Non-Verbal Communication & Messages

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how non-verbal communication often happens below the level of our consciousness. However, just because it is something we don’t consciously recognize doesn’t mean that the messages conveyed are meaningless. I wrote yesterday about how non-verbal communication can allow us to communicate some messages slyly, implying things and making our intentions clear without us having to say what we really mean. Today, another quote on non-verbal communication from Simler and Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain expands on the role and meaning of non-verbal communication.

 

“Body language … is mostly not arbitrary. Instead, nonverbal behaviors are meaningfully, functionally related to the messages they’re conveying.” We have shared physical reactions to emotional states of being that seem to emphasize and align with the emotional state we are in. Across cultures, the authors explain, while words and manners of verbal communication change, a lot of non-verbal communication ques remain constant. Emotional excitement may be displayed through loud exclamations and lots of arm or body movements. Interest in something may result in us staring at the interesting thing, with our eyes widening, potentially changing our field of view.

 

We do these things and respond to non-verbal messages without necessarily realizing we are doing so. Once we start to look for it, however, we can start to notice similar patterns in body language that convey messages that go along with (or perhaps contradict) the verbal messages that we also convey. We can learn that certain non-verbal cues have specific meanings and we can learn to present ourselves a certain way to help reinforce the language that we are trying to get across.

 

Recently, my wife and I adopted a puppy and started training her. In one of our first lessons, the instructor taught us a little about reading the dog’s body language and non-verbal communication. My wife and I now know to look for hair on the back of her neck standing up when she growls, so we know if she is growing in a playful way, or if she feels threatened. This was invisible to me before it was pointed out, even though on some level I probably could still tell the difference between the dog’s attitude.

 

We humans do the same things in some situations. We may playfully wrestle with a loved one or children, and while we might be making physically dominant gestures, there are aspects of our body language and non-verbal communication that demonstrate that everything is just fun play. We can be taught to recognize these types of non-verbal cues, but most of us probably just pick up on them automatically. I suspect that some of us are better than others at noticing these cues, and that it would be very helpful for others to have some explicit explanation of these cues. Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that communication is not just about the words we use, and that unconscious (often) behavior can be directly related and included in the messages we convey, even if our brains don’t fully realize it. A lot happens beneath the surface, and we should acknowledge this and acknowledge just how much our brains don’t see when things are happening right in front of us.

Our Brains Don’t Hold Information as Well as We Think

Anyone who has ever misplaced their keys or their wallet knows that the brain can be a bit faulty. If you have ever been convinced you saw a snake only to find out it was a plastic bag, or if you remembered dropping a pan full of sweet potatoes as a child during Thanksgiving only to get into an argument with your brother about which one of you actually dropped the pan, then you know your brain can misinterpret signals and mis-remember events. For some reason, our hyper-powerful pattern recognition brains seem to be fine with letting us down from time to time.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “There’s a wide base of evidence showing that human brains are poor stewards of the information they receive from the outside world. But this seems entirely self-defeating, like shooting oneself in the foot. If our minds contain maps of our worlds, what good comes from having an inaccurate version of these maps?” 

 

The question is, why do we have such powerful brains that can do such amazing things, but that still make basic mistakes all the time? The answer that Hanson and Simler propose throughout the book is that having super accurate information in the brain, remembering everything perfectly, and clearly observing everything around us is actually detrimental to our success as a social species. Our view of the world only needs to be so accurate for us to successfully function as biological creatures. We only need senses that satisfice for us to evade predators, avoid poisonous mushrooms, and get enough food. What really drives the evolution of the brain, is being successful socially, and sometimes a bit of deception gives us a big advantage.

 

It is clear that the brain is not perfect at observing the world. We don’t see infrared wavelengths of light, we can’t sense the earths magnetic pull, and we can’t hear as many sounds as dogs can hear. Our experience of the world is limited. On top of those limitations, our brains are not that interested in having an accurate picture of the information that it actually can observe. We must keep this in mind as we go through our lives. What can seem so clear and obvious to us, may be a distorted picture of the world that someone else can see as incomplete. A good way to move forward is to abandon the idea that we have (or must have) a perfect view and opinion of the world. Acknowledge that we have preferences and opinions that shape how we interpret the world, and even if we are not open to changing those opinions, at least be open to the idea that our brains are not designed to have perfect views, and that we might be shortsighted in some areas. We will need to bond with others and form meaningful social groups, but we should not accept that we will have to delude our view of the world and accept alternate facts to fit in.

Original Intent

A popular idea among many people, in regard to the Constitution of the United States is the idea of “Original Intent.” It is a concept that suggests that our constitution should be strictly followed and narrowly interpreted, that what was written and ratified in 1788 is what should still guide our government today. Historian Joseph Ellis thinks this is a troublesome view given the nature of the Constitution’s adoption and approaches of Madison who greatly influenced the shaping of the constitution.

 

In my last post, I wrote about the Constitution as a living document, designed with the intent that it would be updated and adjusted through time to meet the needs of citizens at a given point. Ellis, in his book The Quartet, continued with this view of the document and wrote,

 

“The Constitution was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution. For judicial devotees of “originalism” or “original intent,” this should be a disarming insight, since it made the Constitution the foundation for an ever-shifting political dialogue that, like history itself, was an argument without end. Madison’s “original intention” was to make all “original intentions” infinitely negotiable in the future.”

 

The Constitution has few hard and fast rules, especially when the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments are not considered. It focuses most thoroughly on the role of Congress and authorities and duties delegated to Congress. The Executive Branch is also fairly well detailed and explained, but the Judicial Branch is hardly developed in the Constitution. Broad language such as “necessary and proper” was written into the Constitution, creating  flexibility for Congress. Trying to look back at the Constitution and assume what the founding fathers waned our government and society to look like today is trivial in the eyes of Ellis. The Constitution they wrote encourages debate, argument, and new interpretation. Clinging to ideas of original intent appears counter productive, because the founders never intended for their understanding of the world to lock in specific governance rules for all time. The intent was a document which would define and separate power to allow for deliberation and debate among the branches and among the people to guide the important decisions of the nation.

 

I also believe that original intent does a disservice to the Constitution and to society by elevating the document and the founding fathers to a quasi-religious level. To assume that original intent is the most appropriate way to understand the Constitution is to assume that the document itself and the men who wrote it were somehow greater than ordinary men and that the written words of the constitution are in some sense sacrosanct and divine. Our founding fathers, the quartet detailed by Ellis in particular, no doubt achieved something remarkable with the writing and adoption of the constitution, but if you study the time and can view history through the lens of those who experienced it, you see that history was shaped by people who made mistakes just as we do today, who were counting on good luck, and who had equally cloudy judgement and foresight as today’s leaders. Just as we would assume that a law written today is not perfect and should not ever be adjusted when the situation calls for it, we should not assume that the Constitution is a document that cannot be re-imagined and re-understood as society and the world change.

Nuances in What We Say and Mean

I really enjoy language. I listen to a podcast about language, Lexicon Valley, I studied Spanish for my undergraduate degree, and I’m currently learning sign language. There are a lot of ways to say the things that are on our mind, and a lot of nuance in how we say the things we want to communicate.

 

I find this fascinating, but it can cause real challenges for us in our relationships with others. Colin Wright in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships describes communication as “the mortar that holds together whatever structure you decide to build.” It is our communication which establishes and maintains our relationships with others and gives them meaning. The defining characteristics of our relationships can often be understood by the language and words we use. How we say something, the particular meaning we pull from a word, and the vocabulary we use all signify something about the relationships we have with others.

 

Complicating this is the nuance running through our communication. I’m in Reno, Nevada, and the way we speak is heavily influenced by trends in the San Francisco Bay Area. We speak a little bit differently than my fellow Nevadans in Las Vegas, who are more influenced by the language of Los Angeles. In his book, Wright encourages us to remember that there are many differences and nuances in the way we speak and use words. This is important to remember because these small nuances can change the meaning and definitions we attach to what people say and how we understand ourselves relative to others. He writes,

 

“Remember that everyone speaks a different language, and not just the English, Spanish, Japanese sense of the word. The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like ‘relationship’ and ‘love’ and even ‘communication’ will mean something slightly, or vastly, different to each individual who uses them.”

 

For me, this is a reminder that I don’t know everything. I don’t know what is happening in another person’s head and I can never be perfectly sure that we are using the same word or phrase in the same way. We might be using the same word, but have a slightly different sense of what that word means. It is important that we are clear and concise with our speech and that we listen intently and ask clarifying questions when others are speaking so that we can better understand them and be more sure of the meaning we attach to what is said. This can lead to better alignment within a relationship, strengthening its overall ties and bonds.

Presence During Tough Times

Author Ryan Holiday wrote about the ways in which we can take the challenges and struggles in our lives and turn them into opportunities for us to grow, learn, and become more complete human beings in his book The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday’s message is always relevant and important for anyone, regardless of your situation. He offers strategies and ways of thinking based on stoic philosophy, but he does so in a way that recognizes our humanity and recognizes that though simple in theory, his recommendations are challenging in real life. What his book gives us is a new perspective on struggles and a practice that overtime can help us succeed when we face obstacles and frustrations.

 

One of the key ideas from his book is our ability to focus on the present moment and to reshape the way in which we interpret events around us. Often times we tear ourselves apart in fear of the unknown future and regret of our past. Holiday encourages us to stay in the present moment and to truly understand our current situation to better handle the mistakes we have made and to better navigate the uncertainty of what is ahead. Holiday writes, “You can take the trouble you’re dealing with and use it as an opportunity to focus on the present moment. To ignore the totality of your situation and learn to be content with what happens, as it happens. To have no “way”  that the future needs to be to confirm your predictions, because you didn’t make any.”

 

In this quote Holiday reminds us that each struggle and each moment of frustration, fear, and doubt can be a tool for us to use to change our perspective. We may be working hard to have life be a certain way, and our obstacles can help us analyze our current situation, recognize that all we have control over is our own thoughts, and let go of the anxiety that builds when we try to force our lives to be a certain way. The act of presence during tough times helps us see the positives and keeps us from letting our mind connect current troubles to past challenges or future fears. Staying present in these difficult moments helps us learn how to be present in every moment, and helps us recognize that all we ever have is the current time.

Successful Growth

While reading Colin Wright’s Considerations, I came across a short  sentence that read, “there’s no commonly accepted ranking system, and all a person has is their own interpretation of movement, their own ideas about how much they’ve grown.” Originally I had just highlighted the middle section of the sentence about our own interpretations of growth, and I had left myself a note reading, “growth is naturally movement.” In isolation this sentence speaks to me about our constant evolution through life, and the lenses through which we judge our changes.  We see our own growth in a way that is different from the way others see our growth, and in the end, all that matters for us is our interpretation of our personal changes and growth.

 

Placed back in the context of Wright’s book, the quote speaks to the difficulty of comparing people and success.  We all seem to want to grow toward a future that is more successful monetarily, but Wright argues that judging ourselves and others based on our income is a flawed way of gaging success.  He writes that we often use awards, recognition, and accolades to judge our value and growth, but the sentence above shows that there is no way to truly equalize and compare our growth and success.

 

When I look at myself and where I am from a standpoint of growth and movement, from the changes and evolutions I have experienced to what has remained constant or become stronger in my life, I do feel very successful. I can examine the movement in my life and be proud of the changes I have gone through even though I do not have the most impressive salary, have not won many awards, and am not a well known public figure.  Wright would argue that I am heading down a useful path where I understand my own interpretation of movement in my life, which will allow me to feel positive about myself as I direct my growth in a direction that aligns with who I truly am and want to be. Chasing growth in certain areas because it is impressive to others would likely not move me in a direction that aligned so well with my internal interpretations of the world.