Talking about emotional experiences

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Talking about an emotional experience is a well-known and common consequence of exposure to very intense negative emotional conditions.

As early as 1910, William James, after witnessing the San Francisco earthquake, wrote to Pierre Janet about the victims’ apparent need to talk about their experiences. At night, he noted, it was impossible to sleep in the tents which served as temporary housing for the earthquake victims, due to the continuous verbal exchanges (Janet, 1926/1975, p. 326).

This early anecdotal observation was confirmed in surveys conducted on San Francisco residents after the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Pennebaker and Harber (1993) recorded that one week after this earthquake, the average person still thought and talked about it nine times per day. Similarly, one week after the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, these authors observed that the average Dallas residents thought and talked about the war 12 times daily.

Data from numerous sources document the pervasiveness of this phenomenon.

The need to talk about their experience was mentioned by 88 percent of rescuers operating in a North Sea oil platform disaster (Ersland et al., 1989), by 88 percent of people who had recently lost a relative (Schoenberg et al., 1975), and by 86 percent of patients with a recent diagnosis of cancer (Mitchell & Glickman, 1977). In sum, there is strong evidence that exposure to a major negative emotional event elicits a need to be with others and to talk about it.

The social sharing of emotion

Research conducted by our group at the University of Louvain in the past decade revealed that a comparable behavior develops after any emotional experience.

It is not typical solely of trauma or of major negative life events. It develops after everyday emotional events of all kinds. This is what we found by investigating “the social sharing of emotion”. The social sharing of emotion is a process that takes place during the hours, days, and even weeks and months following an emotional episode.

It involves the evocation of an emotion in a socially shared language to some addressee by the person who experienced it (Rimé, 1989; Rimé et al., 1991a). Our empirical research showed that when people experience an emotion, they very generally—in 80 to 95 percent of cases—talk about it (Rimé et al., 1991a, 1991b; for reviews, see Rimé et al., 1992, 1998).

The studies revealed that this propensity is not dependent upon people’s level of education. It is evidenced whether the persons hold a university degree, or whether their education was limited to elementary school. It is also observed with approximately equal importance in cultures as diverse as Asian, North American and European ones.

The type of primary emotion felt in the episode appears not to be a critical factor with regard to the need to talk about it. Episodes which involved fear, or anger, or sadness are reported to others as often as episodes which involved happiness or love. However, emotional episodes involving shame and guilt tend to be verbalized to a somewhat lesser degree.

These observations lead us to conclude that the process of talking after emotional experiences has a very high generality. In a majority of cases, it starts very early after the emotion—usually on the day it happened. It extends over weeks or even months when the episode involved a high intensity of emotion and it is typically a repetitive phenomenon, i.e. the emotions are generally shared often or very often, and with a variety of target persons.

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