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Andrei's Universe

One man's journey from infinity to nothingness

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How to unnerve people on line

I'm standing on a long line in front of a pair of Asian women. They began carrying on a conversation in <<Insert glyph based language I sure as hell don't know>>. Normally, when on line, if you hear a conversation near you, you casually acknowledge it and may jump in or pay attention to it.. if it seems appropriate.

While the U.S. doesn't have a standard, primary language... I find the use of non-English in the US is a way for a group to cordon themselves off. It sets up an intentional wall in a manner similar to installing a fence around your yard.

While language may be foreign... tone, body language, aren't.

I found myself paying attention to the conversation I didn't understand. I was riding along with the tone. And found myself chuckling at a pause point that felt like a humourous statement.

I found the one woman unnerved that I chuckled with her friend. It was as if I'd walked through her gate. She seemed to be wondering. "Oh, crap. Does he speak my language?"

So not eavesdropping. But a very interesting sociological and psychological experiment.

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This reminds me of a story my mother told me. She was waiting for a flight, sitting next to two asian women who looked to be mother and grown daughter. At one point in the conversation, the mother said something that was clearly secret or scandalous--she changed her tone to a whisper. This entertained my mother to no end.


Did you grow up in New York, perchance?

That's actually not true

body language is not universal. I'm guessing the ladies had been there long enough to know what American body language is, but in Ukraine, people often stare openly even if they don't understand what's happening. For them it's not rude, and it doesn't even mean they understand.

I had a group of Saudis who were sitting with a stern expression and crossed arms. I thought they were all pissed. Turns out that body language in Saudi Arabia implies they are listening intently.

Your story is really funny, but I needed to chime in that body language is not universal and we often get in a world of awkward situations when we assume that to be the case.

Re: That's actually not true

True. However, they might have known American body language and thought "Well, as an American, his body language says he understands ..."

Re: That's actually not true

Jim had trouble with an arabic boss for a while, untill he figured that out! The guy would ask him some deeply personal question (like how we met, and why we stayed together- as a gay couple!)... then Jim thought he was standing there /browbeating/ him... when in fact, he was listening intently. (chuckles) Once he figured that out, things went MUCH smoother. ;) It's easy to jump to assumptions!

I pay attention too. It may be my sensitivity and that my filters suck so that I hear everything but I'm sure it's also the innate curiosity of my inner ethnographer. Even without understanding a foreign language, I also find it interesting that I can follow a conversation based on tone, inflection, facial expression and body language.

One day at a Vietnamese business, I overheard a mother talking to her mother in their native language and then asking for her child to be put on the phone who was then scolded and told to listen to his grandmother. I laughed as she confirmed in English what I had overheard. I found it funny that I was able to understand, even without speaking Vietnamese; some things are just universal.

While language may be foreign... tone, body language, aren't.

Actually...in my experience...body language can be foreign, which turns out to be one of the most unnerving parts of culture shock. Travel to Asia and see, or at least, that's where I had my series of epiphanies.

scifigal has given some good examples - the more you look, the more there are.

That being said, people from other cultures that move to the USA probably pick up and give a certain amount of locally relevant body language cues ;)

Edited at 2008-07-11 06:48 pm (UTC)

I LOVE this.

I am pretty oriented to body language and tone, so I often follow along with conversations that I don't understand the details of.

Last time gave me a chance to use one of my favorite phrases "I am an American, not deaf."

I supose I am being disrespectful of their desire to cordon themselves off, but it really brings me pleasure for some reason.

Hi P,

I'm guessing that's because when we have the emotional experience of feeling excluding, sometimes it feels like retaliation would be satsifying, or at least, that naming and verbally recognizing the act gives us some of our power back. Or so it has worked for me at times.

Maybe you're being disrespectful...but maybe that's triggered by the initial rudeness of being pointedly excluded conversationally by use of language.

I guess the bottom line is think about what you want: is it to be recognized/respected/not picked on, or is it stemming from a real desire to be included? If it's the latter, keep working on it - I think you might really get somewhere. But try to be nicer than they are ;)))

I'll chime in with others on body language not being universal. It pays to be an empath--the eyes can deceive you.

True. In some African countries, looking certain people in the eyes is very very rude. Looking down/shifting eyes is what polite people do.

I think it's safe to say that generalisations are always wrong.


(I listen to everyone, especially at bus stops/on buses. I'm creepy.)

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