What’s in a smile

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Friday, January 24, 2014


BACOLOD City is known to be the city of smiles. This is partly due to the fact that we host the Masskara Festival every October, and partly due to the fact that Bacolod’s people are perceived to be open and friendly to everyone. A Bacolodnon would not hesitate to smile to a first-time visitor to this city, especially if that visitor was a westerner or an oriental.

However smiles mean different things to different cultures. Smiles are almost always associated with happiness, but to some cultures, they can mean things like confusion, or even sadness or anger.

The Vietnamese, like the Filipinos, often hide their emotional pain or embarrassment with a smile. A Vietnamese man might tell you a sad story but end it with a smile. Likewise, a Filipino being asked a difficult question may simply remain silent and simply grin while averting his eyes. In the Arab world, too much smiling is seen as deceitful. In Japan, smiling can convey confusion. For example, if you speak English to an average Japanese person, who is most likely not going to understand you, he would probably smile and say “no Ingurish.” Try speaking Magyar to a Filipino and he’d probably go “ha?” and look at you with a furrowed brow.
This is because some cultures emphasize some emotions more than others. The Japanese tend to emphasize humility and conformity, the Americans emphasize happiness and positivity, and the Russians tend to be genuine.

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Speaking of Russia, in contrast to Bacolod’s reputation as the city of smiles, most of Russia is known to be a place where no one smiles. When going to a restaurant or a book shop, no one will smile at you. The waiter bringing you your kvass and pryaniki will do so with a face made of stone. This is because Russians only smile when they mean it. Smiling at strangers that you see on the street is seen as strange and awkward, and people will dampen your smile with their cold, icy stares. The Russian people only smile at their friends, and even then, only when they are genuinely happy.

The Filipinos, on the other hand, need few reasons to smile. We live in one of the poorest countries in Asia, and we’re racked by all variety of natural disasters on an annual basis, but yet the Filipino manages to pick himself up, dust himself off and smile about it.

When the US military came over here during the Balikatan exercises, American advisors were surprised to see members of the Philippine military laughing while going through life-saving training and rescue, which, in their opinion, was a very serious thing. (More likely than not, the Filipino soldiers found it silly that they had to carry around their comrades who were pretending to be injured.) Even after the very recent Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, there were still people roaming the streets of Tacloban and the Eastern Visayas who still had something to smile about.
Smiling may mean friendship to everyone, as the famous Disney song goes, but some cultures perceive it differently from others.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on January 24, 2014.

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