This post is in the Communications category

Dear Reader

A grunt doesn’t always mean “yes”.

Here’s something that is so fundamental that it is embarrassing to put into text.

As you would realise, there is a double “reading” process with the videos – the words, then the un-words. I watched one of my interviews today, with someone I have known for a couple of years, in several different contexts – teacher / student, co-workers, friends. I notice that when she speaks, she watches for my reaction. There aren’t many (that I can see) but when they occur, she respond almost instantly. Much of the time, my eyes are wandering away from her face – I hold her eyes for a few moments and move off – around the room, over her body, to my own hands, then back to her face. I’m taking a break from her eyes, then looking for gross body language – arm position, shift in angle, chin up / down – stuff I distinctly recall reading and learning about in high school when I read Alan Pease (Pease, 1981) and Desmond Morris’ (Morris & Haynes, 1971) body language and social anthropology books. But there are several significant occasions when I am not looking at her face when the expression changes or I miss her eyes shift.

Conversely, when I speak, I rarely look at her face, but at the floor, at notes or at her feet. Often with long pauses as I search for the words, then I finish what I am saying and look up to her face for a reaction. Often too late.  She watches my face much more of the time, sometimes shifting position to do so, and she verbalises between phrases a short grunt “mm”. There is a physical reaction / movement as well, sometimes a nod, sometimes a shift of her eyes.

I hear the “mm” and I think she agrees, keep going. I keep speaking until I have finished, then look for the response. Sometimes the “mm” is longer and she responds verbally straight away, interrupting me to do so. Here I understand clear agreement or otherwise, and this clarity is one reason she is a friend. But if it is more subtle, I appear to have missed the verbal / physical combination. Looking back now at the video, and with the benefit of hindsight and further discussion since the interview was recorded, I realise that the short “mm” sometimes actually means “I hear what you are saying but I’m not convinced – keep talking, maybe we will agree to disagree”.  The body language is hard for me to see,  but it’s definitely there.

But for me, even when these moments occur when I am looking at her, the visual seems to be missed or ignored. Is this because I hear what I want to hear? Process what I want to hear? Am I so egocentric as to assume I must be “right” or is it because I really am not seeing the subtle body language at the time? Maybe I’m seeing but not processing. 1

I went back and looked at some sections of other interviews. The same thing is happening. The subject is very directly focussed on my face and reacts very quickly, even when I can’t see my own face or body change on the video. I’m not looking at them and I react less often, more slowly and generally to the words, not the body.

I must have known about this to some degree for a while now. I frequently ask people in musical situations to “tell me what you think please” but I’ve never seen it quite so clearly evidenced.2

  1. I wish there were two words I could use here. Aurally we can say “I hear but I’m not listening” – there doesn’t seem to be a visual equivalent. []
  2. I have not been able to include the full interview that this post refers to in this document, however it provided me with many significant lines of investigation []

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