complex emotions. Through her research Briggs reveals the constructive nature of emotional expression in language; her work is meant to argue against the Western notion of attributing emotions to a negative connotation by showcasing the importance of this expression to the Inuit social life as it helps them communicate subtle unspoken meanings. 

Briggs, JL. (2000). “Emotions Have Many Faces: Inuit Lessons.”Anthropologica 42(2): 157-164.