If you’re ever heard of the “Five Love Languages” concept, you probably know about its popularity and worldwide reach. The love languages books have been translated into 50 languages around the world, but are they all applicable to other cultures?
Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Gifts and Acts of Service are the five ways that identified by the author Gary Chapman. The idea is that different people have different pathways in which they receive and give love. Meeting the needs of those in your life according to their way of receiving love is the main thrust of the concept.
For the most part, I think these five “languages” cover a broad spectrum of human need in relationships, but they aren’t entirely translatable cross cultures.
First example, in some Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, directly giving words of affirmation is very awkward and not well received. Praising that person to a third party else is more highly valued when they hear about what you said about them through the grapevine.
Secondly, public physical affection between spouses or romantic partners is also taboo. Holding hands walking down the street is scandalous. Even physical touch (hugs) between brothers and sisters are not common. These are two love languages which are dominant in the West, but much less prevalent in non-Western cultures.
I’d like to add a couple more “love languages” which I see as being central and unique to non-Western cultures.
I believe this one has the weight to stand on its own. If you’ve ever had relationships with folks from a non-Western culture, you understand how important food is. Food is a shared experience. Sitting to eat together is a bonding experience in every culture, but the fast food mentality of the West has degraded its depth. In cultures like India, the time and effort put into cooking a meal for another person communicates depths of love, duty and respect for the person. Not offering to serve someone drink or food is a direct insult. The acts of serving food and sharing food are mediums of building and maintaining strong relationships.
Respecting the family of one’s significant other, particularly in honor/shame cultures, is an overlooked approach to showing love to one’s spouse in the “Love Languages.” For example, making an effort to get along with a spouse’s family and understanding the interconnectedness of family relationships is an important part of many non-Westerners lives.
In many cultures, the joint family system is hinged on the importance of a new spouse getting along with all the other family members. If the daughter-in-law and mother-in law don’t get along, the husband/wife relationship is in trouble. Likewise, this can be said for building love in non-romantic relationships. A wife showing respect for her husband can build love between her and her mother-in-law. A father teaching a child to respect and honor his grandparents shows love to his parents on a different dimension.
Showing love to one’s spouse who lives in a communal society looks very different from the Western approach. Saying to your spouse “I love you because you are smart” may not have an affect. But showing love by cooking for a spouse’s parents speaks much louder to non-Western minds.
The Love Languages are a great concept and have undoubtedly helped millions of folks from non-Western countries improve their relationships, but pointing out the nature of indirect communication and the importance of family networks is crucial to making it a truly global concept.