Via a shout-out on Evan Marc Katz’ blog (I’ve been following EMK for a while, but Oliver Burkeman referenced him recently as well), I find an article on Blake Eastman, a dating coach who focusses on body language.
Eastman’s theory is that if you’re not fluent in body language, you’re likely to give your date the wrong idea, to inadvertently act uninterested when you’re interested or vice versa, to be left mystified by someone’s vanishing act, even though he was telling you the whole time—wordlessly, of course—that he couldn’t wait to get away.
This is very interesting to me because I struggle somewhat with understanding other people – you lot are all strange, unpredictable creatures as far as I’m concerned! I suspect also that I am not sending out signals in the same language as anyone else.
The article reports that Eastman:
…says he developed his proficiency in nonverbal communication during childhood as an adaptive response to his anxiety. In social situations, he often found himself paralyzed, imagining worst-case scenarios about what would happen if he made the wrong move or said the wrong thing. So he learned to read people to discern what they wanted from him.
I find this even more interesting, because I am fairly sure that some of my difficulty in social settings is similar, except that my reason for fearing the worst is precisely that I have never been able to make sense of the signals around me sufficiently well as to be able to predict the next move with confidence. (I’ve got better at it in recent years, but I have to check verbally that my read is correct if it seems there are signals there, or else be prepared for the worst.)
One of the biggest things I find I am bad at, and that I read that other people want or need, is maintaining eye contact. In most conversations, my eyes will wander around the room finding points of interest or contrast usually behind the person I’m talking to. Even though I know I’m doing it, I can’t seem to stop. The frustrating thing is, I know that people understand this as “I’m not listening”, but in actual fact I am ALWAYS listening and paying close attention to what they’re saying. I don’t really know why it is that I do this – it could be an anxiety thing, like a need to scope out the surroundings for potential threats; it could be an association with eye contact as a threat or a challenge (either to or from the person I’m talking with); it could be an overactive brain (did I mention I overthink everything?); or it could be something I haven’t thought of yet. These days I make a conscious effort to bring back my eyes to the person I’m listening to, hopefully often enough to reassure them that they have my attention (that’s what this is about – remember, they have my attention even when I’m gazing off at something else – it’s just about letting them know that they have it). But yeah, that’s something I struggle with.
Eastman talks about how, “many people do poorly on dates because they’re ’emotionally incongruent’: What comes out of their mouths doesn’t match what shows on their faces.” (I’m familiar with the concept of congruence or “genuineness” from learning about person-centred counselling.) This is what bothers me about having a different dialect of body language. I generally believe that I am pretty open: face, body, speech, all in alignment because I’m not hiding anything from myself or others. Except that other people don’t seem to get that from me, and equally, other people seem to express the things I think I’m expressing, but using different things. My point is, I don’t think I am “emotionally incongruent”, but I think or fear that I come across that way anyway, because of this thing about different dialects.
Part of this is that I respond to the world in some ways that are typically considered “feminine” or described as how women relate to the world, whereas my body is pretty solidly cast in the male social category. Thus people expect a man (which they mistakenly think I am) to act in a certain way, and I (being only apparently male) respond in ways that are coded differently. A big thing is that my natural, instinctive mode is to try to attract someone into approaching me, rather than being the one who approaches (as a male-bodied person this is not a realistic option because of social norms, so I have to force myself into a frame where I’m the approacher, both online and in real life). Other people are bound to read me as incongruent because they read the built-in incongruence between my body (male-assigned-at-birth) and my behaviour/personality (which is sometimes socially coded as feminine or just “not-male”). Sometimes the very things that make me feel strong are seen by others as marks of weakness, because of that gendered coding.
This is actually a big worry for me when I write. The generally-applied rule is, “show, don’t tell” – that is, describe how your characters show what they are feeling, don’t simply label the emotions. I figure I’m not yet at the stage where I can say that I know when and why and how to ignore the rule. But, of course, if my understanding of other people’s body-dialect is off, how can I expect to create plausible and congruent characters? Part of my goal in writing is perhaps precisely to help myself learn to appreciate and read other people’s coding better as I attempt to put it into clear words on a page.
I’m still not entirely sure how to do this, although I think it might help: Eastman suggests:
So if they’re doing so many things wrong, how can discouraged daters improve their skills? “Video,” Eastman says. “You watch yourself on tape. Then you can change.” It might be a creepy move to set up a video camera on a first date, but Eastman will approximate the experience for you in his workshop by filming you talking to your classmates.
I do know that there are times when I catch myself in a reflective surface (a shiny window, or a mirror) when I’m out and about. Sometimes I look more-or-less how I feel I look, but sometimes there’s a sense of incongruence there too. Maybe if I could watch myself talking (although it would be awkward because I generally don’t like the sound of my own talking voice on recordings – I like my singing voice though) then I would see what others see.