I love saying “I love you.” I’ll say “love ya” to my parents when I’m about to get off the phone with them, and “love you!!” to my wife as she’s heading out the door for work (“love you???” on Gchat means I’ve gotten myself into trouble with her and I’m searching for a way out). I tell my son I love him, and he doesn’t even get it—he’s an infant. I’ve been known to proclaim that I love sushi and football and Benjamin Franklin (I mean, how could you not love Ben?).
Many people in this world would find my behavior rather strange. That’s because Americans are exceptionally promiscuous when it comes to professing their love. In the United States, “I love you” is at once exalted and devalued. It can mean everything ... or nothing at all. This is not universally the case.
The disconnect was on display during a recent season of The Bachelor, when the host, Chris Harrison, was dumbfounded by the refusal of the reality show’s star, Juan Pablo Galavis, to say “I love you” to Nikki, a woman he had just plucked from a pool of female contestants after a surreal, months-long, on-camera courtship. This was nothing less than Bachelor blasphemy. Galavis, who is Venezuelan-American, later explained that there are numerous ways in Spanish to express your deep affection for a romantic partner—phrases like te quiero (“I like you”) and te adoro (“I adore you”). “I’ve learned that ‘love’ is used a lot in the States for everything: ‘I love that burger, I love my shoes, I love a friend,’” he said. “To me, if it’s overused, it loses meaning.” (For the record: I’m not trying to make excuses for Juan Pablo. There’s a compelling case to be made that his feelings for Nikki never even approached te quiero levels.)
In China, younger people are beginning to use wo ai ni (“I love you”)—something largely unheard of among older generations. “We said, Wo xihuan ni (‘I like you’),” the psychology professor Kaiping Peng told the journalist Roseann Lake, recalling his dating days during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Until recently, “you just showed love through holding hands, kissing, or maybe writing or doing something nice—but you never said it.”
Here’s how distinct America’s situation is: In 2014, four Chinese researchers devoted a study to how the use of “I love you” had become a “daily phenomenon” in the States—directed even at pets and Facebook friends, and deployed for purposes ranging from apologizing to ending phone calls. Their goal was to help teachers in other countries explain the phrase to perplexed students learning English as a foreign language. “In our own experience, as teachers of English in China, we often try to avoid the explanation and practice of the locution I love you even though it appears in the textbook we are teaching,” they wrote. “We do not want to embarrass ourselves or our students.”
Some of the most insightful research on this topic has been conducted by Elisabeth Gareis and Richard Wilkins, both professors of communication at Baruch College. In a 2006 study based on an online survey of American and international students in the United States, Gareis and Wilkins found that relative to American students, international students reported less frequent declarations of “I love you” between romantic partners and from parents to children. Most respondents whose native language was not English said they used the English words ‘‘I love you’’ more often than the equivalent expression in their native language.
Gareis and Wilkins invited respondents to elaborate on how they thought about the phrase. Here’s what one Chinese-American woman wrote:
Every time when I go back home, my father always go to kitchen and asks me what I want to eat. He doesn’t say anything but make food for me quietly. It is very touching every time when I see my father does it. Love doesn’t have to be express verbally. …
In China, men are always the heads of the families. The women were taught to obey their father, husband and son. Therefore, men are very dominating. In order to show men’s power, they don’t say ‘‘I love you’’ easily because it is considered emotional when they say it.
A Syrian-American man:
‘‘I love you’’ is a more serious and committing term in other cultures. Middle eastern girls I know who hear that from a guy automatically think marriage.
A Polish woman:
I know that if I would tell my parents straightforward that I love them they would not feel comfortable, same thing with my sister. We [Polish people] know we love each other but we don’t say it straight to somebody’s face if it is not our husband or wife. …
I tell my son every day that I love him and he tells me the same thing. He was born here [in the United States] and I think it is easier for him and for me to use English ‘‘I love you’’ than if I would have to tell him in Polish. I don’t know how to explain this. I do mean real love when I tell him this, but it sounds different if I think about it in Polish. Maybe the way I was brought up has an influence.
A Colombian-American man (contradicting Juan Pablo, I should add):
It’s something that Latin people don’t really hold back on verbally. The word [“love"] is sometimes thrown around like a love struck teenager.
A Hungarian woman from Romania:
[Saying “I love you”] shows the weakness of the person who couldn’t control herself/himself and had to burst out. …
My partner is American who feels the urge of declaring his love to me verbally and nonverbally way too often. And he is hurt by my reaction or lack of response. It took me four years, but I learned that it is important to him, so I let him say it, and I say it back, surprisingly easily. English is not my first, second or third language, saying ‘‘I love you’’ means nothing to me. I wouldn’t dare say it in Hungarian to anyone. …
I must say things are changing lately. For 30 years I only heard on TV anybody saying ‘‘I love you.’’ … Since I’ve been studying in the US, my father started to write me text messages on my cell phone ending in ‘‘I love you.’’ My Mom expresses the same in the end of her e-mails. It’s a huge step in my family and for my culture. They still don’t say it to my sister, who lives in the same city [abroad].
So what explains all this variation? The Chinese researchers who studied the ubiquity of “I love you” in American English cited the anthropologist Edward Hall’s theory of “low-context” and “high-context” cultures, where the style of communication reflects a low or high level of common experiences. If the level of shared cultural context is high, much can be left implicit or unsaid. To generalize: A relatively young, individualistic, demographically diverse country like the United States is low-context; an older, collectivist, more demographically homogeneous country like China is high-context.
“Chinese values hold that direct and open verbal declaration”—like saying “I love you”—“is considered shallow and frivolous,” the researchers wrote. “Conversely, an indirect style of communication is considered civilized and sophisticated since actions speak louder than words.”
But this explanation only goes so far. In a 2010 study, Gareis and Wilkins discovered that “I love you” was used more frequently in U.S. relationships than in German ones, even though German culture has been categorized as lower-context. They attributed the difference in part to the fact that in English there is one all-purpose word for love, while in German there are different expressions—“I hold you dearly,” for instance—for different sorts of love (and the literal German equivalent of “I love you,” Ich liebe dich, is perceived by many Germans as either excessively formal or indicative of a serious romantic commitment).
Gareis and Wilkins also point out that widespread declarations of love in the United States, and the emotional openness associated with them, have actually developed only recently, perhaps stemming from the lovefest of the 1960s and the feminist and men’s-liberation movements in the second half of the 20th century. And they’ve spread to other parts of the world, and particularly to younger generations in other countries, through American pop culture and new technology.
“There seems to be an inflationary process within and beyond the United States, especially with respect to the use of the English locution ‘I love you,’” they wrote in 2006. “Reasons provided by the respondents include a movement toward greater openness concerning the expression of feelings, parenting advice to express love more consciously, the ease of sending love declarations via new technology (e.g., text messaging), and—for the increase of verbal love expression beyond the United States—the worldwide influence of US popular culture (through movies, TV, pop music, etc.).”
Gareis and Wilkins offer a great example of these trends: In 2003, McDonald’s launched its “I’m lovin’ it” marketing campaign in Germany, translating its slogan literally as Ich liebe es. Guardians of the German language were not pleased. “An American is relatively quick in expressing love for profane things and therefore is able to give his/her heart to fast food. The German translation ‘Ich liebe es,’ however, is just too strong to be squeezed into a styrofoam box together with a fatty burger,” one journalist argued.
But is it really not OK to love a Big Mac? Is there really a “right” way to express love? What strikes me about all these differences is not the merits of each approach, but rather the splendid variation, which enrich the definition of love itself. Several years ago, in an article for The New York Times, Jennifer Percy recalled how her German-speaking boyfriend tried to explain the phrase ich habe mich gerade wieder in dich verliebt (“I just fell in love with you again”), and why she shouldn’t be insulted when he said it to her—why she shouldn’t be distressed by the suggestion that his love flickered in and out. The expression “actually means a moment when you realize again why you are in love with someone,” Percy wrote. It’s a feeling many of us have experienced, but one that “I love you” doesn’t quite convey.