Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cultural Exploration 45: Non-Verbal Communication

“Hey, I’ve got a million tala idea,” Cale once said to me while we were walking down Beach Road. “Someone should make a car horn that goes mwwwwwiiiii.” Excuse the onomatopoeia. He made a long, drawn out kissing sound, which in Samoa means, “Hey! Look over here!” It’s just one of many non-verbal cues infused in Samoan culture.

The most prominent of these cues has got to be the eyebrows. Much like a nodding your head in the west, raising your eyebrows a couple times quickly in Samoa means “Yes”. The more still you can keep your face while your eyebrows wiggle, the better. My dad’s side of the family has a history of strong eyebrow muscles, and my sister and I both inherited the trait. The affirmative eyebrow wiggle came pretty naturally to me right off the bat.

Slightly more difficult—not for me—is the negative response: one eyebrow wiggles while the other stays still. I normally introduce visitors to the eyebrow wiggle in the taxi/shuttle on the way into Apia from the airport. When I told Luisa about the one-eyebrow negative, she shook her head in disbelief. “People do not do that.” Yes they do.

The double eyebrow wiggle is also a greeting. When you pass a stranger in the street, you can greet him with a “Fa,” or you can simply raise your eyebrows. This one’s dangerous though. Sure, it’s cool here, and it’s so common, I do it all the time. But walking down the streets of Sydney in January, it happened several times where I’d pass a woman on the street and raise my eyebrows to greet her. In the west, raising your eyebrows at a woman has a certain connotation, and the couple times I didn’t catch myself I ended up feeling like a total sleaze.

At least by American standards, Samoans beckon upside down. When I want my friend to come nearer to me, I put my palm face-up and bend my fingers back toward me. In Samoa this gesture is done with palm face-down, which not only doesn’t look like the American “come here,” but looks a lot like the American “go farther away”. The first several times my host mother gave me the “come closer” gesture, I waved and walked away. Oops.

Perhaps the most common form of Samoan non-verbal communication is the most literal. When on the bus or waiting in the queue to get on the ferry, I’ve often seen two Samoans, separated by a distance greater than 5 meters, have an entire conversation in which they only mouth the words. It’s difficult what it feels like to see two people communicate in complete silence; I suppose it’s like watching 2 mimes catch up on old times.

Tomorrow’s Cultural Exploration: Student Life

I hope you’re well. Pictures below.



Come hither.


jane reinking said...

Very interesting article Matt. Thanks

Anonymous said...

You have got to watch the Laughing Samoans. They mimick the Samoan body language exactly like you've described! Great read!

Anonymous said...

We created the silent code before Morse did.

Unknown said...

Hi Matt,

Would it be okay if I used your eyebrows photo on a presentation about cross cultural communication. It is for a class with students from Monash University, Melbourne.

Can I also add that I loved reading your blog before I volunteered in Samoa for a year.



Matthew said...

Hi Lisa.

Yes, go ahead and use it. Glad you enjoy the blog :-)