Roots of communication

Judith Copithorne image

Judith Copithorne image

20 or so years ago I took an interest in non-verbal communication and how it interacted with speech. A number of ideas became very clear in my thoughts: we communicate with our whole bodies whether we want to or even realize what we are doing; the gestures, facial expressions, sounds and postures that we use are evolutionarily very old; and, if we try to consciously plan our non-verbal communication, we are likely to send confusing and ambiguous signals. Communication in language only, stripped of its non-verbal patterns, has to change from the rules of verbal language to the rules of written language or it can be unintelligible. We rely on the non-verbal clues to know in what frame to interpret the words and rely on the cadence of speech to organize the connection of words and thoughts.

A recent post by M. Graziano in Aeon (here) is very interesting and worth a read. Here I am just pointing to the central idea of Graziano’s revelation. There is much more of interest in the original post.

Most vertebrates have a personal space which they monitor and protect. If they suspect an invasion of their space, they automatically react. Graziano gives a description of this reaction in primates, which protects vulnerable areas such as eyes, face, neck, and abdomen: “… he squints. His upper lip pulls up, bunching the cheeks towards the eyes. The head pulls down, the shoulders lift, the torso curves, the arms pull across the abdomen or face. A swipe near the eyes or a bonk on the nose might even produce tears, another component of a classical defensive reaction. His grunts begin to be tinged with distress calls.” This is not really communication on the part of the primate whose space has been invaded but a defense of himself that is innate and automatic. However, an observing primate can interpret the reaction as meaning that the defending primate actually, honestly feels threatened. Slowly, through evolution, this reaction, and parts of it, can become signals and symbols useful in communication.

In Graziano’s theory, smiles are a mild version of the facial defense of the eyes. It simply communicates friendliness and a lack of aggression by mimicking defense as opposed to offense. An exchange of smiles establishes a mutual non-aggression state. Even though we might think that showing teeth is aggressive, it is part of protecting the eyes. That can be seen more clearly in genuine smiles rather than polite or faked smiles, the ones which start with squinting around the eyes rather than the lifting of the lip.

Play is the situation giving rise to laughter in Graziano’s thinking. Play is governed in mammals by signals that keep the action from getting dangerous even if it looks it, like the safe words in S&M. These signals are universal enough that the young from different species can rough and tumble together without mishap. Laughter mimics the defense of personal space with a facial expression similar to a smile along with a stereotypical noise somewhat like an alarm cry. When it is intense there is a protection of the abdomen by bending forward and putting the arms across the stomach. A laugh seems to indicate that the defenses of the personal space have been breached. Someone has reached in and tickled protected parts of the body, or something, a joke perhaps, has surprised you. You are allowing the game to invade your space because you are enjoying it and the laugh communicates that.

Then there is crying. Now the communication is “enough” because I am hurt. If it is intense there is a sobbing cry and lots of tears, the hands protect the eyes and a defensive posture forms a little ball. (Laughter can even end up as crying if it is strong enough.) Tears are asking for relief and comfort – and they usually get it, as all children seem to know.

It is somewhat amazing that so much communication might be made out of one innate reaction through the process of evolution. Being able to effectively communicate is a powerful selective force. “And why should so many of our social signals have emerged from something as seemingly unpromising as defensive movements? This is an easy one. Those movements leak information about your inner state. They are highly visible to others and you can rarely suppress them safely. In short, they tattletale about you. Evolution favours animals that can read and react to those signs, and it favours animals that can manipulate those signs to influence whoever is watching. We have stumbled on the defining ambiguity of human emotional life: we are always caught between authenticity and fakery, always floating in the grey area between involuntary outburst and expedient pretence.

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