an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Verbal and Body Languages, Nationalities and Entelechies

Having moved from the central coast of California to Russia some four and a half years ago, I have since then been mostly immersed in the life and culture here. Throughout my years of travel, study, and observation of humanity, I have always found it interesting – or at least diverting – to note people’s faces and mannerisms. When in America I was often especially eager, to try to determine the “nationality” of visitors or tourists when I happened to see some. Oftentimes it was obvious merely with a glance at the face, hair style, or clothing, that some person or group was, say, German, French, British, Danish, etc. But then there were those people whose dress and face did not make it readily clear where they were from, and America is a place of many mixtures and visitors.

If one sees a person sitting at a distant table in a cafe, and one can’t hear their language or accent, and yet you know they are – probably – born or raised in another country, then, if it is not possible to determine their nationality by their appearance, nor by listening, there is a way, more subtle, and somewhat more difficult, but still effective. For it is possible to “see” their nationality not by the appearance of their British, French, German, Finnish, etc., faces, but by the movements and manners of their faces, arms, hands and bodies.

Different nations, for example, smile differently. Yes, a smile is, generally speaking, a smile; but to closer attention, one can notice that nationalities do smile somewhat differently – or frown, grimace, laugh, wink; reveal, or hide, moods, feelings, attitudes, etc. So that the precise manner in which a person’s face moves – their “facials expressions” – do differ from nation to nation. Indeed, many muscles of the face are even used differently, and thus the faces muscles subtly are more or less differently developed, in different countries. In “What is Hidden Behind the American Smile?” (English, No. 25, 29, 1997), I wrote about this now-characteristic, national American facial expression, as a kind of mask, often hiding the real feelings and thoughts of the person. But this is just one of the more obvious and familiar examples. And then there are the movements of the body, so-called “body language”, which, because they are more obvious than those of the often more subtle movements of the face – the movements and mannerisms of the arms and hands – are also a means to determine nationality. For “body language” is also influenced by nationality.

Russians have often told me how easy it is for them to spot those visitors to Russia who are “American” – especially via their faces. Indeed, not only can many American tourists often be immediately discerned here by their faces, clothes, and/or their manner of walking; their speech is often rather loud by Russian standards (quite different, for example, from, sober, British visitors), and can be heard (even when just as indistinguishable voices) from quite far away. This particular manifestation of national psychology in fact gives a glimpse into the social life and conditions in the USA. As a young, clever Russian friend mentioned to me, just after returning from America to Russia, in an American airport – and this is symptomatic – few people pay much attention to each other, in their activities and conversations; whereas in the airport in Moscow, people are very aware and attentive to what is going on around them. It is not the point here, that there are obvious reasons for this contrast – danger and insecurity in Russia for example; rather the point is that the social conditions clearly affect the psychology of the people. So that Americans speaking “loudly” here in Russia, is not, necessarily, loud in the USA at all!

When I heard President Clinton give his speech (with his Arkansas accent and mannerisms) at the Moscow Institute of International Relations in September 1998, there was the new bureau-chief of an American news syndicate was sitting beside me in the press section. Just a week out of Texas, he spoke with a more or less normal “American-Texan” voice; but he spoke too “Americanly”, inside of Russian society, so loudly that I decided to save him the trouble of learning it here slowly himself, and told him that he should speak more quietly and circumspectly in Russia. He thanked me for “the good advice”; he would probably have learned it himself over some months that simply being “American” in this way in Russia, was not necessarily to his advantage.

If one observes closely, one can see how the motions of a person’s face, arms, and hands are “Russian”, “American”, “German”, Italian, etc. This can be simple, such as the manner in which different nationalities “count to ten” on their fingers: many Russians often start with the smallest, drawing the fingers in to a fist: one, two three, etc.; Americans begin with the index finger, count down to the small finger, and then the thumb comes last – but the hand starts with a fist, and the fingers are extended in counting; Germans begin with the thumb, and count down to the small finger. I have not noted how other nationalities do this, but there are more subtle differences, such as how the hands are held, the particularities as to how the counting is done (using the finger of the same hand, or the other hand to count the digits for example). A closely-observant, well-traveled person could come to reliably tell an individual’s nationality by the manner of “counting to ten” on the hands. But since people are not always sitting around in cafes counting on their fingers, other movements need be noted. (Probably well-trained spies in Europe would consider all this rather elementary.)

Now, indeed, we are, generally speaking, humans – normally having two normal arms and hands (with five digits on each), a normal face, with the obvious features: eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, etc. And while people have a seemingly-impossible variety of faces, and each person has their own faces’ individual appearance of facial expressions, how the muscles of a face give expression, is determined to a considerable degree by a person’s nationality. And here a rather deep and interesting problem arises; but let us consider this in relationship to the spoken English language.

The human being, as we know and experience him today, lives to great extent, as an existential being one might say, in and via the medium of language. But speaking common American English – with its established expressions, phrases, jargon, clichés, idioms, slang, etc., – in Russia, can bring a self-discerning native American speaker to recognize that the common American expressions, when used inside Russia (Soviet or “Democratic”), can be like using the words, for example, appropriate to a theater’s light comedy piece, inside of a tragedy. Sometimes the expressions just do not at all “fit” Russia: its life, people, condition, traditions, culture, history, humor, etc. So that one may speak perfect, contemporary, native American English, and yet to try to have a Russian understand it – even a Russian who has a good knowledge of English – can reveal the limitations, also something of the social context, cultural presumptions, and psychological character, of American English. I have observed this in lectures and conversations of new (or naive) Americans in Russia, as well as felt it in my own attempts to use or explain American expressions here in Moscow. They often just don’t “fit” life here well at all.

And then there is the problem of the limits of language, words, and ideas, to articulate the soul. I have had several occasions of a deeper Russian “philosophical” talk, when the very deepest and clearest possible ways of expressing an idea in American English, seemed to be inadequate and crude to convey the ideas; or they seemed like limitations of ideas, as if the language itself, the words themselves, were not deep or alive, fresh, new or subtle enough, to articulate, to express the deeper ideas. It was as if the language controlled the ideas, by not allowing me to be able to express something more, other, or in another way. This is an area where language and ideas – the words and ideas of the language English in this case – seem to be united somehow, and the question becomes, does the language, the words, the phrases, the fully-expressed thought, hinder other ideas from being expressible – or even conceivable! Here one can imagine that a person who could speak and think in perhaps 5-7 languages, could probably “think” about, or express, an idea or problem, in different and more varied ways. Here are some very deep and interesting questions, which touch the mysterious relationships of language, words, and ideas, and also go towards the root of human identity in so far as man (mens- to think) is a creature which reasons and speaks!

What I wish to say in this essay is that both the spoken word, and the somewhat un-subtly-named “body language”, are the ways that a person expresses themselves with the voice, the face and/or hands... A single, small facial movement, or gesture of the hands, can convey an entire idea, attitude, mood, feeling, fact, etc., to someone of the same education, nationality or culture; while a foreigner, even if they had learned and spoke the language fluently, often could find it completely incomprehensible. I have often seen American lecturers here in Moscow, who, not really cognizant of these facts, tried to convey ideas and attitudes, in addition to their lecture’s translated verbal contents, by “body language”, most of which was unknown and foreign to the Russians; and the Americans were not really aware that their facial and hand gestures were not understandable to the Russians (though most any American would have grasped it probably without reflection). The American lecturers were unaware that this non-verbal portion of their language was also itself needing of translation – though that is perhaps even more difficult to translate, or interpret. (When it is not an impossible task. For the attitude or meaning conveyed by a gesture, may well not, contrary to a word, exist in the other culture, mentality, etc. This can of course go both ways: American to Russian, Russian to American.)

Or take another rather different example which is related to my final theme of nationalities and entelechies. I often note young Russians in Moscow, take Russian teenage girls, whose speech, tones of voice, facial movements, laughter, jokes, etc., were completely “Russian”, and completely predictable. And though they, the teenagers, lived inside of this Russian character, they were, of course, not aware that they as individuals were just following the established, common social patterns, of most of the young girls of their age (class, education, etc.) in Russia. In English, if one were trying to express this condition in a clever, but clear way, one might say that “Russian was them”, rather than that “they were Russian”.

Aristotle. Copy of a lost bronze bust by Lysippos (4th century B.C.)
Copy of a lost bronze bust
by Lysippos
(4th century B.C.)

Here we meet the interesting – to me at least – question of the relationship between a person’s individuality, their entelechy, and their nationality. As an American living in Moscow, I can often experience and feel, notice . . . my own “Americanness”, though in some aspects I felt this more during the first year or two. This is especially true for me, since one of my goals in coming here to Russia was to acquire features of Russian character that I wanted to incorporate into my psychology.

The word “nationality” stems in the Latin natio, to be born. One’s nationality is thereby where one was “born and raised” (an American expression, the same facts of which could be expressed and thought of quite differently). In my experience of our world and life, I have observed people of various “nationalities”, whose character, and emotions, thoughts, including facial movements, voices, etc., were preponderantly determined by the nationality into which they were born; their nationality gave them of much of their character; indeed even, in significant degree, their relationship to and experience of the world. Here one can speak of “typical” Americans, Russians, Italians, Japanese, etc. And yet it is easy enough to imagine that inside of a Russian, an American, a German, etc., there is an inner entity, which Aristotle named the entelechy (entos [“within, inside”] + telos [“completion, purpose”] + echein [“to have”]), which lives individually inside of the person of a national character, but which is still nonetheless somehow distinct from it. As if the nationality were a very definite type of psychic “body” to the entelechy, whereby the “nationality” more or less determined the life and psychology of the entelechy. For not only speech, but one’s very national “body language” are realities in part learned, and relative, to the culture where one lived, in what is sometimes inelegantly called one’s “formative years”.

It seems to this author that the entelechy is some inner entity, revealed, as well as hidden, by one’s nationality, and its verbal and body language. Many people’s character is mostly determined by their nationality in its relationship to their own entelechy – be it weak of strong.

First published in the magazine English, #5, February 1999, p. 1-14.