The music behind the words

What is your native language? No, it’s not English, nor Italian, nor Urdu. For we are all born with one native language: non-verbal communication (NVC). Watch a baby. Many months before the first recognisable word is said, a baby is able to communicate its feelings and its wants – sometimes more graphically than we would prefer. And, similarly, the baby can recognise a wide range of communication from us, without understanding a word. Throughout the animal kingdom, from the dominance displays of the apes to the domestic dog or cat, NVC rules.

While it is the only available form of communication in such cases, we know that NVC continues throughout life. Sometimes it replaces words (I can tell very easily when I am in bad odour with my nearest and dearest), but it also accompanies words, supplementing the impact of the message in many different ways. It acts as a kind of music behind the text.

We all know this, but I wonder whether we are fully aware of it. Do we attend sufficiently to our own NVC and to that of others? Is it possible to increase our interpretive and empathic skills? It would be useful, if sometimes uncomfortable, if a little box appeared over someone’s head saying “I’m warming to you” or “You’re not convincing me” or “I’m bored, why don’t you shut up?”

NVC majors on our true feelings. While it is possible for a skilled manipulator to simulate the appearance of feelings, this is rarely encountered. On the other hand deceptive words are easy. So accustom yourself to watching for the non-verbal music. Try an exercise. Stand upright, looking out like a soldier, and then say out loud: “I am an incompetent worm, thoroughly depressed, and I feel really bad about myself.” It doesn’t go, does it? Your stance is stronger than your words. In fact, if you were feeling depressed you might well find that the stance makes you feel better.

NVC covers a wide range. Tone of voice, facial expression, use of hands, the way we dress, posture, and many other elements, all communicate. But be wary of any one sign; it’s safer to review them all. And you are likely to be more accurate with people you know well, because you can recognise what is uncharacteristic.

There are racial and cultural differences too. To westerners, for instance, Asian faces can appear passive because expression is concentrated on the eye area, and not on the whole face. Business people often need to study such cultural differences if they are negotiating overseas.

In the marriage counselling room I noticed that initially a couple would sit close together. They were more frightened of me than they were of each other. As counselling progressed and the resentments began to emerge they would separate: their alienation expressed in their physical disharmony. As they moved towards reconciliation they would gradually restore their physical closeness. I knew that counselling had run its course, and that they needed me no longer.

A fascinating aspect of NVC is that it is well established that our own feelings can be affected by the expressions of others. This is a subject in itself, which perhaps deserves a whole column. Here I just note that we unconsciously absorb expressions from others and then mirror their cause in our own brains at a level that can actually enable our feelings to mimic those we have seen expressed. Not only do we need to be on guard against “catching” other people’s feelings, when we don’t wish to, but we have a responsibility for infecting the feelings of others through our own expressions. Of course the feelings transferred may be good or bad.

There are many books on non-verbal communication – ranging from the popular to the comprehensively analytic. And these are useful for theory. But it is more important to start observing quite deliberately. Pick out strangers on a train, for instance, and decide what sort of people they are, and how they relate to each other. And then analyse the clues you have used. Your recognition and interpretation will quickly develop if you practise this regularly.

It may seem a leap to move from this to religious questions. But consider the non-verbal signs we use continuously in our religious lives. Many of these are formalised in the liturgy, and we are all familiar with the “outward signs of inward grace” as a definition of the Sacraments. Then there are the incidental ones like genuflection or the sign of the cross. Of course these can be carried out mindlessly, and so lose their value. But the action and the thought should go together.

The Church is very wise in this. She recognises that we are embodied souls, and so we need to express our devotion corporally as well as spiritually.

The changes tell us something too. The loss of Latin was a loss of a sense of universality, but replaced by a sense of direct participation in the Mass. As it happens I still abstain on Fridays, but its sign as an expression of community is lacking. We all know the difference between a priest who says Mass impersonally and the priest who communicates to us that we are present at the most important act in human history.

Some would say that such things may be of interest, but of no importance. After all, a Mass is a Mass – whether well or badly said. But a Mass which communicates to us in our fullness as whole human beings has an added, and important dimension.

But you may disagree, or you may have further thoughts on NVC, and further good examples. You will have read of proposed ways to modify the celebration on Mass. For example, the priest looking towards the altar, with the congregation behind him – at least at the consecration. And the possible withdrawal of receiving Communion in the hand (which was always by concession). At papal liturgies use is made of a kneeler, used as an expression of piety. Do you look forward to such changes, or do you think they are retrograde and unnecessary?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The music behind the words

  1. Daisy says:

    I’m not sure I want to meet Quentin. I’d hate to think of him reading a notice above my head. But it’s all very interesting, and I’d like to know more.
    I very much appreciate being able to receive communion under both kinds, I know it isn’t always possible, but I feel it brings me closer to the Last Supper. For the same reason I don’t like to receive communion on the tongue (but I know spme people, carrying babies for example, need to. Do we really think that Jesus gave out communion in that way?

  2. Superview says:

    Daisy’s final sentence is quietly and innocuously revolutionary. If the same approach was taken to a whole swathe of issues in the Church it could become unrecognisable overnight. The connection in Quentin’s article with the ‘reform of reforms’ is apposite, as it seems that one of the objectives is to replace the signs that the Eucharist is a meal with signs that emphasise it is a sacrifice, and to signal more explicitly that it is a profound mystery. Returning to communion by mouth must be part of this agenda, on the premise that communion in the hand is more profane. The question is, is it?
    I recall how moving I found it when my father, who had large, strong and yet beautiful hands from heavy manual labour, with the odd tip of a finger missing, first received communion in the hand. He was a humble and devout man, yet he didn’t hesitate to take the option. I have to say that to me it was never more obviously dignified and appropriate than at that moment.
    One random observation: Quentin remarks that it ‘was always a concession’ and it does provoke me to ask, with, I confess, a thin trace of pugnacity, by whom and for whom?
    There are, of course, many opportunities for signs in the Eucharistic liturgy. For example, the vessels that are used, the ringing of bells, the movement of the servers, the appearance of extra candles, and so on. In fact, the wafers used as bread, which otherwise bear no relation to actual bread, must have some intended significance? Many decades ago I attended, at a Catholic International Conference in the Far East, what I think was described as a Mass following the Arabic Rite, and the communion bread was of a large, flat pancake type broken into pieces and dipped into the chalice. A few years ago on holiday on a Greek island, with no Mass available, we attended a Greek Orthodox Mass, and the communion bread was from large ordinary leavened loaves broken into pieces and presented in a wicker basket and taken by hand. These were each wholly valid Eucharists, but they contrasted very much with the wafer used by the Roman Rite.

  3. Receiving communion in the hand was certainly an ancient practice, but communion on the tongue is the Church’s official position. Council of Trent, but preceded by long tradition. However, in 1969 (see Memoriale Domini via Google) permission was given for bishops to allow communion in the hand, subject to Vatican confirmation in each case. It was introduced in E & W on 6 March 1976. You might be surprised at the continuing opposition. One web site regards it as the work of the Devil, another seeks novenas for the repeal of permission.

  4. RMBlaber says:

    NVC is a big problem for me, as I can’t read it. I can generally read the cruder, more obvious, kinds – the big smile that tells me someone is very happy, or the upturned mouth that tells me someone is very sad – but otherwise, the subtler forms elude me.
    In this, I am like every other person on the autism spectrum. One of the main reasons we score low on empathy is precisely because we can’t read other people’s NVC. We are missing out on a large part of their communication with us.
    Furthermore, we don’t always appreciate the impact of our own NVC. I remember being frequently mystified by school teachers saying ‘Don’t use that tone of voice with me.’
    As for liturgical changes: I don’t think we are in danger of losing things like reception in the hand, anymore than we are of losing the vernacular, or priests facing the congregation. The Ordinary Rite is not going to be abolished, and nor is communion in both kinds. If I thought we were in such danger, I would be extremely upset, and I would make my opposition to such changes very clear to my priest and local bishop (the Bishop of Northampton), and to the Archbishop of Westminster. If all of us who want to keep the status quo did the same thing, perhaps the hierarchy would think twice.

  5. Superview says:

    Thank you Quentin, and I agree with RMBlaber that it seems unlikely that things will change across the board.
    Memoriale Domine is an interesting document. I can see why the critics of reception in the hand find it odd that, it having confirmed that the ‘traditional’ reception by mouth should be retained, it goes on to allow reception by hand where this has become established usage.
    It is also interesting to see the voting results from the replies to the three questions asked of the Bishops in 1969:
    Should reception by hand allowed? ‘Yes’, including those with reservations, 912; ‘No’, 1,233.
    Should it be allowed in small communities with consent of their bishop? ‘Yes’, 751; ‘No’, 1215.
    Do you think the faithful will receive reception in the hand gladly? ‘Yes’, 835; ‘No’, 1,185.
    (There were small numbers of invalid votes in each case, reaching 128 for the last question).

    It would seem, now that communion in the hand is widespread, that the 59% majority of bishops who thought the faithful would not take to it were wrong. In our parish, and all the parishes we have visited for several years, I would guess that maybe one or two percent receive by mouth. Having had a vote among the bishops in 1969, wouldn’t it seem consistent, if a serious question has arisen on the matter, to go out to them again?

    I realise that ‘tradition’ is central to theology and dogma in the Church, but I am interested in the way tradition is created. Is it the case that, for example, removing the flannel, an order is given that something should be the case, everyone complies, and henceforth it becomes a tradition? “It is certainly true that ancient usage once allowed the faithful to take this divine food in their hands and to place it in their mouths themselves” says Memoriale Domine. This was obviously the normal thing to do when the early Church came together and it seemed to have been so for the early centuries. Wasn’t this ‘ancient usage’ truly a tradition, so how and why was it changed? And when was the wafer substituted for actual bread as at the Last Supper? (I think the change must have been intended as a non-verbal sign – maybe that a piece of bread did not lend itself to mystery as does the wafer disc?)

    In the same way, in a real sense, isn’t the way in which communion in the hand has been adopted freely by so many people truly a tradition in the making? Even a return to that ‘ancient usage’?

    However, I believe we have to acknowledge the phenomenon that is at the root of the concern which is leading to the arguments for ‘reform of the reforms’ and the restoration of mystery. I can remember the time when a minority of the congregation went to communion. Now, each Sunday, 99.9% of people in our parish go to communion (and maybe 80% under both kinds when it is available). It is certain that many of them have not been to confession for some time. It is also apparent that most do not continue to show by their body language the devout reverence that used to characterise the period after communion for more than a few moments. The conclusion being drawn is that these are signs that something is wrong. Are they? I have wondered at this for some time, having often compelled myself to dwell fearfully, and inevitably unworthily, on the enormity of the ‘most important act in human history’. Yet on balance I’m inclined to think that what we are seeing is something more positive than negative; that people want to be ‘in communion’ and approach the altar faithfully and with confidence and without fear, and who knows what their personal prayers are. But is this enough? If there were more mystery and fear would they behave differently and more appropriately in God’s eyes?

  6. Iona says:

    Possibly the reason for the introduction of a pre-made wafer (rather than a loaf broken and distributed) is that a broken loaf results in a lot of crumbs. The priest takes very good care that any crumbs from the breaking of his own host are caught. This would be much more difficult with an ordinary loaf.
    That being said, I think I read somewhere that Neocatechumenate Masses use a “real” loaf, broken and distributed. Can anyone confirm this, and what do they do about the crumbs?

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