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In what language do we read faces?

Often, when you read the conclusions of the psychologists in the U.S. or the Anglosphere in general, you come away feeling that psychologists treat English, or at best English and a few other European languages, as a sort of universal blueprint to feelings. Thus, in a famous study of facial expressions and emotions, Paul Ekman claimed that the Fore group in New Guinea recognized and categorized facial expressions in the same way as Americans, according to some universal menu of emotions.

This research has often been criticized, and anthropologists seeking to replicate Ekman’s work claim that the Fore responses they get are different. Ekman, as a matter of fact, did not speak either the Pidgin or the Fore language. However, he didn’t seem to feel he had to: like many English speakers, he felt his native language endowed him with all the psychological knowledge he would need.
I don’t think this is true. For it to be true, English would have to be an unusually hypercognized medium.
I take that term from Robert Levi’s paper, Emotions, Knowing and Culture [1984], where he proposed two axes for analyzing emotions on the sense making level – that is, not as private experiences, but as experiences that enter into the public domain. On the one hand, he speaks of hyercognition – “Hypercognition involves a kind of shaping, simplifying, selecting, and standardizing, a familiar function of cultural symbols and forms. It involves a kind of making “ordinary” of private understandings.” In contrast to that stands hypocognition – “Hypocognition forces the (first order) understanding into some private mode.” Citing his own work on “sadness” among Tahitians (Levy claims that, while there are words for severe grief and lamentation, there are “no unambiguous terms that represent the concepts of sadness, longing, or loneliness… People would name their condition, where I supposed that [the body signs and] the context called for “sadness” or “depression”, as “feeling troubled” pe’ape’a, the generic term for disturbances, either internal or external;…”) Levy writes that these are some “underschematized emotional domains”, and that these are hypocognized. “One of the consequences of hypocognition is that the felt disturbance, the “troubled feelings,” can be interpreted both by the one who experiences them and by others around him as something other than ‘emotion’. Thus, the troubled feelings that persist too long after the death of a loved one or those that occur after some loss that Tahitian ideology holds to be trivial and easily replaceable are in the village often interpreted as illness or as the harmful effects of a spirit.”
My notion is that English and the Anglophone culture also underschematizes certain emotional domains. For instance: ease.
Ease is an odd word entirely. The etymology goes back to old French “aise”, which is translated as comfort. As the Mashed Radish blog on everyday etymology points out, how “aise” emerges is an unsettled question among etymology mooks.
“Skeat, Weekley, and Partridge conclude that aise, formed from aisance, is from the Latin adjacentia, literally “something nearby.” You can quickly spot the English adjacent. According to Baumgartner and Ménard, “something adjacent” is connected to “the free space next to someone,” which produced an idea of a “nice location” and more generally, “wellness” and “recreation.”
Some, like Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge, proposed that aise is ultimately from–here it is again–ansa, “handle” of a jug or jar, say. This ansa had a secondary sense of “opportunity,” so the record states, and may have evolved to asa on the roads of the Roman empire, later evolving into French’s aise.”
The dictionaries do an odd thing with ease – they tend to define it by what it is not. It is not disquiet. It is not difficulty. The military drill phrase – at ease – seems associated with this notion of adjacence – of elbow room. But the expanded, positive notion of ease – of ease as an emotional state – seems only to peep through the grid of English, to suggest itself, as though it were hypocognized. To be stressed seems to be the English norm. Ease – now what is that mood or feeling? It comes with a spatial proposition – at – unlike, say, sadness. One does not say one is at sad, as one says one is at ease.
Ease is, however, dreamt of. To be “at ease” doing something – to have that emotion that you don’t have to do the thing you are doing and that you are doing it from that center – seems to elude the Anglophone consciousness, which reaches out for other terms, like zen. Hence the zen of tennis, or the zen of cooking where the agent is centered – a spatial term again. The ease of tennis or cooking – that would be an odd locution. One would be ill at ease with it. To use Ekman’s vernacular of facial expressions, which one would be ease?Is it a smile? Is it a sexual thing, a lazy thing?
Last night I was getting groceries at the Franprix, and chose to get in the line for a cashier, rather than in the machine lines. The boy – I thought of him as a boy, although he must have been a late teen – who was checking out customers had a long face and what looked like a vacant stare and a slightly open mouth. I at first “recognized” this as dope-face – the face of a dope. A dummy, an incompetent. But as the line moved forward I realized he was doing fine. He was dealing with the old woman and her coupon-y thing just fine. He was sorting through the groceries and ringing them up just fine. The dope-face, I thought, was something he should work on – make himself do a work-face.
But as I was walking home, it struck me that the dope-face was my problem, not his. Perhaps I had been seeing a face of ease. A feeling I, with my varied stresses and worries, just did not recognize.
Recognizing facial expression with the notion that maybe we are subjects in a society that, as do most or perhaps all, hypocognizes certain parts of our emotional activity, is perhaps related to a mass of everyday problems.
Maybe faces are harder to read than we assume.