And the answer is …… Do First Nations people look you in the eye? More cultural lessons for training & development

Two weeks ago I launched a contest based on a comment I hear fairly frequently when I’m doing cultural intelligence, diversity and/or access and inclusion training.  And that comment is ‘First Nations people don’t look you in the eye.’

Besides being a generalization, it’s way more complicated.

I learned another way of saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ years ago when I was working way up North.  500 miles North of the Arctic Circle in fact, in a tiny community called Pelly Bay.  What a place to learn about intercultural issues – it was magical – even on our coldest, -72 degrees Celsius day!  The Northern Lights danced and my learning took off.

I put that experience together with the comment I frequently hear and decided to hold a contest to see if you could determine, with the two pictures below, in which one am I saying ‘yes’ and in which one am I saying ‘no’.   It’s a twist naturally, because to figure out what I’m saying you must be looking at me.

The comments poured in on the original post.

Photo a- am I saying yes or no?

Photo b - am I saying yes or no?


Here are the original photos.  See if you can tell how you say ‘yes’ and how you say ‘no’ in the Inuit community I was in.


By far most folks said photo A was ‘yes:’:

  • your eyebrows are up and that’s how you say yes in the Philippines (said Marie Jocelyn)
  • Jan wasn’t sure, she said it could mean ‘yay, great idea’ or ‘ you gotta be kidding me’
  • Donna gave her thumbs up to my eyebrows in photo A
  • Viabhav on the other hand said photo A was ‘yes’ because of my nose bridge
  • Marcela said that photo looks more ‘welcoming and assenting’
  • Colette said photo A was yes because of my eyebrows even though in Turkey the same gesture means no
  • Rebeca thought photo A looked more ‘positive and expressive’
  • while Theo said it was yes because I looked more ‘serene’
  • Asarte guessed yes to photo A recognizing the guess was based on their cultural lens
  • Dyana said yeah to photo A because to her I looked more ‘open, engaging’

Only 4 folks thought photo A meant no and photo B meant yes:

  • Jodi said photo A was no because it reminded her of her Grandma’s look that said ‘you think I’m buying that story?!’
  • to some photo B meant yes because I’m leaning more towards the camera, I look more relaxed and because my chin is tucked in

Fascinating stuff.  The question is easy – yes or no?  The answers are not.

Some people focused on their gut to answer, some were more analytical/logical.   Some made comparisons (to other cultures, to relatives). Some were certain, some guessed.

Many people focused on something that had nothing to do with the answer.  And that’s the hard part of intercultural communications – what do you pay attention to and what do you let slide?  What’s critical and what’s not?

That’s what keeps the conversation going and the learning happening.

Ready for the answer?

Photo A is yes and photo B is no but perhaps not for the reason that you think.

Photo A is yes because my eyebrows are up.  That’s how you say yes in the community I was in.

Photo B however is no, because of something no one mentioned.  It’s because of my nose.  To say  no in this community you squinch your nose.  Yep, squinch your nose = no.

Now imagine, it’s a bitterly cold Arctic day.  I have 20 teenagers traveling with me from Vancouver who want to fit in with the Inuit youth.  One of them asks me if they can go outside (keep in mind – Arctic winter).  I’m concentrating and don’t realize that I’ve just raised my eyebrows.

The Inuit youth, naturally, take this as a yes and rush outside.  The youth from Vancouver follow, all the while I’m holding down my eyebrows yelling ‘hang on, let’s talk about this!’

Are you aware of how much your eyebrows move when you talk?  It’s just one small thing that the intricate, intriguing world of intercultural communications will bring to your cultural communications radar.

As promised, I did a random draw from all those who entered, and I’m a happy to say that Donna McGrath won the complimentary Life Lenses™ assessment – an assessment designed to illuminate your perspective or how you view the world.  I’ll be in touch Donna with how to claim your prize.

In the meantime, watch those eyebrows!



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2 Responses to “And the answer is …… Do First Nations people look you in the eye? More cultural lessons for training & development”

  1. Rebeca Pimentel Zaragoza Says:
    June 15th, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Hi, good intercultural perception exercise! Congrats to Donna!

  2. Lee-Anne Ragan Says:
    June 18th, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Thanks Rebeca, for your comment. Do you have any intercultural exercises or other resources you’d care to share? Would love to hear about them if you do.

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