Last week we read a story about Marilou Amarille who was one of the first international students in Fort Frances. Our phone call was almost an hour long and despite the distance and barrier of technology, it felt like we were sitting around a kitchen table telling stories.
Perhaps it’s the undergraduate Psychology major in me, but I’ve been fixated on one particular anecdote:
Marilou said that “staring” into people’s eyes in the Philippines is considered rude, whereas in many Western cultures, steady eye contact shows a level of interest in conversation. It was something she had to adapt to, and also a common sentiment across Asian cultures that have unique ways to show respect depending on the age and status of the individual.
Although she had been a fulltime mother and fulltime student, worked long hours and in her free time drove new international students around so they wouldn’t have to walk in the cold, eye contact and the cold weather were some of her greatest challenges. To be fair she did end up in one of the coldest towns in Canada.
How can something as brief as eye contact express so much? Naturally, as a writer, I tend to focus on verbal communication. I think about words—what they mean and how they sound, and how to best position them together—but my conversation with Marilou brought me down a rabbit hole of research on non-verbal communication.
I learned that around 55 per cent of communication is actually non-verbal, which means that a majority of what I say lies within my body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.
Most of us can agree that a smile portrays friendliness, but not all non-verbal behavior is perceived the same. For example, greeting each other with a kiss compared to a bow.
Luckily, like with any “language,” it’s always possible to learn a new one. Unfortunately sometimes we learn in awkward situations.
I’m reminded of a funny moment when my best friend from school unintentionally learned our language of affection when she was greeted by my grandmother with a Vietnamese “sniff kiss.”
To do a Vietnamese kiss, you rest your closed lips on another person’s cheek, and with your nose also touching the cheek, you take a good sniff. My grandma usually stays in her wheelchair so she often gave sniff kisses on the top of one’s hand, a little like a knight to their queen, but instead of a greeting of respect it was a deep inhale of affection.
In my family, sniff kisses were often given as a greeting to grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or younger relatives, followed by joking comments that you smell bad. You can imagine why the beginning of family gatherings were the most dreaded, especially when all the children were lined up in front of grandma, forced to wait their turn.
Grandma wore pearl necklaces, silk blouses, and had an iron grip. Once she got a hold of your wrist, no amount of pulling would set you free.
When Grandma held out her hand to my friend, like she would to any of her grandchildren, my friend naturally reached out to hold it without realizing what was coming.
I wasn’t quick enough to warn her.
With a warm smile on her face, Grandma gave her multiple sniff kisses while my friend tried to tug herself free.
Imagine her surprise when I explained that my grandma was not “smelling” her hand but kissing it.
Around the world and across time, we can see many different ways that non-verbal communication, and the meaning attached, has developed. In fact, the 1897 anthropologist Paul d’Enjoy remarked that kissing lip to lip in some Asian cultures he studied was seen as a form of cannibalism.
Today we have Innuit kisses, French kisses (which was a term coined by American soldiers upon returning from World War I after picking up the technique from French nationals), or greeting kisses varying between one, two, or three kisses on the cheek depending on the European country.
And as the world around us changes, so do our non-verbal forms of greeting.
In a town council meeting last week I bumped elbows with one of the councilors, a now common way to greet each other after the pandemic. At the grocery store wearing a mask, “smizing,” or a smile with the eyes, is how we greet each other.
Marilou reminded me that as the town grows more culturally diverse, and the world around us changes, we will always continue to “adapt” and find few ways to connect with each other.
With open minds that are eager to understand and appreciate differences, we will be able to speak volumes without saying a word.