Thursday, January 28, 2010

But you all look the same...

When Aaron first started working here in Singapore, he often heard the same phrase from the locals in his office: "All you Americans look alike. I cannot tell you apart."

One of the guy's children even confused my tall, skinny husband with dark brown hair with his short, chubby coworker with light brown hair.

It was so weird to us. Then again, we could not tell any of the locals apart from each other either. They all had black hair, smaller bone structure and slanted brown eyes (except for the Indian-Singaporeans).

I experienced the same situation when I showed up to work for the first time in Singapore. My Chinese-Singaporean boss was going over everyone's name in the office and I got stuck on one person.

I asked her "Is that the blonde?"

My boss got a really confused look on her face and said "I have no idea. I don't pay attention to that."

I was so baffled by this. How do you not notice the color of someone's hair? It's one of the first things I notice about someone right along with their eyes.

Well almost two years later, I finally have my answer. A new study published in ScienceDaily found that Caucasians and Asians assess and recognize faces in a totally different way. They also explained a little bit as to why we have trouble telling people from the other race apart.

"Caucasian and Asian subjects excelled at recognizing someone of their race, yet both had the same level of difficulty in identifying someone of another ethnic group. According to Blais, this says more about the analytical approach of Caucasians and the holistic approach of Asians." -University of Montreal (2010, January 27). Caucasians and Asians don't examine faces in the same way. ScienceDaily.

According to ScienceDaily, Asians study faces as an overall picture and Caucasians tend to break down the face into specific parts.

Specifically, Caucasians tend to focus on the triangle of the eyes, nose and mouth. Asians just focus on the nose and observe the whole face at once.

I found this crazy interesting. It totally made sense of the conversations we'd had with Singaporeans here. I'm sure the facial structure recognition also goes along with the fact that they don't notice hair color, eye color and so on.

I did later ask my previous boss what features she notices about people when she first meets them. She told me that she more often notices face shape and body type. At the time, I thought she was just weird.

Now I realize that I just grew up in a place where different things matter (i.e. hair color) in aiding our recognition.

In a place like Singapore, where the majority of the population is from surrounding Asian countries, those same things don't help at all. Everyone has dark brown or black hair (naturally, at least) and dark brown eyes. So they've grown up learning to recognize completely different things to tell their friends apart.

This is such an "Aha!" moment for me that I feel really slow for not putting this all together until now.

It's interesting though, right?


Brad Farless said...

Really cool article. It makes a lot of sense too. Here, everyone naturally has the same color eyes and hair so it makes sense for them to focus on other details to distinguish people from each other.

Maybe that means that all Caucasians have similar head shapes? Since they say we all look alike?

When I first got here I had trouble recognizing people, but I don't seem to have that problem as much anymore. Maybe the way I recognize people is adapting. Interesting thought.

Thanks for sharing this Megan!

Mae Mastura said...

AHA! see, i just had my "aha" moment too. heh. now it all makes sense. funnily enough though, i tell caucasians apart by the hair colour esp, and then built. lol. for e.g oh the tall, skinny, blonde one or the short, curly brunette. it's easy, i notice that there's never like, 2 tall skinny blondes in a same place ever or 2 short brunettes etc! there's always only 1 each (or 1 only) at one point of time. =)

very insightful article megan.

Debbie said...

A serious "AHA" moment for me too! :) I'm so glad you explained it. I'll try to start looking more for the characteristics that the locals look for. It still seems so strange not to notice hair color. I realize that's just my background but isn't it more obvious than the way someone's chin or cheeks look? ;)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I'm Asian so I've experienced the "you all look alike" syndrome all my life. I find it most interesting when I am confused with a much prettier Asian woman.

Growing up in the U.S., I rarely have problems distinguishing Caucasians. However, I do have problems remembering eye color (blue, brown, green...I could know a person for years and not notice!) and I have sometimes confused people if they have "blander" features.

Sandra said...

Hmm, I wonder why though most cab drivers see me and start yakking away in Chinese dialect. When I don't reply, they look at me in the mirror and frown wondering why I don't respond. When I tell them I'm not Chinese and can't speak the language, they look shocked and say "You not Chinese mah?" I then proceed to say, "Do I look Chinese, with my brown hair and big eyes" and then they then reply "Chinese dye their hair brown what! and "you look Chinese" Go figure!

michelle | bleeding espresso said...

Very interesting and makes total sense once you see it spelled out like that. Thanks for sharing this!

My Three Sons said...

Just shows that we have to think outside the box. It amazes me who actually thinks up these cool articles.

The more you think about it, it really makes sense.

Erissa said...

Hmm that's interesting because I'm Chinese and I have a harder time differentiating Asians than Caucasians. It's not that I have a hard time telling Asians apart, but I need to pay more attention and commit certain things to memory to differentiate my fellow Asians especially if they have a similar build, facial structure and hairstyle. I find that with Caucasians it's a lot easier to tell them apart because they have distinct hair colors, body types and sharper features. Their hair colors are also not just blonde or brunette but there's all sorts of shades of blonde and brunette, so it's really easy.

Not to be racist or anything but when I was younger I used to find it really hard to differentiate people with a dark skin color. It's gotten better now, but it's still not as easy.