I belatedly took a Social Sciences degree in my late fifties (some kind of mid-life crisis: the kids had done it, why shouldn’t I?) and as part of that I became familiar with a little bit of psychology, and consequently an even slimmer understanding of body language, but never mind, you know the score: what I don’t know, I make up. I am not alone in my vague cognisance of these subconscious signals: most people these days have sufficient understanding of the rudimentals to make them redundant. For instance, no liar worth his salt will ever touch his ears (or is it nose – I could be getting side-tracked by Pinocchio here) these days whilst lying – everybody knows that it is a giveaway. They will face you, they will look you in the eye, they will sit on their hands. Politicians are taught this lesson from birth, but it doesn’t really help them: you can always tell if a politician is lying, because… well, a politician is always lying. We all know that crossing your arms is a defensive gesture – although how you are meant to defend yourself with your arms folded, I do not know. Maybe it is just a warning, like the black and yellow stripes on a wasp: ‘Don’t annoy me, or I’ll sting you. In fact, fuck it, I’ll sting you anyway.’ We all know that open arms and palms means, ‘Oh come on ref, it was an accident.’
There are, however, lesser known examples of body language that are expressed, particularly within family units – and it is to these that I address this post-graduate mini-thesis. Let us imagine the standard UK Middle England Family Unit* at the Village Hall May Day Ceilidh, Barbecue and Beetle Drive. Observe the familial interactions:
- The paternal pat on the child’s head following a minor public behavioural infarction – ‘Boy, are you going to get it when we get home.’
- Hunched shouldered helplessness – ‘I have a plan…’
- Dramatic double-take of mobile phone – ‘I’m going to say that the babysitter has had an issue with the brandy and we have to go home.’
- Playful clip of son’s ear – ‘The kids are both here, why would we have a babysitter?’
- Long stare at mobile phone screen – ‘Dog sitter?’
- Sad shake of head – ‘When did we get a dog?’
- Long, long stare at partner – ‘When we get home, I am going to eat your goldfish.’
- Crinkled brow and slightly open mouthed glance – ‘I don’t have a goldfish, otherwise you could return home to the goldfish sitter.’
- Stifled yawn – ‘An evening with the goldfish sitter would be more entertaining than this.’
- The affectionate pat on the bottom – ‘The boy is young enough to be your son and he’s got more spots than a box of dominoes.’
- The patient, forgiving smile – ‘I hate you.’
- The supportive pat on the back – ‘Boy, I wish I had a knife.’
For the more advanced observers amongst you, I refer you to the couple we all know, perma-smiling, everybody’s friend, centre stage:
- He stands with his arm casually, but patriarchally draped around her shoulders whilst (there are subtle vocal signals to look out for too) telling everybody within earshot – he may be an estate agent: everybody will be within earshot – how much he loves her. He has had an affair.
- She stands facing him with both arms around his waist, staring up into his eyes, telling everybody within earshot – she is the mother of two children who just will not do as they are told: there will be many – how much she loves him. She has had an affair.
- They both maintain a permanent physical bond, always in one another’s arms, telling anyone who will listen – by now, just the poor bloke in the embarrassing apron who cannot leave the Barbecue to top up his lukewarm German wine – how much they are in love. They have both had an affair.
- Any of the above accompanied by the news that they are to renew their marriage vows in the Caribbean. They both have had an affair and neither of them wants to risk forfeiting their pension.
There are, of course, many, many more sub-conscious (or even unconscious) bodily postures to be studied that can reveal far more about us than we ever anticipated divulging (particularly at the school gates) but, at the same time we have to be wary: we have all become increasingly aware of how easily we can be led up the garden path by them: think Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Abbot and Costello, Blair and Brown, all oozing the body language of best buddies: eye contact, occasional bodily contact, laughing at one another’s little jokes, asking the solicitor to find some way out of it… Not accidental fraud, but deliberate obfuscation: a syncopated posture of diversion; physiological misdirection; non-verbal malfeasance. We are becoming acutely conscious of the subconscious signals we emit, and are all capable of taking steps to hide them – now so deeply ingrained that we may do so completely unconsciously (oh dear!). Now, I’m not suggesting that these bodily signals are all misleading, just that they can be faked, and if there’s one thing that we humans are really good at, it is faking it, even if we can no longer remember what it is we have to fake…
*Two teenage children, each with an axe to grind and bedding crying out for incineration; Mother and Father, mid-thirties, claim to each drink fourteen units of alcohol per week, but actually stop counting by Monday teatime; one designer dog (we used to call them mongrels) that cost more than the family car and is responsible for infinitely more pollution.