Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage
Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a
Jonathan Swift ["A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately
entered into Holy Orders" (1721)]
They stand with chin out, eyes front, shoulders squared. They're
just kids, eighteen or nineteen years old, part of America's
armed forces, sworn to obey their leaders and defend their
country unto death. What might they be thinking? ... feeling?
Their faces have no expression. But inside, their bodies churn
with emotion. They're like the rest of us. Though seemingly
controlled, our bodies are geared to respond to outer stimulus,
sending and receiving wordless messages. Through signs, signals
and cues, we communicate non-verbally on a daily basis.
From infancy, we are exposed to wordless messages such as voice
tone, gesture and stance. We send signals through our choice of
clothing, food and work. We also read signals and cues, making
evaluations and judgments as to a person's class, education and
status long before a word is spoken. Sometimes the readings are
accurate, sometimes not. For example, in Pygmalion, a
cockney flower girl is passed off as a duchess on the strength of
new manners and acquired speech. In A Streetcar Named
Desire, we are shown a picture of Stanley Kowalski having
courted his wife while in military uniform, a stark contrast to
his ripped t-shirt and unshaven face in civilian life.
Non-verbal communication was probably generated long before
speech, with the caveman pointing at a mastodon, gesturing toward
a failing fire or grunting to soothe the baby. Rather than being
replaced later by the specifics of language, it has blossomed and
become increasingly complex, accounting for more than half of
human interaction. An early study of non-verbal communication was
done in 1872 and described by Charles Darwin in The Expression
of the Emotions in Man and Animals, quickly followed by
scientific research in the fields of psychiatry, biology, and
anthropology. They concluded that many of our emotional responses
are instinctive and generated internally.
As parts of the brain evolved, particular areas were designated
for certain tasks. The forebrain delivers our emotional response.
Here in the hypothalamus is where the limbic system evolved from
the neural structure that had been earlier designated for smell.
It governs the autonomic nervous system, namely the fight-or-flight mechanism as well as aggression and anger, emotions
experienced on the battlefield. It can also reveal feelings when
we decide that something stinks as we respond through a
sneer or curled lip. That humans have the largest limbic system
of any vertebrate makes them the most emotional and should come
as no surprise.
A second mass of brain tissue, called the amygdala, governs
aversion cues such as dry mouth, sweaty palms or the reaction to
freeze or crouch, in which the head is slightly forward of the
shoulders and the shoulders forward of the hips. Working through
the hypothalamus, it stimulates hormones into the blood stream
generating avoidance and interrupting rational thought. It is
here where the body is instructed to kick up an oxygenated blood
supply, making the heart race and the lungs take in more air,
even though the person has not performed any strenuous physical
activity. The respondent might feel muscles tense or adopt
protective facial expressions. In basic training, the reaction
might cause inner turmoil or emotional distress. Later, it could
propel a fighter in the direction of a trained response, making
the difference between life or death.
Another part of our body, called the enteric brain, centers our
gut reaction to events. Located in the nerve cells and
circuits of the bowel area, it can express the full feeling of
contentment or sense of queasiness at the sight of something
disgusting. Made up of millions of neurons, it goes beyond a
general spontaneity and is a rapid response to events before
being worked through intellectually. Today, economists recognize
that many business decisions are made in just this way. In Japan,
a process called shinyo sees the center of
hara, the abdominal region, allowing a trained and
refined gut reaction to take precedence over other forms
of decision-making. Application in wartime is obvious, for when
events accelerate, there is little time to ponder.
Where innate factors affect how humans communicate and experience
feelings through body language, cultural elements can cause
variance from one group to another. The use of space, or circle
of aggression, can be of enormous importance.
Edward hall, in his book The Silent Language, identifies
body distances as intimate, personal-casual, social-consultive,
and public. Different cultures establish their own norms. This
can sometimes be seen at social gatherings where members of
different cultures are making small talk, all the while doing a
kind of conversational dance as one edges forward, the other
steps back. Their dance signifies how each is struggling to re-establish familiar and comfortable space. In Japan, one sees
another kind of space control where one places the palm of the
hand vertically forward in front of the nose while bowing,
lengthening distance ever so politely. And who hasn't seen the
wartime movie where an NCO is barking commands in the
face of enlistees, a deliberate violation of personal space,
in order to establish dominance.
In spatial orientation, distance is not the only telling sign of
relationships. Alignment of our upper body automatically aims at
those we like and angles away from those we don't. In staff
meetings, angular distance substitutes for linear distance.
Studies show that during conferences, members will address those
beside them when there is a strong leader, but address those
across from them when the leadership is diverse. But the central
position always conveys a message of authority and sends the
image of a unified negotiating team. For example, the president
of the United States will sit at the center of the conference
table during Cabinet meetings where he can easily be seen and can
address as many as possible. On the other hand, a round table
implies a gathering of equals reminiscent of Arthurian knights.
Relative elevation can also communicate non-verbally. The phrase
to look up to is conditioned early on. Toddlers look up
to their parents. Children sit while teachers stand. Judges
preside from a raised platform. Political leaders speak from a
stage. Taller men and women are perceived as more dominant, and
athletic looking people perceived as more assertive and self-reliant.
Our eyes also reveal a great deal. We all have seen the
shifty-eyed con-man or the liar who blinks nervously,
giving himself away. Soldiers are familiar with the thousand
yard stare, when confronted by an assailant seemingly
looking through rather than at them. Police
called to a crime scene might be confronted with the target
stare where there is a narrowing of eyes and a prolonged
direct glare. Each represents a threat. For that reason, direct
eye contact rarely lasts more than a few seconds. In Japan,
children are taught to focus on a speaker's neck in order to
avoid eye contact; although in the United States, listeners are
encouraged to gaze into the speaker's eyes to convey a sense of
attentiveness, sincerity and honesty.
Some non-verbal signals such as nodding for yes and
shaking the head for no, or a shrug indicating I
don't know, are pretty universal, but they aren't always
reliable. This is especially true in foreign countries where the
spoken language is unfamiliar. Something a simple as a handshake
can send the wrong signals, for some Middle Eastern and Asian
cultures prefer a gentle touch rather than the powerful
executive grip which is seen as domineering. Failure to
shake hands can sometimes damage any hope of a positive
relationship. But in Islamic cultures, men don't offer to shake
hands with women, for touching between men and women who are
unrelated is forbidden. The hand signal meeting thumb and index
finger to form a circle is seen by most cultures as meaning
okay, but in some cultures it has a sexual connotation
and is considered a big insult.
Certain gaffs can be discounted as minor, but others can be
serious enough to create a real threat as wounded egos seek what
is perceived as justice. As our lives become increasingly global,
we need to learn the language of others but also be cognizant of
that which remains unspoken. A mother's cautionary maxim,
Your actions are so loud, I can't hear what you're
saying, is still valid as we cross over to foreign shores.
A final note. Scientist have found that disturbances in non-verbal communication can be more severe and prolonged than
disturbances in verbal communication. This could well explain the
complications of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
especially in wartime. It could also be a longtime factor in how
the United States is judged by other countries. Hence, every G.I.
has to become an ambassador. Every traveler an emissary. Every
politician a statesman. Actions speak louder than words. How we
are perceived, whether it be false or true, can influence our
country and our world for generations to come.
"You cannot have a proud and chivalrous spirit if your conduct is
mean and paltry; for whatever a man's actions are, such must be