The Unfamiliar Familiarity

           I like to think of myself as international2. I was born and raised in Honduras, and went to the United States for college. Now that I’m in France, I’ve been able to draw interesting parallels and contrasts between Honduran and U.S. culture to Parisian culture.

Map of Central America, Honduras in red-pink. I’m from Tegucigalpa, the capital.

View of the town I spent most of my weekends growing up with my family.
Cedros, Honduras.


Freshman year at Emory, and my now 2nd home.


Something that worried me before my trip was hearing how unfriendly to strangers French people are. I thought the U.S. was already unfriendly compared to home, so for the U.S. to consider the French unfriendly meant I would have the hardest of times making myself comfortable in Paris.


Turns out people were wrong. I feel that French people are even friendlier than in the U.S. Their friendliness is just a different kind of friendliness we’re used to at first glance. But once you open up with a fact about yourself or ask about them, the French are as open and willing to help you out as Hondurans would.


The Unfamiliar

When I first arrived, I could see what people meant. The metros are crowded places where you stand 10-25 minutes literally an inch (or less) apart from people, but they don’t even look at you. It felt so…awkward. In Honduras, I’m used to not only smiling but also greeting every passerby. In the U.S., I at least get to smile at people if we make eye contact. In France, both of these are not only rare, but make you feel weird and ignored. It wasn’t until I got here is that I learned that French people save their smiles for those they know…


As you can see…it’s pretty tight in there.


The Familiar

I was surprised to discover how well along I got with the French. The same kind of people I had to force myself to not smile to in metros were the same people I ran into in cafes and whom I could dance the night away.

I distinctly remember going to a small café near Cité for food since I had lost track of time and the cafeteria had closed. I was originally planning to go to a bigger café named Le Comptoir I had found on Yelp, but the road that one had closed off already. So I ran into this tiny restaurant/bar on my way around the park. It was pretty small, just having about 5 tables total. But I was pretty hungry, so I sat down and ordered whatever I could tell had meat on the menu.


I finished eating as the restaurant closed. Swing music started playing, couples started coming in, and dance moves started being rehearsed. I loved to see how the once dull and empty place filled with color, laughs, and music. Even the owner started opening himself up to me. He gave me free cheese and coffee. I talked to him a bit in Spanish. And I smiled at seeing how the tiny restaurant I had been in quickly turned into a dance floor.


These people looked so different from those at the metro. I not only talked to people, I even danced with them. The French laughed, were loud, and yes, smiled real big. Their liveliness reminded me of my Hispanic culture. I wondered how everything could change in a blink of an eye in this city. Especially the people themselves.

The Why

So I started getting curious. It seemed like a paradox to me. I knew from NBB302 that smiling is a universal human emotion (Gazzaniga 2013). I also knew that it took more energy and muscles to frown than to smile (Gazzaniga 2013). So why were the French so serious in crowded places, when I now knew from experience how warm and cheerful they really are?

Turns out how much you smile and even how you smile varies depending on where you are from. The more immigration your country has had during the last 500 years, the more you smile (Cesare 2013). People who are used to ‘melting pot cultures’ are used to going against their gut feeling fears of people that look different from them (Cesare 2013).

This immediately makes me think about the amygdala. The amygdala activates when we see faces of people that look different from us (Constandi 2012). The amygdala processes our emotions (Constandi 2012).

Location of amygdala (emotion processing) and hippocampus (memory).


Our brain naturally makes associations between how people look and the world around us. For example, most French people I talked assumed I was American simply because I looked different from them. This would trigger different associations they would later admit to me having about Americans. This is where their amygdala (emotion) and hippocampus (memory) would come in. Evolutionarily, our brain has developed to pay special attention to things and people around us that are different from us, since they could have been potentially harmful in the past (Rychlowska 2015).


However, in our modern interconnected world, we have learned to go against our gut feeling. So what stopped the French owner from assuming I was an annoying tourist and listen to my story?

Interaction between the amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.


The amygdala is interconnected with decision-making circuits in our brain. This is what causes us to second-guess our gut feelings and not act on them. Your anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) can “detect” a conflict between your gut feeling (“this person is different from me”) and your conscious views (“never judge a book by its cover”). This triggers another area of our brain, the dorsolateral frontal cortex (DLPFC) to activate. The DLPFC can control the amygdala’s activation. So, it’s sort of that voice in your head that calms you down and says, “Give him a chance” when your date’s first impression doesn’t exactly go well.


My Now

Together, my amygdala has been a bit afraid of all these new people and social rules I don’t know. My anterior cingulate cortex reminds me this is an adventure I want to be in, alleviating my tension between my fear and excitement of the unknown. And my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reminds me that no matter how unfamiliar a place might seem, I will always find my unfamiliar familiarity and piece of home anywhere I go.

Wherever you go, let people surprise you. You’ll find your own unfamiliar familiarity anywhere you go.

I’d like to leave you with the words I got from a visiting professor at Emory. It’s become my motto and gets me through homesickness: “We are scientists. The more lost we think we are, the more at home we actually are.” 

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