MULTICULTURAL MANNERS : Island Eyebrows May Whisper a Reply


Carolyn has just accepted a job teaching English on the South Pacific island of Pohnpei in Micronesia.

The weather is hot and humid, so she goes into a service station and asks, “Do you have cold drinks?” The woman behind the counter looks directly at her but doesn’t say a word. Carolyn assumes she doesn’t speak English.

Carolyn simplifies her question. “Do you have Coke?”

Again the woman is silent. Carolyn tries again. “Do you have anything else?” The woman opens a refrigerator and points to many different kinds of soda, then mutely places a Coke on the counter.


Carolyn asks, “How much does it cost?” In English the woman says, “50 cents.”

What went wrong?

On Pohnpei, “yes” is said by slightly lifting the eyebrows--which the woman had done in response to all of Carolyn’s questions. However, the movement was so subtle that Carolyn hadn’t noticed. Later in the classroom, Carolyn discovered that all Micronesians use the same raised-eyebrow signal to indicate “yes.”

On Guam, Judith, another American teacher, was equally confused when one of her students accusingly asked, “Why did you ignore my greeting this morning?” That’s how Judith discovered that Guamanians say “hello” by raising eyebrows or slighting lifting the chin.

Rule: Subtle facial movements are part of some cultures’ daily vocabulary.