How farm families show affection and other emotions has changed over the generations, and for the better. 

Most Northern European and Asian immigrants who came to America to farm during the past couple centuries were reluctant to display their feelings openly, except perhaps at weddings and funerals.  Southern Europeans, chiefly Italian and Spanish immigrants, and African immigrants–mostly slaves, had fewer cultural restrictions about showing feelings.

My parents’ generation cautiously began the alteration in showing affection; my generation and that of our children, continued the shift.  I saw my father only once in my lifetime put his arm around Mom, when they visited me during my senior year of college, at the University of Colorado in Boulder. 

I had made a reservation for Sunday brunch after church in late September 1967 at a Ward, Colorado eatery.  While I was driving to this almost 10,000 foot elevation, I saw Dad put his arm around Mom in the back seat where he chose to sit, instead of either parent sitting with me in the front seat of the car.

My parents were both third generation German Americans.  They resembled the characters described wonderfully by Mildred Armstrong Kalish in her 2007 book, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits during the Great Depression.  They came from the same era.

“You could touch, hug, pat, or even kiss kittens, puppies, a favorite calf or horse, but you just didn’t do it to people,” wrote Kalish.  “If you achieved some prize in school like winning a spelling bee…or top honors in your class, you would be rewarded, along with some approving comments, with the old hearty handshake.”

My wife’s parents were less restrained in displaying their feelings.  They were second generation Japanese Americans who also experienced the Great Depression.

A family legend is that Marilyn’s Dad pinched his wife on her behind when he thought no one was looking during a photography session a few years after Marilyn and I married, which explains her surprised expression. 

Marilyn’s father was a farmer for a number of years until persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were impounded in relocation camps when WWII broke out.  He and I developed a deep respect for each other, but he never showed me his affection in a physical way, though he hugged Marilyn from time to time.

Work was everything, and it needed to be, for most farm people during the generations before me.  Labor on farms was hard until machines gradually took over some of the most arduous chores like setting fence posts, hoeing, and milking dairy animals twice daily.

Displays of emotion and affection were generally unacceptable.  Most people of northern European stock bashfully approached moments when exhibition of relational bonds was required, such as when a newly wedded couple had to kiss at their dinner reception as the guests banged their drinking glasses with eating utensils.  

Expressions of exuberance were frowned upon.  Strict adherence to cultural practices that offered them a sense of behaving rightly was regarded as the road to heaven. 

Farm people of both sexes now embrace with hugs, as do others in our contemporary society.  It’s okay if men bump each other on the chest, exchange “high fives” or clasp each other in a hug.

The farm men in my Depression Support Group that met monthly for several years during the previous decade gave each other heartfelt bear hugs as we said “Goodbye” at the end of an intense sharing session. 

Research confirms that expressing emotional feelings appropriately is healthy.  A 2004 summary of emotional expression and health by Drs. Iris Mauss and James Gross in a book edited by Stanford University professor Dr. Ivan Nyklicek and several others, concluded, “Studies show that emotion suppression leads to transient increases in sympathetic activation of the cardiovascular system.” 

Hiding true feelings makes people feel anxious and releases adrenalin, which keys us up and activates cortisol discharge.  While moderate cortisol release diminishes cardiovascular and neural arousal, too much cortisol can reduce our immune competency and negatively affect our DNA. 

Studies by these and other social scientists that were published during the past two years confirm the conclusion that expressing emotions openly has healing effects, but within reason.  Unbridled release of feelings can have negative consequences on those around us, which is probably a built-in, inherited warning to the observers of these displays that triggers avoidance.

Generally though, expressing a broad range of emotions from happiness to sadness and demonstrating affiliation through physical gestures builds trust in human relationships and facilitates reciprocation of social support.

The upcoming holiday season is a good time to show our emotions and affection as we interact with family and friends.  Showing our feelings can help heal wounded areas of our psychological adjustment and help others with theirs too.

It’s feels good to say “Merry Christmas” with a hug.

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.