Body Language, Redux

I was sitting on the transpacific plane, crunched in the nine-across cheapseats, trying to decide if it was better to remove my legs with a hacksaw, or just let them necrose from lack of circulation. Then something uncomfortable happened. The stewardess, all smiles, dropped to a knee next to me, threw her arm around my shoulder, and began whispering into my ear from a range of inches. I flinched out of my skin. And my first thought was, "This woman must be ALL the drunk."

In Asia (where I'd just spent the last four years) women do not touch men in public. Does. Not. Happen. Even my wife is supposed to keep her distance. Casual physical contact between strangers at all is rare, though if it does occur, it's strictly between the same gender. Drunk Vietnamese men used to practically molest me sometimes, in their glee to greet the strange foreigner. They'd walk up and take my hand, pat my shoulder, even rub my belly. But women touching men? Especially strangers? Total taboo!

The stewardess, an American, was just being nice. She'd seen me struggling to fit my knees in coach and decided to offer a free upgrade to an empty spot with better legroom. But it took several seconds for my brain to catch up. I was still lost in the taboo, body language assault. When I figured it out, I just nodded dumbly. The stewardess smiled, patted my arm (I flinched again) and as if I was doing her a favor, said, "Thanks, hon'."

Way back when we first moved to Korea, we did a post on body language and nonverbal cues. We were trying to fit in to a new culture. There was a lot of information to assimilate, so It made sense we'd have to study a bit. And then we adapted, perhaps too well. Upon our return, I realized I'm clueless about how to behave in public. I am a United States citizen, in the United States, and I have no idea what any of you people are doing.

A few days after getting off the plane in Chicago, I remembered thinking that everyone was oddly rude. I couldn't place my finger on how, exactly - it was just a feeling I had, an itch at the back of my neck. It was a while before I connected it to eye contact. Whenever Americans talk to us, they seem to be trying to bore through our skulls with their gaze. I have vague memories of this behavior being polite... a signal that you are listening intently. But to me, it was a challenge, a piercing glare that was more aggressively intimate than anyone intended or wanted. I had gotten used to never really looking people in the eye, just brief, shy glances. And now everybody seemed to be playing the staring game with me.

Later, I headed outside to go to the store and froze in astonishment. Because it looked like I'd wandered into a zombie apocalypse. After years in overcrowded Asia, the vast emptiness of the American suburb was a cold shock. Silent houses, sitting in long, neat rows, with carefully manicured lawns and picket fences. And not a damn soul in sight. I couldn't even hear traffic! Any second, I expected The Horde to come shambling into sight, searching for delicious brains.

Instead, a man rounded the corner walking his dog. As he got closer, he gave me a big, happy grin and shouted "Howdy!"

Huh. Okay. I tentatively waved back.

I guess this wasn't that unusual. Walking around Vietnam, strangers shouted at me constantly, usually in Vietnamese, usually something along the lines of 'You are very fat! You should not walk! Let me give you a ride on my motorbike! Just 20,000₫!' But "Howdy!" was almost refreshing.

Then I encountered another man (also walking a dog). He, too, shouted "Howdy!" Then a woman passed leading a terrier (seriously, is this the only reason Americans use sidewalks?) and gave me a shy "Hello." And it slowly dawned on me that every single person I met was going to give me a greeting of some sort.

I'd forgotten one of the side-effects of living in a high population density: everyone does their best to ignore everyone else. It's not rudeness - it's politeness. When your commute involves sitting cheek to jowl with a hundred other people, you either get very good at retreating into your bubble, or everybody gets real friendly.

And it's also why I had a wholly different problem when I finally made it to the store. Because standing in line was bizarre. The woman in front of me left a huge four-foot gap between herself and the next person in line. To my mind, it yawned like the grand canyon. And she kept glancing back at me just a little nervously.

It took a second to realize I'd lost my sense of personal boundaries. I'd naturally crowded in close behind her, because that's what one does in Asian lines. It never occurred to me that I might look like some creepy weirdo, breathing down her neck from barely two feet away. So I took a big step back and frowned, still trying to get my bearings.

Because I'm not in Asia anymore. I'm in the United States, land of the "Howdy!" and the zombie apocalypse. Land of overly friendly stewardesses and baffling intimacy rules. The land of beautiful, broad sidewalks that no one uses unless they're walking a dog.

It's going to take some getting used to.