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?