Inside Intuition

AutorFlora Davis
PealkiriInside intuition: what we know about nonverbal communication
ViideDavis, Flora 1973. Inside intuition: what we know about nonverbal communication. New York: McGraw-Hill.

I rarely do an article without being tempted to try out a new career. When I interview an anthropologist, I wind up wishing I could become one. If I spend an hour consulting a psychotherapist, I emerge into the gritty New York sunlight wondering why on earth I wanted to be a writer when i could conceivably have stuck with psychology in college and ended up a therapist. It's never so much the job that intrigues me as the subject itself. (Davis 1973: vii)
I do think that the day may come when you will be able to take courses in decoding nonverbal behavior, and I'm not at all sure that will be a good thing, especially if they promise too much.
Nevertheless, we all have the ability to decode to some degree. We call it intuition. We learn it in babyhood and use it all our lives on a subconcsious level, and that's much the most efficient way to do it. In a flash, we interpret a body movement or react to a tone of voice, and we read it in as part of the whole message, which is clearly better than consciously juggling several dozen different message components, some of which may actually contradict one another. (Davis 1973: ix)
Self-conciousness is a problem for many people when they first become aware of the fact that body motion communicates. It attacked me so acutely at times that I was momentarily half-paralyzed. Interviewing the scientists was particularly intimidating. By the time I'd listened to three of them talk about palm-presentation - an open-handed gesture often made by Anglo-Saxon women when they are attracted to a man - I was practically sitting on my hands. But eventually I came to accept what one of the experts suggested to me: that people can be as alike or as different as the leaves on a tree and that the scientists seldom take note of a gesture unless it's something really unusual. (Davis 1973: x-xi)
The concept of nonverbal communication has fascinated nonscientists for centuries. Sculptors and painters have always been aware of how much can be conveyed in a gesture or by a posture, and nonverbal skills are the actor's stock in trade. The novelist who relates that a character "stubbed out his cigarette vicariously" or "rubbed his nose thoughtfully" dips into a shared folklore of gesture. (Davis 1973: 1)
It seems that from the time a baby is born we tell it hundreds of times a day in subtle, nonverbal ways whether it is a boy or a girl. Most people actually hold a girl baby differently than they do a boy - in our society, boys, even at a very early age, are apt to be handled more roughly.
Every time a boy baby acts in a way that accords with our convictions about how a boy ought to act, we reinforce his behavior. The reinforcement can be something as subtle as an approving tone of voice or a fleeting approving facial expression, or it can be quite verbal and specific (indulgently: "Isn't that just like a boy?"). And of course we reward a girl for showing feminine traits. Little boys may not be scolded for wanting to play with dolls, byt they are seldom encouraged to. Perhaps the total absence of any response - the lack of positive vibration - tells the boy he is doing something boys are not meant to do. (Davis 1973: 6-7)
Among women the one most determinately feminine and sexy is often the least responsive to any real, personal approach. Birdwhistell has found a difference between a sexy woman and a sexual woman, a difference that is not hard to spot at practically any cocktail party. The sexual woman may start the evening standing on the sidelines looking uninteresting; but when she gets into conversation with a man she likes, her face and the whole way she holds her body change. A man who is aware of the change may feel that in some mysterious way he has made her beautiful.
The sexy woman, on the other hand, is the one in the low-cut dress who is surrounded by men. But the men she is surrounded by are men who do not really like women and are there because it is the safest spot in the room; the sexy woman is so busy sending signals that insist "I am a woman. I am a woman. I am a woman" that she demands nothing of the men she is with except their undivided attention, since she is too busy playing a part to have any real interest in them. Essentially, she is a tragic figure. Probably she was once a little girl who learned to be cute and pretty to please parents who used her as a showpiece, which taught her at the same time that people often treat each other as possessions. When she grew older, she began to be approached by men who did not like women. Because they needed to prove that they were men, they used her simply as what the feminists call a sexual object. In the end she becomes a brittle, anxious woman who presents a very simple picture of herself and sells a very simple commodity. She may even say, "Men are only interested in one thing." But that may actually be all she can offer; she has never learned to respond or to exchange with another human being. (Davis 1973: 12-13)
Pioneering studies on novnerbal communication in courtship have been done by the kinesicists, chiefly by Dr. Albert Scheflen, working with Ray Birdwhistell.
In analyzing films of courtship, Scheflen has documented the fact that love does sometimes make a woman - or a man - beautiful, and has even pinned down in detail just how this happens.
A woman, for example, becomes briefly beautiful when an emotional response, such as sexual attraction, triggers subtle changes in her body. In their deliberately dry way, the kinesicists speak of the whole delightful phenomenon as coming into a state of "high courtship readiness." (Davis 1973: 14-15)
Palming is the subtlest signal of all. Most Anglo-Saxon women habitually hold their hands curled and show only a rare flash of palm. Yet in courting, women palm all over the place. Even gestures ordinarily done palm in, such as smoking or covering a cough, in courting may be made palm out. (Davis 1973: 16)
A stage-by-stage analysis of human courtship, begun recently by Dr. Adam Kendon, a psychologist who has worked with Scheflen, has turned up other possibly universal features that can also be seen in animal courtship. Kendon's study, using films of couples that were taken in public parks, indicates that, for the woman, courtship combines two different elements. First, she shows off her sexuality to attract the man, then she reassures him with childlike behavior - coy looks, cocked head, and soft, babyish gestures. The man, in turn, demonstrates his male prowess, perhaps by standing tall and gesturing aggressively, and also reassures by becoming somewhat childlike.
The parallel animal behavior arises from the actual physical danger involved in the courtship situation among animals. The male of the species risks an ill-tempered attack if the female isn't feeling receptive, and when it's the female who makes the first approach, she sometimes takes a beating before the male is reassured, by the very fact that she doesn't fight back, that she's not a threat. So animal courtship also generally has two stages: first the individual must attract a sexual partner; then it must overcome the other's fear of close contact. Imitations of the young are sometimes used to reassure. The male woodpecker finch may invite the female into his nest by mimicking the gestures of a nestling begging for food. Male hamsters when courting imitate the baby hamster's call. (Davis 1973: 22-23)
Years of studying films such as this one have led a pioneering kinesicist, Ray Birdwhistell, to conclude that much of the real, bedrock business of human communication is carried out on a level below consciousness at which words are only indirectly relevant. He estimates that no more than thirty-five percent of the social meaning in any conversation is embedded in the words that are spoken.
There are times when the scientist is at least as fascinating as the science, times when an extraordinary degree the man's own views of the human condition shapes and informs his work. This is true of kinesics, which is very much the brain child of one man - Ray Birdwhistell - and the history of kinesics is primarily the history of the development of his thought.
Birdwhistell first conceived an interest in body motion in 1946, when he was doing an anthropological field study in western Canada and was living among the Kutenai Indians. It struck him then that the Indians looked entirely different when speaking English than they did when speaking Kutenai. Their smiles, head nods, movements of the eyebrows, all changed.
"It was something that haunted me after I left there," he said. (Davis 1973: 25-26)
An expert in kinesics can actually tell a European from an American by the way they move their eyebrows in conversation. (Davis 1973: 26)
an Italian, when he sees a pretty girl, may comment by tugging at one ear lobe; an Arabn in the same situation will stroke his beard, while an American makes two downwar, in-and-out movements with his hands as if outlining womanly curves. However, these gestures are often used in a kind of ironic comment when the woman in question isn't at all attractive, with the irony supplied by facial expression, posture, or some other body behavior. In the same way, an experienced army private, when he salutes, can convey anyting from approval to ridicule just by what he does with his face or body stance, or by the speed and duration of the arm movement, or simply by choosing to salute in a situation in which a salute isn't at all appropriate. (Davis 1973: 27-28)
Because human movement patterns are so complex, they can't be analyzed on sight; they must first be transcribed, a problem that has plagued most students of communication. Birdwhistell solved it years ago by inventing his own ingenious shorthand system, one that has been adapted and used by some other scientists since. (Davis 1973: 29)
Birdwhistell summed up his particular view of human communication for me this way:
Years ago, I started with the question: How do body motions flesh out words? Now I ask instead: When is it appropriate to use words? They're very appropriate to teach or to talk on the telephone, but you and I are communicating on several levels right now and on only one or two of them have words any relevance whatsoever. These days I put it another way: Man is a multisensorial being. Occasionally, he verbalizes.
(Davis 1973: 33)
One of the more startling theories put forward by communication experts is the notion that sometimes the body itself communicates - and not only by the way it moves or the postures it assumes. There can also be a message in the very shape of the body and even in the way the features of the face are arranged, according to Ray Birdwhistell, who believes that physical appearance is often culturally programmed.
Birdwhistell believes that we learn our looks - we're not born with them. When a baby is small, his features are generally soft and unfrmed: a blob of a nose above a small, urgent, almost lipless mouth, a face that's all cheeks and eyes with the potential to become almost anything. Even eyebors are subject to change, for they can be very mobile and only gradually become set at a certain distance above the eyes. Just how far above is something the baby learns from those around him, family and friends. Birdwhistell says that this helps to explain why the people of some regions look so much alike, when it can't be a matter of genes. Eyebrow level can be a very distinctive characteristic. There are people who are beetle browed, while others - some upper-class Englishmen, for example - wear their eyebrows so far above their eyes that, to Americans, they look perpetually surprised. (Davis 1973: 34-35)
THe cultural patterning of static signals.
The faces we learn and the way we present our bodies carry not just the signature of our culture, they're our own signatures as well. They are one way we tell society whether to reward us or not. THe attractive, vivacious child gets more attention and opportunities than the unattractive one. But not everyone wants to be a leader, and success, because it generally entails new responsibilities, actually frightens many people. By being somewhat ugly, people reduce their responsibilities. THey can also punishm themselves, their parents, their husbands or wives. Obesity, for instance, can be self-punishment; it can also be a way to insulate oneself against sexual approaches - and some people feel more confident, more imposing, when they're bigger. (Davis 1973: 38)
There won't be any great leap forward in psychotherapy, Ekman feels, since therapists are already using the new knowledge about communication; but there will be tremendous commercial exploitation.
I expect to see training institutes set up to train salesmen and job applicants [he said]. I expect there will be widespread monitoring of facial expressions during personnel interviews. I expect to see measurements of facial behavior used to pretest commercials - I've been approached already myself to set up all these things. No, I haven't accepted. And I expect to see business do quite explicit grooming and training of employees' facial behavior right across the board. I think it's quite possible to teach people to be better deceivers.
Some of these are uncomfortable predictions, but when I said so, EKman's reply was that as soon as nonverbal behavior becomes part of public knowledge, it will begin to change. As soon as studies are published describing the ways in which people betray the fact that they're lying, those particular leaks will disappear, perhaps to be replaced by others. It presents an odd problem for the social scientist: his behavioral studies may eventually precipitate changes in behavior which may in turn invalidate his earlier research.
The idea of a personnel trained to "monitor" facial expressions is somewhat chilling, a reminder of George Orwell's 1984, where a man commited a "facecrime" when his facial expression gave away the fact that he was thinking forbidden thoughts. Told body movements communicate, some people feel exposed, helpless, shown up even in silence; after all, one can refuse to speak but one can hardly refuse to move a muscle. (Davis 1973: 61)
I once heard a man say to a woman, "Do you realize that you just crossed your legs and folded your arms? You're obviously feeling very defensive." Here was an intrusion upon privacy, which was as wrong as the reading and discussion of another person's mail. (Davis 1973: 62)
It is an intrusion. It is also concursive speech. And it is also a Pease-ism.
Goffman doesn't have a laboratory. Instead, he has a filing system. When he writes, he puts together things he has read, bits of novels, newspaper clippings, items from books of etiquette, and what he learned in a year he spent studying the social structure of a mental institution. To this he adds his own systematic observations made in social situations, from cocktail parties to public meetings. The results, in cool, precise, measured prose, are his books on face-to-face interaction. (Davis 1973: 199)


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