Lie to me: body language in Tonga

So, I arrived in Tonga the same night the Princess Ashika sank. And on Saturday night I watched a press conference where I didn't understand a word for the first 30-odd minutes. Even so the broadcast was riveting just from the body language.

In three cases I gave my verdict on the speaker's honesty, and then got to hear them speak in English. In two cases I felt fully justified in my intuitive assessment. With the Minister of Transportation, however, I'm not so sure.

First, a disclaimer. I'm a complete amateur with no expertise in reading body language. In my defence I cite Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink'. Here's what I saw.

Chaotic communication
First and worst was the Hon. 'Eseta Fusitu'a, Minister of -- what? With delicious irony, it transpired she was Minister of Communication. She's a middle aged woman with an air of authority. Most of the time her face was chaotic. The top half showed (I thought) panic and fear. But the bottom half frequently smiled ingratiatingly. Sometimes the whole face smiled as if to win us over. She was selling us a line. I did not like this picture: right or wrong, I thought this was what she was saying:

"Everything's just fine and everything is normal. Help, help! I'm a really important person. Help, help! What's a few score drowned people between friends? Help, help! And if something bad happened, it's certainly not my fault, so don't blame me. Help, help! I must talk fast or someone might notice I've messed up. Help, help! We're in deep trouble here -- I don't want to lose my job!"

Later, the Hon. 'Eseta Fusitu'a spoke in English, answering a question from a New Zealand journalist. As best I can remember, this is essentially what she said.

" Every country has disasters. The US had the Los Angeles earthquake, China has just had a typhoon, and now after many, many years of no disasters Tonga has had its own disaster."


"Unlike the riots three years ago, this is a natural disaster. This is not a man-made disaster, it is a natural disaster."

(She is so certain, and yet few seem to believe her. Let's wait for the investigation, which has not even begun...)

"I want to note how well everyone has pulled together on this: the Government, the Police, the shipping company and the community. You have to appreciate the Tongan culture. Tongan people all help each other in times of trouble. In the village, the survivors were immediately given blankets and food. In this case it was the government and the church that helped. That is normal, that is Tonga."

(Again, should we applaud?)

It seemed to me that her words were entirely congruent with the incongruous mixed signals sent by her body.

Enigmatic communication
Case 2: The Hon. Paul Karulus, Minister of Transportation, spoke directly and with every appearance of sincerity. At the start and end of each speech he looked down, which seemed to emphasise the seriousness of his words. I was inclined to trust him.

Eventually he answered a few questions in English. He said the Princess Ashika had been checked thoroughly twice and passed each assessment. Repairs were made after purchase, which would be normal procedure. (Hm. Really?) There would be a thorough, impartial investigation headed by an experienced New Zealander. If individuals or organisations were at fault, they would face charges, including, if necessary, criminal charges. The vessel was fully insured and so were the lives of those on board.

The Hon. Paul Karulus' body language passed the test of credibility and so did the words. However, rumours abound about the purchase of this vessel. Today I heard the rumours repeated by the Reverend Dan Dango (Sp.?) who gave us a lift into town: he said the boat was a sieve, leaking before it left the wharf, and the dealers were villains.

So in this case my intuition is not entirely to be trusted. My hunch: here's a good guy stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Great communication in a crisis
Third case: my hero, Police Commander Chris Kelley. He's a New Zealander in charge of the Tongan police, and heading the search and rescue operation. His delivery was steady, authoritative, considered... and sad. He listened carefully to questions and answered them all in full.

Chris Kelley spoke in paragraphs. In other words, when he had finished one topic, he paused noticeably. This gave us time to absorb what he'd said, and signalled a change of topic. The pause was the aural equivalent of a paragraph break in web content. It gave me confidence that he was in control of the structure of his message as well as the facts. (Clearly, his delivery was in marked contrast to the chaotic gabble from the Minister of Communications.)

Chris Kelley emphasised that his focus was on the people: searching for survivors, finding the dead, and determining who was actually on board as opposed to those who were listed in the manifest. He was honest about the chances of recovering bodies, let alone survivors. The location and depth of the ship, the extensive area where it might have sunk, and the time since it sank, all made this unlikely, he said.

Communication is more than skin deep. The Commander inspired confidence.

Like I said, when it comes to communication in a crisis -- my hero.

Don't sue me.

PS I only wish I knew how to spell my hero's name correctly. Kelley or Kelly? the Tongan English language paper uses both spellings in a single article. So does Stuff:
Sorry, no active link provided: I've lost the facility temporarily with a WordPress upgrade.

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine


1 Comment

Mele Tupou
Mele Tupou

May 16, 2010

and who are you ?

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