Thursday, May 15, 2008

SMILE! God Loves You!

When I was young I remember that my father used to tell me that more than any expensive dress or makeup, a smile made a person attractive. It seems to me that smiling is the root of communication and it lets others know if you are happy or sad, it encourages the speaker and says non verbally,

"I am with you here. I'm trying to understand your message."

Historically, Japanese, and especially Japanese women, don't smile. It used to be considered bad manners to show the teeth and so during the earlier eras women's teeth were blackened. Even now, all formal pictures are taken with stern expressions and wedding pictures always look like such grim affairs from the albums. If any of you have Japanese women friends you may have noticed that they will laugh with their hand held up to the mouth. It is an unconscious habit and extends to even speaking with the hand held over the mouth (making it very difficult for me to read the person's expression!)

As an English teacher in Japan sometimes I wonder what I'm supposed to be teaching. It seems easy enough. English right? But recently I've been trying to teach my English kids to SMILE. For the past few weeks I've been working with a girl who will be going to the States with her family, but she is very quiet. This has always been a very clear cultural difference in my mind. Even when I was a college student the foreign students from Europe, the Middle East and South America blossomed while all the Japanese students stayed quietly together in their little group and studied their books. They just weren't very good at expressing themselves and developing communication skills and smiling, though they were very good in academics.

Of course not all Japanese are quiet and somber but I run into a lot of young women who are similar to my jr. high girl and I can't really figure out why. They don't smile. They don't look people in the eye. They don't answer when spoken to instead choosing to look intently at their books or the table. I have tried teaching that communication (not English) is a give-and-take process, an interaction between people, but most of the time I feel like I'm throwing the ball and no one is catching it, let alone throwing it back to me!

For my student I decided to focus not so much on language but on communication skills. (She's very good at reading and writing!) Eye contact, body language, little ways of conveying that you are listening to the speaker or are thinking about a response, but all this "communicating" is close to torture for the girl and after an hour of this we are both exhausted.

"It is too much to expect her to change her personality at this late date just because she is going to be thrown into American culture. These kids have to be taught communicating skills earlier."

Then I look at some of my elementary school students and see the same pattern in them. And I look at some of my three and four year old kids in kindergarten and already I can see the somber, serious look in the eyes. Maybe it is a safety measure and saying nothing, making no acknowledgement is a way to blend in with the crowd and conform. Maybe it is just cultural. Maybe the people I know are just not happy!

Come on people. Let's start a smile campaign! ^_^
By the way, this is the computer mark for smiling in Japan. Notice the eyes smile but the mouth doesn't! Isn't it this in the international computer world? :-)
Sony recently came out with a camera that won't take a picture until everyone posing is smiling. Hmmm. Either it is going to take awhile before the picture is taken or people are going to learn how to smile thanks to the camera.

A smile is the light in the window of your face that tells people you're at home.
~Author Unknown


Anonymous said...

What does your husband say about it?

anne bebbington said...

I love the quote at the end Tanya - smiles are infectious - you give one and get loads back :o)))))) see I told you so :o)))))

Quilt Pixie said...

whether your students learn the centrality of "western" non-verbal communication or not, you are giving your students a real gift as they might know one of te areas to look in/consider when trying to make sense of a cross cultural exchange... :-)

Diane said...

I really enjoy the insights you share about cultural differences between Japanese and Americans. I'm sure your students are internalizing some of the nonverbal cues you teach but they may not realize their value until they are forced to rely on them in an American setting. Keep teaching these very important lessons!

nonchi said...





Oz jane said...

I love to smile, wherever I am in the street, supermarket whatever and almost without exception it changes the atmosphere and often just leaves the person who smiled back walking off with a smile on their face.
But I was somewhere doubt one of the two supermarkets I visited and I smiled at this lady and she just glared at me.
I was a bit non plussed but kept smiling as I looked away and looked back.
I do not think anything was going to change her today.
So sad.

artfilstitch said...

A Smile costs nothing, but gives much. It enriches those who receive, without making poorer those who give. It takes but a moment, but the memory of it sometimes lasts forever. None is so rich or mighty that he can get along without it, and none is so poor, but that he can be made rich by it. A smile creates happiness in the home, brings rest to the weary, SONshine to the sad, and it is nature's best antidote for trouble. Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen, for it is something that is of no value to anyone until is is given away. Some people are too tired to give you a smile. Give them one of yours, as none needs a smile so much as he who has no more to give. So, When it rains on your parade, "Let A Smile Be Your Umbrella". :>))


AmyB said...

I definitely noticed this when I was teaching a college course a couple of years ago... Sure with I had understood the cultural differences better when I was trying to figure out why the students always appeared disinterested!

Shelina said...

I too was taught not to show my teeth, and smiling wasn't common either when I was growing up. It takes a long time to overcome something like that. It is good that you taught her what the difference is - I had to figure it out myself - and now she will need to fight her own cultural taboos and find a compromise that works for her.