scrutible Asians - When you can’t understand what people are saying, you pay close attention to their expressions. In the States, my day job was as a hypnotist, and part of that work is reading people’s faces.
When a person is in trance, they’re usually not very communicative. But you have to know with precision whether they’re following your instructions — whether they’re visualizing what you’re telling them to visualize, and whether they’re having the emotional response you’re aiming for.
So I can read people pretty well. But I was expecting I’d have to re-learn how to read Asians.
It’s not like that. In fact, I’m finding Cambodians less guarded in how their emotions show up on their faces. And, the language of facial expressions seems to all be there, just as it is in the States.
This guy, Paul Ekman, who’s the big facial expressions guy — I’ve read his books, and I’m really not very impressed by him. He only distinguishes four emotions, and he’s sloppy about what facial expressions he categorizes as belonging to those emotions. He doesn’t distinguish anger from hate, for example.
There are only two reasons he’s famous, in my opinion. First, he has a Ph.D. And second, Americans are emotionally illiterate. Especially academics, to be honest.
In a way, what Ekman does is impressive, in that he works with photos taken in isolation — you’re not given a neutral-expression “base-line.” That’s difficult to do; it’s much easier to track the movement of one expression into another.
Ekman might be up to seven emotions by now — this being the number that most modern psychologists recognize as “universal.”
It turns out, it doesn’t work that way. Cambodians’ automatic responses to situations are wonderfully similar to Americans’ emotional expressions.
Also, their tone of voice carries the same emotional messages that similar tonality carries in America. It’s great.
When it comes to Cambodians deliberately conveying emotion, all bets are off.
kids – Kids are pretty much the same, as far as I’ve seen. They run around yelling, shrieking and laughing, and the yells, shrieks and laughs all sound the same here as they do in America. A huge Cambodian family moved into the guest-house last night — they’re gone this morning — and there were kids running around all over.
I heard some shuffling around outside, followed by a long pause. Footsteps came by. A smaller kid’s voice made a sudden roaring yelling sound. An older kid’s voice went, “Aaaah!”
So the basic lunacy you get with kids I’m willing to guess is universal.
(There’s what seems like a public school — I don’t know that Cambodia has them, but in any case it’s a big neighborhood grade school — near where I live. And what I hear when school is in is anarchy.)
filling in the gaps – When people don’t understand what you’re saying, they fill in the gaps with what seems likely from what they know of you.
This nice lady, maybe 45 or so, who’s part of the family that runs the guest house, came by while I was eating breakfast. We said hi, and I said, “It rained last night.”
She said, Oh, yes, she went to such-and-such a province. She seemed delighted I noticed she was gone.
I figured I’d break it down. “Last night…” I said. She gave me a blank look. “When it was dark…”
Oh, yes – no, she was gone for three days. She thought it was great I was showing so much interest.
What the hell, I thought, and smiled and nodded.
I think the rainy season might be coming.