This week’s Friday Flashback, originally titled “Paging Mr. Orange”, was first published in February 2009.
Non-verbal language is a fascinating topic. There are plenty of occasions when, for reasons I can’t really articulate, I’ve gotten ‘hunches’ about certain people. I’m not, as far as I know, a “deception expert”, and it’s not always lying that ‘pings’ my radar, but there have been times when I’ve felt as though I could almost tell what the person in front of me was thinking (and trying not to show). It is a strange feeling; it’s as if, let’s say, all of a sudden, you are able to see a third eye on someone’s forehead – a third eye that’s been there all along but, for some reason, is only apparent now.
I don’t consider myself a particularly observant person. Put kindly, I live too much inside my own head. Put more bluntly, I have a tendency to be a little self-absorbed (and if you want to go blunter still, remove the “little”). I’m sure that many, many “tells” (those micro-expressions that betray the inner emotions or thoughts we might otherwise wish to conceal) escape through the large sieve of my obliviousness. Though I’m loath to make broad generalizations, I think the same is true for a lot of people. Watch two people having a conversation. While one is talking, the other is most likely doing one of the following things: thinking about what they want to say next time they get a chance to speak; wondering what kind of impression they are making; worrying about whether they have something in their teeth; checking out their manicure/reflection in a nearby surface/the cutie who just walked by; making up their weekly grocery list. They are paying selective attention to what is being said, but it’s rarely enough to catch the infinitesimal nuances, especially of the non-verbal kind.
Along with being a selfish jerk who doesn’t listen to everything you say, I’m also frequently self-conscious. In truth, this is actually the main reason why I’m a selfish jerk who doesn’t listen to everything you say. I’m just too darn worried about (a) inadvertently putting my foot in my mouth next time I open it (no, not literally); (b) fidgeting too much; (c) coming across as a total bitch. See, I have a lot on my mind! The times when I’ve been able to get a “read” on someone have most often been times when I felt very relaxed for one reason or another. I wasn’t thinking about (a), (b) and (c) and, consequently, was able to devote my entire attention to the person in front of me. And, like I said, it’s amazing what you can find out that way.
In a 2002 article published in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about Dr. Ekman and the science of face recognition. Quoting Ekman and Silvan Tomkins, Gladwell summarized some of the other, and more surprising reasons (in my opinion), why people are often not very good at reading faces:
This is surely why the majority of us don’t do well at reading faces: we feel no need to make that extra effort. People fail … Ekman says, because they end up just listening to the words. That’s why, when Tomkins was starting out in his quest to understand the face, he always watched television with the sound turned off. “We are such creatures of language that what we hear takes precedence over what is supposed to be our primary channel of communication, the visual channel,” he once said. “Even though the visual channel provides such enormous information, the fact is that the voice pre-empts the individual’s attention, so that he cannot really see the face while he listens.” We prefer that way of dealing with the world because it does not challenge the ordinary boundaries of human relationships. Ekman, in one of his essays, writes of what he learned from the legendary sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman said that part of what it means to be civilized is not to “steal” information that is not freely given to us. When someone picks his nose or cleans his ears, out of unthinking habit, we look away. Ekman writes that for Goffman the spoken word is “the acknowledged information, the information for which the person who states it is willing to take responsibility.”
Another thing to consider is that, in order to read faces accurately, it seems that you need to pay very close and uninterrupted attention. And that, for better or worse, can often be perceived as rudeness (or worse). Stare at someone intently for too long, and they will likely start to question your motivations or sanity, or both. I suppose that sort of thing works well enough in the interrogation room, but I don’t think it would really fly at a cocktail party. Unless I were a charmingly sarcastic, world renowned deception expert. With an English accent.
Now, you must excuse me: I’m off to pick up a copy of Gladwell’s Blink, and worry about what my face might betray should I ever run into Mr. Roth at a cocktail party.
Editor’s Comments (October 2012): Oh, the days when I used to watch prime-time TV! I miss those days. To give you an idea of how badly out of hand the situation has gotten, I am now almost two entire seasons behind on Downton Abbey. Not to mention Mad Men, True Blood, and a host of other shows I have already forgotten and which, much like Lie to Me, I am afraid, have been cancelled in the interim. But speaking of the actual topic of this post (which is not Tim Roth, in fact), whenever I think about facial recognition, I think about mind-reading, which then makes me think about which super-power I would like to have. [Look, my mind works in strange and circuitous ways, OK?] As it happens, mind-reading would not be it. If True Blood taught me anything (apart from recognizing the hotness of one Alexander Skarsgard), it’s that the ability to hear the thoughts of others is a pesky proposition. Unless you happen to be in a dire situation involving vampires, were-animals, witches, faeries, and/or assorted other mythical creatures, in which case, it might come in handy. No, my pick would be a toss-up between the power to time travel and the power to teleport at will. A combination of both would be most kick-ass.
What about you – what would you pick as your super-power of choice?