Let’s face it

Living in a country where the language is not your native tongue can be challenging, but the benefits can be great. Not only do you exercise your brain, (studies show that learning a new language can delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease), but you also improve the chances of being able to communicate with your neighbours.

The other skill that improves is your ability to read faces and facial expressions. For example you are standing at the checkout at the grocery store and you answer the simple questions, such as "Wil je een tas?"(Do you need a bag?) or "Wil je een bonnetje?" (Would you like the receipt?) with a confident "Ja" or "Nee" feeling so proud of yourself. Then wham, across the counter comes a long and complex statement. First response from me is a facial expression that involves a blank stare and sometimes an open mouth, whilst I panic and think what did that mean! So, I glance at the speaker, if she’s smiling it’s safe to assume it was a salutation and I just smile back and hope that I read her correctly but if she has raised eyebrows I know it’s a question. Darn! Now what? Do I just say, "Nee" and hope she didn’t ask "Do you want the €500 we are giving away today?" or "Can you call the police, I’m being held hostage." Or do you just swallow your pride and admit that you didn’t understand, and hope that her English is better than your Dutch….it usually is!

Of course there is also the facial expressions we make, that others are reading. For example during my Dutch lessons my teacher asked me a question. Now, my brain processes at a slower speed these days and I had to search my brain and think about how to answer her. I assumed I was looking thoughtful and possibly intelligent, but apparently I looked more Homer Simpson than Homer, and this caused her to snort water down her nose! That facial expression was priceless!

The face is the window to the soul and we use that guideline constantly without ever realizing. From the Dutch word "mwah," which means neither agree or disagree, and comes along with "whatever" facial expression and a tilt of the head and a shrug of the shoulders, to the French "shrug." According to studies different cultures, primarily between east and west, read faces very differently and this is liable to cause confusion in the expat world.

All this is before we even begin examine the differences in body language between different cultures! That’s an "Opinion" for another time!


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