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.