Over these past few years I’ve spent telling my story for interviews, conferences, and workshops, I’ve begun to narrow down my assortment of illustrative anecdotes to a few choice selections. One of the most popular of these, and the one that concerns us today, is the story of how I taught myself to recognize and read nonverbal signals.
This post will be the first in a series on body language: why it matters, and how to learn to both read and “speak” nonverbal cues.
Part 2 can be found here.
As soon as my 18-year-old self realized that I was autistic, I did what any 21st century aspie would do: I read everything I could find about autism. As I ventured beyond the DSM and began to discover even more aspergian traits, the more I felt that they all applied to me, including a surprising number of differences I hadn’t even noticed. This may sound strange (isn’t every late-in-life diagnosis story filled with laments about always feeling different?) but beyond the most obvious of differences and difficulties, like my problems making friends or explaining my emotions, I simply never realized just how different I really was. My experience of life was the only one I knew, and so to me things like sensory processing problems, a lack of eye contact, or a blindness to nonverbal cues were simply the reality of the world. I had no idea that I couldn’t read everyday body language very well, because I didn’t know what I was missing.
Sure, I could read the obvious stuff drilled into me by the intentionally emotive acting of my favorite television shows and movies. I learned more about nonverbal signals from anime than I absorbed naturally during my entire childhood (a topic I want to address in a future post). I knew that when a person huffed, crossed their arms, and turned away that they were upset (usually with me). I knew that a spread stance with hands on the hips telegraphed confidence, and a hunched posture with hands before the body displayed shyness. I knew a smile from a frown. I knew the basics. But when I realized there was more to nonverbal communication than just what I saw on the surface, I began studying body language.
Anthropology has always interested me, and I saw this as yet another fascinating aspect of the human animal. I dissected nonverbal communication as analytically and carefully as I dissected any of my interests, and by now I consider myself somewhat of a pro in the field of body language. That isn’t to say I always use it correctly, or that I can read body language unconsciously. I still miss things. And every individual’s body language is different, flavored by unique identity and expression. But if I focus my attention and put in the effort, I can read body language “better” than many neurotypicals. I’ll never have that unconscious sense of knowing, but because my knowledge is learned and intentional, I cannot only translate body language to meaning, but I can explain the Why behind my interpretations. Where a neurotypical might say, “I don’t know, dude, she was giving off that vibe! She definitely likes you,” I can say, “She looks at you for long periods of time, turns her entire body toward you when speaking with you, smiles far more than is called for, and continually preens her hair and clothing while you’re around.”
When I explain that I have taught myself to read body language—that I have, as I usually put it, “memorized body language dictionaries”—someone in my audience will, without fail, ask some variation of the question: How did you learn to do this?
Pressed for time, my usual answer is “I googled ‘body language dictionary’,” but I feel this deserves elaboration. The reading and comprehension of nonverbal signals is a priceless skill for an autistic. What’s more, while it may take enormous effort, I believe it is a skill that can be learned by almost everyone. And so I have decided to write a brief series on the topic of body language.
What is it? Why is it important? How is it learned? What can I, as an autistic, do to nurture this talent in myself?
These are questions that I believe I can answer.
What is body language?
This question may at first appear unnecessary. Of course, body language is comprised of the nonverbal physical signals a person uses to express an emotion, opinion, or other message to others. A shrug can show uncertainty, a frown says, sad. But as someone who never fully understood body language until I began intentionally researching, I know that this question is far more important than it may seem.
Merriam-Webster gives us the following definition:
Body Language noun
- movements or positions of the body that express a person’s thoughts or feelings
- the gestures, movements, and mannerisms by which a person or animal communicates with others
Body language is far more than just the straightforward motions of the face and hands. Even mannerisms convey meaning. And body language can be unconscious, or intentionally manipulated to convey a desired message. A person can lie with physical signals, and those physical signals can be used to spot the lie. Body language can extend as far as eye direction, or pupil dilation. What’s more, even overt bodily gestures are not universal, varying between cultures and between individuals. What’s more, there is no direct one-to-one translation for any particular signal. A smile can show happiness, but it can also be used to reassure, to engender trust, or as a sarcastic final blow after a string of insults. And body language is not just the position of the limbs; it is also the position of the body within a room. While verbal language encompasses the words themselves, nonverbal language can be the manner in which they are said, or even who is speaking.
As a teen, before I knew anything about autism, I believed that body language consisted of things like smiling, shrugging the shoulders, or pointing to indicate an object. I had no idea that I wasn’t using body language properly, or that I wasn’t reading the body language of others. I thought I was already doing it! I understood obvious gestures, like a wave hello or an angry frown. I never realized what I was missing because I didn’t know what there was to miss in the first place.
During my initial foray into the world of autism, I came across the famous and overused platitude that nonverbal communication conveys over 80% of the meaning behind a conversation. I felt comically angry, offended. I wanted to believe I wasn’t missing that much! But the more I’ve learned about body language the more I’m inclined to believe the truth of that cliché. Though I’d still like to think it’s not quite that large a part of our meanings.
Why does body language matter?
But I don’t need to play those games, you might think. I’m a straightforward, honest person. I mean what I say, and if other people expect hidden subtlety then that’s their problem!
I understand this mindset. I often feel similarly. But to quote the words of the great scholar, Ursula the Sea Witch, “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language!”
While you might assume that your lack of knowledge implies that you are a blank slate, telegraphing few, if any, useful signals, this is unfortunately not the case. A true blank slate is a message in itself, and those autistics who are not blank slates are displaying signals that may make neurotypicals uncomfortable or confused. Rarely are we blank slates, even when we mean to be. Many autistics who don’t put an effort into monitoring their own bodily gestures and mannerisms are sending out signals saying things like, awkward, uncomfortable, shy, angry, bored, or aloof.
Before I took it upon myself to learn to read and use bodily language, I was constantly using my body in ways that implied I was nervous, uncomfortable, and anti-social. Even when I felt totally comfortable and at ease, I would often cross my arms and hunch my shoulders. By making myself comfortable, I was unknowingly adopting a defensive posture. A neurotypical ex of mine would ask, “Why are you standing like that? Do you want to leave?” No, of course not! I was just cold, or tired, or felt like resting my arms together because it felt comfier than letting them hang. Or I would stim with my hands, worrying them together and picking at my fingernails. And he would say, “What’s wrong?” Nothing! I was just playing with my hands! That ex was the one who told me that my blank face, stiff body, and crossed arms made me seem “cool and aloof” from a distance. He said that he was surprised, after getting to know me, to learn that I’m quite the opposite. “Everyone assumes you’re just really stoic, above everyone else. You look really grumpy.” How was I supposed to stand, waiting alone in the high school lobby for my friends to show up? With my hands on my hips and a big grin on my face? I had thought I was a blank slate, but instead of saying nothing I was saying stoic, and leave me alone.
Of course, I’ve met several autistics who really do achieve the blank slate rather well. But this doesn’t mean that they give off no signals. The absence of a signal gives meaning in itself. A true blank slate, meaning an autistic who is not nervous, stimming, or moving their body in any way, is really a person just standing there. If you are That Guy in a social situation who is Just Standing There, seemingly doing nothing, you are broadcasting anti-social messages ranging from boredom to stoic anger, depending on who is trying to read those messages.
Imagine you’re at a cocktail party, listening to a fascinating explanation from a biomedical engineer of the latest and greatest 3D-printed organ. He’s excitedly telling you all about this amazing technology, and you are very interested. He gesticulates energetically with his hands, smiling and laughing as he describes the amusing-yet-complex process involved in developing this project. You are Just Standing There, listening. You are not moving your hands, body, or face. You may respond with a monotone comment (“Neat” or “Huh”) every few sentences. The engineer gradually loses his smile, slows his gestures, and clears his throat. His cheeks flush ever so slightly, and he looks around the room for a moment. “Ah, please excuse me, I just remembered I’ve forgotten to tell my wife something important about, um, the babysitter tonight,” he says, before sliding away to go seek out another conversation.
And just like that, you’ve lost what could have been an enjoyable friendship! But what went wrong?
By Just Standing There instead of displaying active listening and positive interest, you (silently) communicated that you were bored. The engineer, excited about his field, soon realized that you were clearly uninterested and became embarrassed that he allowed his enthusiastic display to go on so long without recognizing your boredom, and he did his best to politely extract himself from a conversation where he was clearly the only one emotionally involved. If he had recounted the story to his wife later that night, he might have said something like, “Gosh, honey, at that party I ended up rambling on to some poor guy about that 3D-printed heart for what must have been 20 minutes! The man was just standing there, bored out of his mind, and I didn’t even notice. I hope he doesn’t think too poorly of me, whoever he was.”
If only you had nodded and smiled! Even that much would have been enough. But, alas, you Just Stood There.
A real life example of this sort of nonverbal misunderstanding happened to me in college. One of my good friends from high school and I were both in the same Introduction to Philosophy lecture, and sat together to chat every class. One day, she was out sick, and I sat alone. So when the professor instructed us to turn to the closest person to discuss the thought exercise up on the board, I turned around to meet the eyes of the boy sitting in the row behind me. He too sat alone. We happily discussed the problem together and were pleased to find each other to be fairly good company. We continued to talk throughout the remainder of the class, and we exited the lecture hall together, talking and joking and generally having a fine time. Our next classes even happened to be in the same direction on campus, so we continued to walk side by side. I remember thinking, gosh, this is wonderful! I haven’t made any new friends here yet; maybe this will be my first college buddy! I became so wrapped up in the surety that I had made a new friend that I paid absolutely no attention to the signals I was giving off. Overexcited, I just couldn’t stop smiling that big, goofy, look-at-me-I’m-a-social-success smile, laughing at everything he said, and stimming like crazy, twirling my hair. I even went so far as to tell him that I was glad my high school friend hadn’t come to class that day because otherwise I wouldn’t have met him, and made a new college friend! I was on top of the world and giddy with excitement. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he blurted out something that still makes me cringe to remember it: “Um, I have a girlfriend.”
I think I just stopped and said, “Ok?” I was floored! He quickly and awkwardly made his exit, stage right, slipping away and on to his next class. I never saw him again. He probably chose a seat far away from me for the remainder of the semester. I hadn’t even learned his name.
Looking back on the exchange, I immediately realized what had happened. As I grew more and more excited at the prospect of acquiring a new friend, he had become quieter, more withdrawn. In class, we had traded sentences tit for tat, but eventually my sentences became paragraphs, while his became single words. He had stopped smiling, and meeting my eye, taking on a facial expression that I hadn’t noticed at the time, but in my memory I could read as embarrassed. As we walked, I had leaned in closer, looked at him more, smiled larger, laughed louder and longer. I had even been twirling my hair—not out of any attempt to preen but because I was stimming with excitement, yet how was he to know that? In short, I had been practically shouting, nonverbally, that I was flirting with him. Poor boy.
I lost my new friend as quickly as I had found him, because I lost track of myself and gave off the wrong signals.
Again, while autistics can learn to read body language, it still takes intentional focus. When we forget to focus, we can miss some important things! If I had made more of an effort to control my own body language I probably wouldn’t have scared away my new friend. And if I had remembered to focus and consciously read his body language I probably would have noticed his unease and recognized the source. Being able to read and use nonverbal cues are essential skills, not to be undervalued!
And body language isn’t only important in the game of friendship. Body language fluency is central to other social games, such as those involved in courtship and flirting, job interviews, networking, and any other social interaction one can think of. How we present ourselves can directly affect our everyday lives. And yes, it may seem unfair that we have to go to such trouble for the sake of other people, even strangers. It can seem disingenuous, or silly. Why all these hoops and games? Why can’t people just say what they mean? But the problem is that the art of saying anything involves more than just words. We say what we mean with our bodies and our faces, with our position and our tone. It may seem overly complicated, impossibly so, at times. The cost is indeed a high one, and after a full day of focused socialization I am always drained and exhausted. But in the end, it’s more than worth it. At least I think so.
Do you have any funny or frustrating stories about missing or misinterpreting nonverbal signals? Leave a comment below!