Living in a new aquarium
Who needs movies when you’ve got the ultimate theater of the absurd—real life? I’m the guy who finds joy in the oddities of human behavior. A tilted smile attracts my gaze like the Pisa Tower to an architect. I gravitate towards trivial things, such as a particular way of sneezing or an unorthodox leg crossing. Each context, from a somber funeral to a wolf of Wall Street party, is an excellent excuse to dive into an ocean of nonverbal cues, specially in a new culture.
My current experience as a graduate student in California has given me a whole new pond worthy of exploring, with intriguing, funny, and disappointing behaviors. Should we explore this topic? For that, I am going to enlist a series of nonverbal highlights that caught my attention.
Nonverbal Communication in the Wild: Here’s where the fun begins. Let’s dissect Californian nonverbal rituals with obsessive-compulsive detail.
1) Cold shower of Greetings and goodbyes: It’s far more common to greet both in the morning and at the end of the day with some mid-distance greeting in the form of a social smile or hand wave than anything else. Physical touch is as rare as a snowflake in the Sahara; a half-hug is the peak of intimacy here. The nonverbal visual and vocal display during this phases, beginning or end of conversation, are usually one of high energy and optimism, in which idiosyncratic inner states are either masked or suppressed. On the surface, a highly positive oil painting draws in the face of people. As such, salutes have become highly stereotyped. People show a positive facade with these nonverbal greeting signs, with little allowance to themselves for the showing of negative messages.
2) Rehearsed Smiles: Time gives a path to diversity. There are at least 522 different primate species known, but how many smiles can humans do? That answer goes from the simple dichotomy to nineteen. I would add that more than 50 seems reasonable if we were to include not only the position of the facial muscle changes but also the dynamics of their movement. Either way, on the realm of smiles, theres a very clear heavyweight champion in the Californians face canvas. It is the one called ‘Social Smile’.
It’s a facial gymnastic that says, “I’m friendly, but not too friendly.” It’s like saying, “Hey, I’m approachable, but let’s not get carried away.”
These are three types of smiles, classified by their alledgeldy function. From left to right: a rewarding smile, an affiliating smile, and a dominant smile. The middle one is called affiliative, which is the one described in the article. Most facial muscle constriction activity of this expression happens at the lips, especially pressing the lower and lower of them together, hiding teeth and gum. At the same time, some bulges and sking bags are formed laterally on the lips corners and lower cheeks. From: Rychlowska, M., Jack, R. E., Garrod, O. G., Schyns, P. G., Martin, J. D., & Niedenthal, P. M. (2017). Functional smiles: Tools for love, sympathy, and war. Psychological science, 28(9), 1259-1270.
This smile serves a very crucial and quotidian function for our species. It’s a nonverbal signal of a wide range of utility for multiple contexts and different relationships that serves the purpose of visibly showing good predisposition and social cooperation. It’s a non-linguistic comment on the lines of “Hey, I am not a menace” or “I have good intentions; no need to worry.” As such, its role as social lubricant is quite obvious: it reduces friction and improves interaction in non-menacing ways. The other side of the social meaning is that this smile lacks a significant message: the intimate attitude of adding a desire for close bond interaction on top of the good intentions.
So, essentially, it is both an approach and an avoidance signal. While it marks that one can approach the given sender of the smile, it also establishes a limit: You can approach me, but I am not completely invested in engaging. I do believe this same smile serves slightly different pruposes crossculturaly, but across cultures it most usually means this.
3) Physical contact: Californians maintain a no-fly zone when it comes to physical contact. They rarely engage in deliberate body touches with the interlocutors. On special occasions, someone can give an elbow touch. Do not ask for more than that. I have received no more than three individual one second hand touching my arm or elbow during a conversation, one for every month, something that, as an Argentine, is like the longing for grilled meat “asado.” So, when I incorrectly tried to start myself starting those small and brief micro-touches during conversations, reactions were almost explicitly communicated with sudden, increased distance taken or retiring their extremities with rapid backpedaling.
While physical distance seems cold for me, for them, my closeness seems too hot. At which point can we find the middle room temperature? Is there a Goldilocks zone? I have doubts that such things exist. This cultural tango of physical interpersonal distance is one of which it is rarely taken care of, but its effects are like gravity: unavoidable.
"While it marks that one can approach the given sender of the smile, it also establishes a limit: You can approach me, but I am not completely invested in engaging"
We could go on talking about things like Latin higher expressiveness of the hands or the speediness with which Californians go down the curtain, closing and opening interactions at an unusually fast speed, faster than the ups and downs of human blinking. Nevertheless, I don’t want to ramble. Instead, I would like to give you a simple explanation that serves of insight for you.
In much the same way that tropical climates foster the spread and growth of plants with complex structures and vibrant development, the desert environment creates a very specialized set of conditions that limit plant populations. Both environments encourage diversity. This produces specific species of plants; culturally, this could mean unique types of greetings and variations of them in frequency and placement, which are equivalent to greetings for friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. But tropical and desertic environments (Argentina and California), cultivate diversity in nonverbal signals; the former fosters contact and closeness, while the latter cultivates distance and politeness.
This ecology parallels the diversity of nonverbal signals: each culture, whether Argentine or Californian, nurtures a unique set of values, characters, and traditions that shape the diversity and variation of behaviors. Just as in the botanical world, where an orchid vastly differs from a cactus, in human interactions, a social smile is distinctly different from an effusive reward smile.
Do you want to better understand human behavior? Studying nonverbal communication is indeed a wonderful path to follow.