(São Paulo, Brazil) The subway was empty by São Paulo standards, just a businessman reading The Economist in English in the plastic chair beside me, a few middle-aged women—domestic workers most likely—enduring the first leg of their long commute to the suburbs, and a young couple watching tunnel lights pass by the window, the girl’s head napping in his nape, her arm locked to his like a hostage. Nobody spoke, there was just a track, track, track sound as the metal wheels marked our progress toward the next metro station.
Climbing the steps out of Consolação Station was like waking from a coma. People everywhere. Laughter and music and neon. Everywhere. To the left, angling downhill, the famous Red Light District turned alternative bar scene, Rua Augusta, where prostitutes and students share the street on weekdays and weekends alike, was a crowded sidewalk of outdoor tables and glowing cigarettes. In all other directions, twenty-story banks flexed right angles, creating a valley through which I walked to greet a friend with a kiss on the cheek.
Suddenly, emerging from the same metro stop, a group of uniformed school girls raised their arms in unison, screamed a sigh as if from one breathe, and slapped their flat palms against the topside of their fists. Confused, I turned to my Brazilian friend with scrunched eyebrows and shrugged shoulders. “It means ‘We’re fucked,'” she replied. “They missed the last bus.” After a second look, indeed, their bus was barreling down Paulista Avenue, northbound without brake lights.
Though my Portuguese had become fluent enough to make Brazilians from the north ask where I’m from in the south—a region populated by German immigrants who look like me and, apparently, speak with an American accent—I had yet to learn the Brazilian art of non-verbal communication. This was unacceptable. Later that night in my Couchsurfer’s apartment I began a research crusade into the depths of the unsaid.
Among the 7,560,000 Google results for “non-verbal communication” was a controversial study that claimed 93 percent of emotional communication is unspoken. After many people-watching sessions in bars and parks I agreed with the study’s main discovery: that the human body is a beacon of uncontrollable like and dislike signals. You cannot hide the fact, despite camouflaging your nervous twitch with pretty words, that the dress does make her look fat or that his new tattoo doesn’t make him look like Snatch’s Mickey O’Neil. Luckily for our love lives and professional careers, only .0025 percent of the population naturally knows how to read flesh.
Psychologist Paul Ekman sought to change this meager percentage when he created a computer program that profiled over 3,000 facial expressions. In essence, he wanted to hasten Doomsday by turning innocent white lies into full scale wars. This Facial Action Coding System matches muscular features to emotional states, identifying the spontaneous downward movement of the skin between your eyebrow and eyelid as genuine happiness, for example.
This was all fascinating, just the tip of a psychological iceberg that will prove useful when arrested as an illegal immigrant in Brazil or interrogated by the United States Embassy (again), but it didn’t provide a greater understanding of the Brazilian schoolgirls’ middle finger equivalent. Then I found the following Brazilian Podclass video that labels their fist salute more gently as “Estar em uma situação difícil.” English translation: “To be in a difficult situation.”
Ah, kids will be kids.