Vignette #3: Unspoken

raucous & stripe
Neighbourhood blue jays Raucous & Stripe, whom I wrote about here.
Whenever I’m in a restaurant or other public space, I study facial expressions. It’s an astonishing experience. You quickly learn why it is that dogs and cats scan our faces constantly for clues to what we mean, and largely ignore the incoherent gibberish of what we say. Not only are faces able to express an amazing breadth and nuance of emotion and intellectual information, they do so very quickly. Blink, and you’ll miss it.
Yesterday morning I arrived for my meeting thirty minutes early, so I stopped in down the street at a sidewalk cafe, grabbed a tea and a muffin, and sat down at a table outside where I could watch the people going by. I started watching body language, especially when two people would approach each other — either intentionally (where observing the different body and facial signals of the two people, and how they often contradicted what was said orally, was so funny I could not help laughing), or unintentionally (where one of the two strangers would have to make way for the other, and a kind of unspoken power game was played to determine which, also hilarious to observe). 
When the caffeine from the tea kicked in, I moved my attention up to faces. This can be tricky, because if a stranger catches you looking briefly but purposefully at their face, some socially-programmed autonomous behaviour takes over. First, they will (nine times out of ten) avert their gaze so you cannot continue to do so, or at least so they can justifiably claim not to be aware of you observing them. I would guess this to be necessary behaviour for any species in a horrifically overcrowded environment. In many animals a direct stare is an aggressive act, and glancing away is a simple deferral (“I don’t want to fight”). Animals that do not know each other have a neutral approach etiquette: they approach at an angle, looking sidelong at each other, and then circling until, from olfactory and pheromonal clues, they convey (usually) a simple curiosity to be social with each other. There is usually a tacit signal of authority communicated (“Yes I see this is your home, and I’m just a visitor — hello”). If it’s miscommunicated, or the animal is improperly socialized, it could lead to a more obvious display of dominance and acknowledgement of submission, or even a scuffle.
We humans have unlearned to pick up on these signals, and we don’t have the time or inclination to acknowledge and greet, even briefly, every stranger we meet in our congested world. But our bodies and faces don’t unlearn behaviours as quickly as our brains do, so the result is a comical and perplexing mix of modern social/cultural signals and primeval instinctive ones. Two languages ‘we’ speak, with the part of us that speaks each unable to decipher or comprehend the other. No wonder our companion animals find us to hard to figure out.
Sometimes, when you’re caught looking, the object of your attention will not look away. You may get a glare (dilated pupils, raised eyebrows), whose meaning is aggressive and clear: “Stop looking at me”. This can be directed at you, or, more slyly, just away from you, sending the message that, not only is your stare unappreciated, it is not even worthy of a direct response (“I’m too busy to stare you down, but you catch my drift”). It can also be an ambiguous move (“I think I mean to put down your stare, but correct me if I know you or if for some other reason that behaviour is inappropriate”). You may get a more coy response — a quick glance down (for propriety’s sake) and then a look back at you, perhaps repeated several times. Then it’s back to you, to assess or explore whether that’s a flirtation, or an expression of shyness (“please don’t be mad at me, but your stare makes me uncomfortable”). Despite our modern ineptness at making these signals, and the complication of social and cultural norms and alternate spoken language signals, it doesn’t take much observation to re-learn exactly what nuance is intended. And all of this communication occurs in a fraction of a second, faster than you could utter two words — and it’s much more precise.
One of my favourite exercises is looking and smiling at people who are within eyeshot but safely inaccessible — e.g. people who are on a bus I am walking beside, or who are in the subway car beside mine, moving in the opposite direction. This ‘safety valve’ significantly changes the dynamic of the communication. Now people will look back more directly, and convey their response to your look more honestly. You are far more likely in this situation to get a smile back (or a scowl) in response. And if you then wink at them (still smiling, pleasantly), just as the vehicle moves away, you are likely to get a look of surprise and, quite often, delight.
As I was people-watching and thinking about this, a sparrow hopped up onto my table, about arms’ length away from me and my muffin. He looked at me, head cocked (like the blue jay, Raucous, pictured above), and then back at the muffin, and then back at me. There was no misinterpreting his meaning, and I knew he knew my response before my hand moved and before I said “hello there”. He knew this, I am sure, just from reading my facial expression. I tore a piece off the muffin and put it on the ground beside my table (somehow, I knew not to try to offer it directly). The sparrow hopped down, took a first bite, and then, deliberately, kicked the rest under the table, where it could be nibbled without fear of being trampled by half-awake cafe patrons walking between the tables. He came back half a dozen times for the rest, and twice en route had to practice a deft and spare little dance among the tables to avoid being stepped on. When he’d finished, he’d already confirmed that there were no other morsels available (only coffee drinkers at the other tables) and flew off to his next (probably already scouted) destination.
A moment later I looked up again and there was a young woman standing at the curb looking at me. I did the glance-down, glance-up thing, and she was still looking at me, with her head cocked exactly the way the sparrow’s was. And then with a kind of half-smile she put her index finger, which was pointed upwards, to her pursed lips, and opened her lips very slightly, and then turned and walked away.

Category: Short Stories
This entry was posted in Creative Works. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Vignette #3: Unspoken

  1. Calvin Hobbes says:

    Hi Dave,Beautiful story, almost 70-75% of all communication is non-verbal, and you convey it beautifully.Love all your works!Thanks,Srinath

  2. tjr says:

    I read your articles often and enjoy them immensely.I think that it’s worth mentioning that stares from a male could cause females great discomfort. I’m sure that I am not alone in thinking that it is some form of violation. Unfortunately, if I ever came across you on the street, observing me innocently enough, I’m quite certain you would receive quite the glare from me! : )Keep up the great work.

  3. Brutus says:

    Years ago, I read a couple books by Edward T. Hall that examined a variety of nonverbal cues and communications across cultures. According to Hall, many of them are very culture specific and represent what he calls “deep culture.” As I recall, one aspect was taking rhythm cues from a group leader and intuitively (but without awareness) syncing with him or her. Another was the amazing variety of ways to indicate something by pointing, with an impressive range of forcefulness associated with each gesture. To Hall, deep culture represents an unbridgeable cultural space between nationalities, which isn’t ameliorated by diplomatic protocols and greetings. A simple handshake is hard to get right across cultures.

  4. Anant says:

    Young woman looking at you, half smile index finger on lips, school girls skirts flying up…… are entering the dirty old man phase of your life! All of us think we are unique and would never be a seterotype, you are no diffrent.

  5. I think there’s nothing more inspiring than cross-species communication. I wonder if our squirminess about other adult humans studying us is just social programming. We don’t mind our pets gazing at us fondly, or even, for that matter, strange birds, or strange animals at the zoo. A baby looking at an adult in wonder is charming. Why isn’t it charming in an adult we don’t know? We make all these assumptions about sex cravings and ill intent. Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable because we’ve put so much emphasis on spoken and written language that we don’t remember how body language works. We have to take classes to even realize it exists.

  6. SB says:

    thank you

Comments are closed.