866605_piggy_bank_1 A few weeks ago I found out that it was 80% likely I had caught swine flu. Interestingly, despite all I had heard, it wasn’t all that bad: a headache, sore joints and muscles and of course the well-publicised high temperature. In fact, it was so much less dramatic than I had anticipated, I had apparently contracted it at least eight days prior to diagnosis.


 When the headache didn’t shift and I started to feel pretty lousy, I went to the local clinic and it was here that I truly began to feel miserable. When the secretary understood there was suspicion of swine flu, she physically jumped two steps back, curled her mouth into a look of extreme disgust, told me not to move and left the room. A few moments later she returned dangling a surgeon’s mask like toxic waste, barking: “Put this on! Don’t sit near anybody!”

 Feeling pretty humiliated, angry and sorry for myself I looked around the waiting room, to be looked back at by sets of staring, anxious eyes. The patients were spread out more or less evenly. There was no free area for me to sit in, so, feeling pretty weak from the fever, I put on my mask and sat on the floor. Eventually a corner became free and I parked myself there, trying to ignore the stares, the whispering about my suspected condition and the pregnant lady voicing her, of course valid, concerns about me waiting with everyone else.

 The frustrating and humiliating story goes on – the wait from nurse to doctor (who both incidentally were very kind and helpful) was all in all an hour and 40 minutes. For me, however, although we all enjoy a good moan now and again, this is not the most interesting part of the story…

 A couple of things struck my attention over my period of unwellness. Firstly, how automatically our reactions of fear and disgust can be revealed by our faces (and how hurtful this can be to others). Different cultures are expressive to different extents (see this). For this secretary (of note the second secretary behind the desk facially expressed warmth and concern), despite working in a clinic which had diagnosed many cases of swine flu, could not ‘reign in’ her automatic reaction for the sake of professionalism.

 Secondly, how influenced we are by thoughts, words and knowledge. Up until my trip to the clinic I wasn’t too bothered by my symptoms. As soon as I found out there was an 80% chance I had swine flu, I felt significantly worse. Each time I measured my, continually fluctuating, temperature, my sense of illness/wellness altered according to the number on the thermometer. This is some of the theory behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – that the thoughts we have, or the reactions we have to physiological experiences, effect our mood and well-being.

 Certainly the most powerful reflection on contracting an infectious illness which can evoke fear or disgust in some, is the nominal insight to the lives of those who live daily with diseases such as HIV, disabilities or disfigurements. 

 Incidently, as an epilogue to this story, it wasn’t swine flu after all.


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 It has been widely researched and assumed since the work of American Psychologist Paul Ekman in the 1970’s,  that human facial expressions are universal. That is, no matter where you grow up and who you encounter, you will always be able to recognise the six basic human emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust on the face of another.
 Ekman famously found that tribespeople in Papua New Guinea, having never been in contact with Westerners before, were able to recognise facial expressions from photographs. From this he concluded that these facial expressions must be universal.
 Also interesting to note is that Ekman furthered his research into what he termed  ‘microexpressions’ and other verbal signs, which he said could detect lying. He claimed through this he was able to tell that Clinton was not telling the full truth about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
 New research from England,however, by Rachel Jack has found that East Asian research participants frequently confuse fear for surprise and disgust for anger. The researchers noticed that whilst Caucasian participants look at all facial features for cues, Asian participants focus on the eyes. 
 Jack explains that this does not mean that people from East Asian countries don’t notice facial expressions of fear and disgust, but that they may be perceived and conveyed in a different way. She notes that in East Asian cultures showing negative emotions  in public is usually avoided. Perhaps people have learnt to pay close attention to eyes to try to find emotional clues?
 Interestingly, the East Asians’ focus on eyes can even be seen in their ’emoticons’. In the West we are used to seeing ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘surprise’ virtually expressed like this:

: )     : (      : o

 Asian emoticons for ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘surprise’ focus more on the eyes instead of the mouth and look like this:

(^_^)    (T_T)   (*_*)


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