Inscrutable Occidentals

by Terence MacNamee

When asked to describe people from the Far East, Westerners are sure to use the word inscrutable. This means that the Orientals do not betray emotion in their facial expression. So the idea is you never know what they are really thinking. And it is not far from there to the stereotype that they are devious and not to be trusted.

When someone from China or Japan masks their emotions, the Westerner finds himself wondering whether the East Asian has any emotions at all, whether he is really “human”. Yet I would have to add that this is not just an East-West problem.

Europeans are also baffled by the lack of emotional expression from North Americans. This is not really part of the usual stereotype Europeans have about North Americans (namely that they are loud and brash and boyish and overly self-confident), but it may be the thing that secretly bothers them the most when they have to live on the other side of the Atlantic. As a European living in North America for twenty years, I grasped the immensity of this problem only very slowly.

To a European, North Americans have a curious lifelessness about them. Their voices are monotonous, lacking in intonation, they don’t make gestures or cultivate facial expressions, and when they talk, they never get excited about anything. They don’t talk about how they feel or about the emotions associated with experiences. They talk about matters of fact, things, objective realities. Suitable topics of conversation are often the price of things, like houses and cars.

North Americans believe in being “cool”, and they expect other people to be cool too. They do not pick up on emotional cues or appeals, or just let them die, or make a dry rejoinder. If a European tries to perform his emotions in the usual way, instead of getting an appreciative audience he will see his North American conversation partners eyeing him warily. To them, displaying emotion is just bad form.

The moral of the story is that all things are relative. Westerners are confused and out of their depth when dealing with East Asians, but we Europeans feel a similar lack when dealing with North Americans. To us they are the inscrutable Occidentals.