[Opinion: In my view]
 Physiognomy: Let's face it

KOREA HERALD  2000-07-14

The first time a Korean told me that my "insang" was good, I didn't know what he was talking about. "Do you know what 'insang' is?" he asked. "No," I replied.
Then, not knowing the correct translation, they told me "Face. It means you have a good face."
Well, naturally I was happy to hear that I had a good face, but I wondered what difference it made. In Korea, it makes a big difference. And the correct translation of insang is "physiognomy."
For those of you who are not familiar with this highly unused English word, it is the science that deals with the interpretation of facial features. While you can find professional face readers on any heavily frequented downtown street corner, most Koreans read faces intuitively.
Employers all demand pictures of the foreigners before they hire. Why? Because they want to check out the applicant's physiognomy. In some cases, one's physiognomy can be just as important as one's qualifications.
For instance, my first boss in Korea came to me one day and asked for my opinion concerning a person's resume. He gave me the resume to look over. I looked it over and saw that this person was much more experienced than I was in the instruction of English a foreign language. He had a certificate in teaching English as a second language and six years of teaching experience in Japan.
I said, "I think this person has great qualifications, but I can't say for sure whether he would be a good teacher." Then, my boss drew my attention to the applicant's picture. It was a black-and-white photocopied picture, and not a very good one at that. He asked, "What do you think about his face?" I thought it was a strange question to ask.
I said, "It looks all right to me." I meant the guy had two eyes, a nose and a mouth, all in the right places. I didn't know what he wanted at that time, but as I look back on the situation, he probably figured that since I was a foreigner, I could read the physiognomy of foreign faces better than he could. He went ahead and hired the guy, probably on the basis this approval.
The more time I spend in Korea, the more I realize how important physiognomy is to the Koreans. They make judgements, for good or bad, partly based on the way a person's facial features appear to them.
At first, I thought it was a kind of prejudice. It made me angry. But now I think a little differently.
There may be something to this physiognomy stuff. I once saw a documentary in the States about a woman who claimed to be able to read physiognomy. Her ability was uncanny. She was shown the pictures of three boys about 10 or 12 years of age.
These were pictures of boys who had already grown up and made their place in society. She predicted their outcomes very accurately. She said that one boy was very troubled, even though he was smiling in the photo. She said he would do some great evil and probably end up in prison. His name was Charles Manson.

Another example comes from a two-year mission I performed for my church in Chicago. Elder Jager, our regional representative, related an experience he had had regarding a missionary in his jurisdiction who exhibited what he called a "dark countenance."
After talking with the missionary in private, it was found that the missionary had been immoral. The Holy Christian Scriptures have a lot of examples talking about the countenance of one person or another. One such example comes from the Book of Mormon. Nephi's countenance shined when he was filled with the power of God.

I'm not talking about good looks. It is written that Jesus of Nazareth was not especially handsome, but he was probably able to attract a following because of his good physiognomy. Dogs are said to be good judges of character. Perhaps they know something instinctively about physiognomy.

In the West, we say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. There may be some truth to this common saying. Koreans, and especially female Koreans, seem to know the verity of it on a subconscious level. Let me give you an example.

One day, I had had a very terrible day. I don't remember why, but it was one of my worst days in Korea. But I didn't want to show it to my students. So I put on my smiley face and paraded into my adult evening class pretending to be as happy as one could be. I had not so much as greeted my students, when one very sensitive woman, said, "Teacher, What's the matter? Is something wrong?"Now, I ask you, "How did she know?" I was literally dumbfounded. I stood beside myself with unbelief. This was precisely the confrontation that I was hoping to avoid. But that cat was out of the bag. There was nothing to do except confess that I had had a terrible day. I asked her how she knew. She responded that she could see it in my eyes.

Koreans don't express their emotions very often. When they do, they are really upset. It seems to be an Asian idiosyncrasy (more so in Japan than Korea). It is my opinion that because of this lack of verbal communication, Koreans have learned to read faces. Women are naturally more intuitive than men. Therefore, it makes sense that a woman picked up on my true emotional state that day.
However, physiognomy seems to be much more than just reading emotional states. It seems to be reading people's characters. In this regard, I'm still a little skeptical.

I think that for most of us, bias may block our judgement. I mean how many mothers would say that their son or daughter has a bad physiognomy? How many times do people misjudge someone who has some physical deformity, such as the hunchback of Notre Dame?
It's food for thought. Next time you look in the mirror, try to read your own physiognomy. And be honest.
The writer is an English instructor who lives in Seoul. - Ed.

Updated: 07/14/2000
byLeon Przybyla


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