More Scenes From a Café: The Body Language Lesson

This is #21 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community. 

our neighbourhood café after dark; my own photo, photoshopped

These days, this body frequently nags me to go to the local café and hang out there for an hour or so. It likes the company of the regular café denizens, likes to get out of the apartment at least once a day, and sees a trip to the café as a reasonable reward for its vigorous daily workout in the gym. Like me, this body is lazy; it has to be motivated to do things. So off we go.

It was a late workout today, so it’s dark when we (this body and I) head off to the café. The streets are busy at 7pm, and so is the café, but it’s a different crowd, a different ambiance from what you see here during the day. The people are walking less hurriedly, and they’re younger and speaking more animatedly. The majority, at this hour, are Persian, and they’re speaking Farsi. The same is true when we enter the café.

Inside, the place is bustling. There are ten occupied tables, and the majority of the conversations are in either Farsi or Korean. As I place my matcha order and take one of the last two empty tables to wait for it to be made, I am listening to a quite large, very-well-dressed group that look to have either recently been to a social gathering together, or are getting ready to go to one. I have no idea what they’re saying, but I’m fluent enough in French to occasionally pick up Farsi ‘loan-words’ from French colonial times.

So I hear mersi (thank you) several times, and trying to parse out the rest of their conversation I’m able to catch Etâzuni (the US) and, as one of them shows off his wool skully, I also hear šâpo (hat). One woman has a package on the table beside her latte, and I think I picked out kâdo (gift). And of course, kâfe, and the Italian loan-words we all use latte and barista. It seems customary in most Asian cultures to always bring a simply-wrapped gift whenever one visits another’s home. It’s a great custom that, unfortunately, beyond the obligatory bottle of wine (which even then is often BYOB), doesn’t seem as common in western cultures.

I hear the word mersi several times, and for a while I ponder why it seems so easy to say thank you in just about every language except English. It’s just two words (and just one in most languages). There are a couple of English language conversations going on in the café, and now I’m listening for those two magic words from them. I don’t hear them. It was a long shot, but still.

And of course while I’m listening for those two words, I start listening for that other magic word, sorry. But I didn’t hear it, either, except once from the barista. And it was a Canadian sorry. Whole wars have been fought, I’m sure, over English-language speakers’ incapacity to use that simple, inexpensive word.

Why is that so, I wonder? Have the damned lawyers ruined the word by warning us that its use can be legally interpreted as an admission of guilt? Does its use betray our secret, inadmissible shame for all the things we are blamed for, and blame ourselves for? Or is it an admission of weakness — a handing over of a weapon to the one we apologize to, that might later be used against us? Are our egos really that fragile?

It’s a fraught word, sorry. It is in a way ambiguous and in a way meaningless. Its root meaning is “feeling sore” [as in ‘he’s in a sorry state after the injury’] or “feeling sorrowful”. But in a way that’s all about the person saying it, not about the person it’s supposedly directed to. Perhaps that’s honest, but it’s not very sympathetic.

So I wondered, how do you say it in Farsi, or in Korean?

I was delighted to find that, in Farsi, it isn’t that simple. You basically have to own up to what you’re sorry for. So there’s a way to say “I won’t do it again.” There’s a way to say “I was wrong (or selfish, or at fault, or responsible) for doing X.” There’s a way to say “I hope you will forgive me.” There’s a way to say “I feel for (or offer condolences for, or can understand) your loss (or suffering, or anger, or reaction).”

Any of these is less ambiguous, less self-preoccupied and more responsible than just “I’m sorry.” They’re more forward-looking, towards what can be done as recompense or to prevent recurrence. And because they’re clearer, there is less wriggle room for later claiming that “When I said I was sorry, that wasn’t what I meant.” Or, even worse “Sorry… that you took what I said (or did!) the wrong way.”

How about in Korean? Well, interestingly, in Korean, the “I’m” in “I’m sorry” is omitted, because it’s considered redundant, and the way in which the words are said can be as critical as the words themselves. There are several variations depending on the identity and status of the addressor and addressee, but there are also two forms, one of which has the implication of accepting having done something wrong, while the other does not — it merely conveys sympathy for what has happened.

No wonder we get into such trouble, in many languages, both when we fail to use these words, and even when we use them!

And then, turning my attention back to the chatter in the café, I hear one of the English-speakers say “excuse me?” in a sarcastic, interrogative tone. I have to laugh.

I have my crossword book out, my excuse for loitering over my one large mug of matcha (A Japanese loan-word, literally meaning ‘ground tea’). I glance up to see what I guess to be two Korean women enter the café and take the empty table next to mine. (My policy, out of respect for the café owners, is to hurry up and leave if at any time there are no vacant tables left in the café, but one of the other groups is leaving, so I hunker back down.) The lilt of the language (short words, no stressed syllables) confirms to me that they are indeed speaking Korean. And the position of their table is perfect for my favourite form of ‘cultural anthropology’ when I don’t understand the language being spoken, namely (subtly, I hope) observing body language.

Before I catch any particular body language from the new duo, I note something in their conversation that seems lacking in both the English and Farsi conversations. Silence. It is clear that long pauses after someone has said something in Korean are appreciated, rather than considered awkward as they often are in English. It shows, I think, that the listener is taking the time to consider what has been said carefully. And to drink their beverage before it gets cold!

When the second woman replies, the first woman listens silently and nods frequently. When I noticed this once before, I had interpreted the nods to be signals of agreement, but I have learned since that they are not. In Korean culture, the nod indicates “I am listening intently”, and does not signal any judgement one way or another about the content of what is being said. I’ve also been told that, out of politeness, Koreans are quite reticent about saying “no”, or about stating explicitly that they disagree with what is being said, so you have to look for subtle, often non-verbal signs of doubt or concern.

I laugh at myself as I realize I haven’t the faintest clue how I would do that, and that even if I learned Korean I would probably suck at it. In Korea there is an important concept called nunchi, which is the ability to quickly take in and size up what is going on in a space, including very nuanced signals, and to respond accordingly. This is valued in personal interactions, social occasions and work environments, and for good reasons. There is some suggestion it can even be a ‘superpower’ for introverts who have excellent attention skills. The thought makes me sigh. We need a lot more of that in the world. I need a lot more of that.

My attention switches back to the large Persian group. Their body language is also somewhat subtler than what I’m used to, which, when you get used to looking for it, is astonishingly revealing, even without a Book of Tells to translate it.

The group displays some body language that I think I understand the meaning of. The hand-over-heart, combined with a slight nod, to indicate agreement, sincerity and/or respect. The hand bumping up under the chin to indicate being fed up. The bunched fingers pointing up, or the two hands repeatedly flipped outward, as expressions of emphasis. These seem to me largely universal signals, and I wonder how they became so.

Not so for some other very common western body language. As noted above, a nod doesn’t necessarily mean agreement, and a sideways shake of the head doesn’t necessarily mean disagreement (nor does its absence necessarily indicate agreement).

I’m glancing over at the Persian group to see if they are nodding or shaking their heads. I don’t see a lot of either gesture. But what I do notice is a bit of Groucho Marx-like eyebrow raising. After two of them, apparently in a serious conversation, have both done it, one accompanied with a kind of backward tilt of the head, I scramble to search my phone’s web browser for a translation. Apparently, it is a subtle, quiet, polite way of saying no!

I’m not close enough to be able to notice the body language conveyed just with the eyes, but I am starting to notice some patterns when it comes to eye contact. And they’re confusing as hell. It seems to be a bit of a balancing act: Direct eye contact can be rude, depending on familiarity, gender, relationship and age. But lack of eye contact can also be considered rude, conveying disinterest or disrespect. And how long you maintain eye contact is also critical to its message and social acceptability.

Another couple comes into the café speaking Farsi, and I am again blown away at how well most people in this café are dressed. The newcomers are both wearing pant-suits with perfect creases and immaculately polished shoes. I’m guessing they might be on a date, or just getting away from the kids for a couple of hours. They don’t hold hands, but as they speak their hands touch often; this is not a casual relationship.

I’m feeling seriously underdressed again, even more so than when I visit this café during the day. My phone’s browser is still open, and I click on a link to learn more. I’m chagrinned to discover, as I sit at my table wearing shorts with my legs stretched out and crossed, that both my attire and my posture would be considered rude in Korea. I pull my legs back under the table and place my feet firmly on the floor, an instinctive act that is one of self-respect rather than of deference. The perils of learning, and of paying attention!

The new couple points to an open table, and I note something that seems common to all Asian cultures — people from these cultures point with their whole hand, never with a finger. And many of their hand actions (not just handshakes) seem to prefer the right hand over the left, or entail the use of both hands (when passing things to another person, I understand it is customary to both give and receive with two hands).

The Persian woman acknowledges the pointing hand with a slight shrug, and they make their way over to that table. Now I’m smiling again — I know nothing about the significance of the shrug in different cultures, other than its use as an iconic French statement. For a few minutes I scan the room looking for more shrugs. I see none, and thinking back I can’t really recall seeing people shrug at all in this café.

So it’s back to my phone browser, and indeed I learn that the shrug is virtually unknown in Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures. Perhaps this is wise, since it’s another terribly ambiguous gesture (except perhaps when used by the French, in which case there’s no doubt what it means)! It can mean “I don’t know.” Or more dangerously, it can also be interpreted as “I don’t care.” There are several components of the shrug, I learn: Not just the shoulders, but the simultaneous movement of the hands (usually turning them upwards), and the movement of the lips and/or eyebrows. The accompanying actions can often disambiguate the meaning. Shrug in a mirror while thinking “I don’t know.” and then again while thinking “I don’t care.” For most people, there’s a difference. If you’re paying attention. Aaaah!

And it gets worse. Psychologists and criminologists report that when people lie, they often betray themselves, and what they’re actually saying, with a slight shrug-like movement of one shoulder, or the flip of one hand.


Back at home, looking in the mirror as I shrug, and then as I tell untruths to my image, I discover that the body language I think I’m conveying isn’t anything like what I’m actually displaying.

For a start, I’m much less expressive with my face and body than I think I am. I have just noticed, in the mirrored apartment elevator, that what I thought was a pleasant polite smile to others in the elevator actually looks terribly tight-lipped and repressed, probably even insincere, if it’s noticed at all. It’s more, I’m (Canadian) sorry to admit, a grimace! A bit ironic for someone who has often written about the enormous benefits of smiling!

I realize that most of my ‘selfies’ (which I use mainly for blog and podcast ‘portraits’) do not show me smiling, because I look unnatural — it just doesn’t look like me. Although when other people take pictures of me smiling, it does. I also realize, from my zoom sessions, that my sitting posture is lousy, making me look smaller, less fit, less interested, and less attentive. And just now, on the elevator, I noticed that my standing posture also sucks, with the same effect: I’m a slouch.

I resolve that, from now on, at least in ‘public’, I’m going to strive to stand up and sit up better, and to practice making my smile, which is usually perfectly sincere, actually come across as sincere. And maybe even poised, like most of the people I saw this evening. Doubtful plan, I know, but it’s worth a try. One more valuable café lesson.

Many years ago I was just finishing a business lunch on the outside deck of a restaurant, when I spotted my now-ex, who I’d arranged to meet at the conclusion of the lunch. I shook hands and said farewell to my client, who departed. When my ex came over to the table, she said “You were speaking French, weren’t you?” I confessed that, yes, my client was French and parts of our lunch had been conducted in his native language, and replied “How did you know?” She told me that my hands were flying all over the place when I spoke, and that my body language was completely different from when I spoke English.

I still notice this. Even when I’m writing emails in French, my hands automatically jump into action punctuating what I’m writing. Pretty funny to see.


Having done a bit more research, I’m now prepped for my next visit to the Café. I’ve learned about some additional body language that is quite common for Chinese, Japanese and Koreans to exhibit in conversations, that I think I’ve observed but didn’t know quite what to make of. Apparently, laughter can sometimes be used as a means to release discomfort, and smiles to release feelings of shame, in addition to (or even in contradiction of) their usual meaning.

A finger on the forehead can mean “That’s crazy”, rather than “I’m thinking”. In their cultures you beckon someone over by waving with your fingers palm down, not palm up as westerners do. And a slightly raised hand with the pinky finger raised and slightly waving apparently means “I promise”, and can sometimes be followed by a whole ritual of confirming actions to “seal”, convey and “record” the promise.

I’ll be watching.

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3 Responses to More Scenes From a Café: The Body Language Lesson

  1. FamousDrScanlon says:

    Think this summer was bad? It might be the best one you and I will ever see
    The calamitous summer of 2023 was an oasis of tranquility, compared to what’s coming

    “This year we saw the hottest July ever recorded, and the same was true again in August. In fact, 2023 is on track to be the hottest year so far recorded, breaking the record set by 2020 and 2016. Over the past few months, more than 6,500 daily heat records have been broken in the U.S. alone, and in some places the roads became so hot that people suffered serious burns from falling on them. Terrible floods have ripped through China, Spain, Greece and elsewhere. Wildfires raged in Canada, the Canary Islands, Maui and parts of Europe. A tropical storm hit Los Angeles, the first in living memory. Wind speeds of Hurricane Lee, in the Atlantic Ocean, increased from 80 mph to 165 mph in roughly 24 hours.

    The climate catastrophe is already here. We’ve been watching it unfold in real time on the news and over social media. Some have witnessed it first-hand, losing their homes, being forced to evacuate under emergency conditions and even losing their lives or the lives of friends and family.”

  2. FamousDrScanlon says:

    Doomsday author’s analysis: We have destroyed our ecosystem – now we await the collapse of civilization

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    The headline is: We have destroyed our ecosystem. The die is cast. The deed is done. We have gone too far. And we have destroyed it.”

  3. Theresa says:

    My new favorite word is perspicacious. It is a lot like nuchi. I realized I’d often taken people with the most perspicacity as being more intelligent than they really are. They just spot the social patterns faster than most. I reckon it is a skill that one can train ones mind to master. In some ways it is like the concept of Theory of Mind.

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