Communication Breakdown: When reading body language is a necessity

Just over a year ago, in a paroxysm of post-election whythehellnottery, my wife and I packed up our books and moved from Boston, MA to Madrid, Spain. My Spanish was shaky at best, and still is. I spend most days in a fog, catching bits of conversation here and there whenever the clouds part, sometimes jumping in on a discussion several minutes after the subject was dropped. I remind myself of an elderly dementia patient at times, stuck in a feedback loop of my own limited vocabulary, a shadow of my formerly articulate self. “Me talk pretty one day,” indeed.

Such may not strike you as the most nurturing environment for an aspiring writer who writes (for now) exclusively in her native English. And yet, the experience of being linguistically hobbled makes for a very interesting, very long-term exercise in observation.

The less I understand the words that are being spoken around me, the more I focus on body language and facial expressions just to survive the day. Like most writers, I’ve always relied on people-watching for those details that “sell” a character, which typically boil down to things like posture, dress, habits, tics. I admit I frequently struggle in this area, overloading every page with hair-twirling, nail-biting, or downcast eyes. Especially in rough-draft mode, I’ll layer it on as if I’m trying to describe an actor’s performance to a blind person, never quite sure when to glance away.

But in daily life—particularly in uncomfortable or novel situations, the bread-and-butter of storytellers—our awareness of body-language goes through peaks and valleys, spiking only as sudden changes or notable trends are observed. If most verbal attempts to communicate with another human fail, I now half-consciously translate that person’s physical bearing onto a kind of seismograph: first, looking for the baseline that tells me who they are, and then for those subtle shifts of posture and gesture that may help me work out what they need from me. If a big spike occurs, it’s a reliable indicator that some form of tension has been introduced into the exchange. (Maybe because someone just said, “I eat lots of dick” when what she meant to say was “I eat lots of chicken.”) Sometimes I won’t even see the spike until after it happens. I’ll feel the hit of cortisol rush through my veins, and it may take a second to register that the person in front of me has just backed a small but significant six inches away. Or, six inches closer—personal space works a bit differently over here, somewhat to my chagrin.

This has come in handy in my own writing. When plotting out a scene, I’m now far more meticulous about when to introduce information about a character’s physical bearing and gestures. The “baseline” takes shape as does the character—how often are they in motion? Do they greet others with hugs or handshakes? Do they slouch? It’s only when a character becomes animated, in-scene, with supporting players that more personal gestures and tics start to emerge. Notably, these often change depending on the characters around them. An individual who breaks out into a big grin whenever they feel threatened is going to display that behavior very differently at an awkward house party versus the visitation room of a jail. A person prone to leg-bouncing may compensate in situations where they are required to be still, for example, with lip-biting. A person forced to engage in a physical task like sewing is going to carry out that task very differently from a person who takes it up willingly, and those same two people sewing together can turn into a variety of riveting scenes. (Margaret Atwood is, in my view, an absolute master at using “busywork” to both convey character and build tension in one fell swoop.)

We are never always the same physical presence; it varies depending on company, surroundings, and our level of comfort. A character’s physical baseline is mostly a guide for the writer—the real drama happens when that baseline gets cracked.

They say that writers are always writing. Since moving to Spain, I now find myself asking certain standard scene-building questions with an almost evolutionary drive in even the most mundane of situations: who is in charge and who is not, who feels what about whom, and what do these people want from one another? The frustrations are manifold, sure, and there are plenty of days when I would rather starve than go to the store and risk having to make awkward chit-chat with the cashier. But if you ever find yourself in the privileged position of not having your native language to rely on, I say milk it for all it’s worth. It might just make you see your own writing in a new light. And I guarantee the food will be good.

2 comments

  1. Hi, Hesse. As a traveler, I love this post. It’s very humbling to be somewhere and not understand a thing. I like the way you’ve turned this into a plus. A big challenge comes in learning the cultural cues and mores for certain behaviors (or forbidden or frowned upon behaviors.) But it’s all grist for the writing mill. But, alas, the food isn’t always good…. Enjoy your adventure. I’ll be interested to see what you produce!

  2. Lisa Birk

    Another excellent reason to live elsewhere. Every one of my scenes could benefit from these 3 questions: who is in charge and who is not, who feels what about whom, and what do these people want from one another?

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