Read Me Shrugging

I’ve got a master’s degree in speech communication with an emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion. Basically, this means I spent a lot of time and money learning how to analyze you while you’re talking and figure out the best way to warp you into doing what I want. What can I say, my college offered a degree in functional supervillainy and I took ’em up on it. Although, if I were to be truthful, I’d have to admit I had no idea what to study and the communication department gave me a scholarship for speech and debate, so why not speech comm?

Oddly, it’s proven to be a useful degree, largely due to the supervillain-level tips and tactics for interaction and manipulation. So, if you’re still trying to figure out what you want to study, it’s a good degree to have because even though I’m a programmer and author, I still deal with people regularly and getting an understanding of how they communicate has been a nice tool to have.

It’s been said, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it”. People pay far more attention to the nonverbal cues than you’d think. The way a person stands or how much eye contact they give or whether they’re wringing their hands can tell you volumes more than what they’re actually saying. Those nonverbal cues can also completely override the verbal message or at least drastically change its meaning. I’ve told people no one likes them and since I had a smile on my face at the time, they thought I was joking and we were now best buddies. Narrator Voice: No one, in fact, liked that person.

That’s our good buddy nonverbal communication coming to visit. And the people who like point out how something was said are absolutely correct to make note of that. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 70% and 93% of communication is nonverbal. I’m not sure how anyone arrived at these numbers – especially the strangely precise 93% – but there are people who get paid to study these things and I don’t really have any good reason to doubt them. Maybe I could find a YouTube video put out by some huckster that supports my viewpoint, but I’m lazy and most of the hucksters on YouTube are busy putting out videos trying to prove Covid is a liberal hoax and Donald Trump won the election. When you’re working that hard to promote that level of complete bullshit, there’s very little time left to conquer nonverbal communication statistics. That and, frankly, no one cares that nonverbal communication is a Chinese hoax perpetrated by the liberals to, uh, do stuff. Bad stuff. Very, very bad stuff. Trust us, we have mountains of evidence.

So, non-existing propaganda aside, we send a huge amount of communication through our nonverbal channels. The cock of the head, a wink, a raised eyebrow, a subtle cough, a red face, a finger shaking with rage. These things color the verbal message and, in many cases, completely override the verbal message. Image a man, red faced and shaking, his right eye twitching and he stabs his finger in your face over and over while yelling, “YES! I AGREE WITH YOU! FRIED OREOS ARE GREAT!” Narrator Voice: Fried Oreos are, in fact, great.

The verbal message is one of total agreement: Fried Oreos are great. Taken on its own, this describes a person who you could probably hang out with, happily munching on fried Oreos until the saturated fats clogged your arteries and shut down your hearts. Maybe in the afterlife fried Oreos will be waiting for you. Unless you wind up the bad afterlife where all you have fried knock-off Oreos that are far inferior to the real thing and you have to enjoy them while discussing the finer points of international banking with doddering idiot who keeps stealing all the cookies for himself.

Put yourself in the position and think about what you’re seeing. That verbal message about the Oreos will be completely overridden by the angry guy stabbing his finger at you. The takeaway is he’s pissed as hell and is right on the edge of going physical with it. He could be shouting nonsense. “MAN! WOMAN! PERSON! TV! CAMERA!” and it wouldn’t matter one bit because the part you’re going to focus on is whether or not it’s a good idea to just drop that fool right then and there before things get out of hand.

Nonverbal communication is the ultimate representation of that age-old writing adage of “show, don’t tell” because no one is going to shout “I’m very angry right now” without getting laughed at. And, let’s face it, stating the obvious is major boring shit. For instance:

  • “I agree with you! Fried Oreos are great!” he shouted angrily.
  • He was angry. “I agree with you! Fried Oreos are great!”

Booorrring.

But let’s toss our good buddy nonverbal communication into the mix:

Jacob’s finger shook inches away from my nose. His eyes, beady under the best of circumstances, twitched and pirouetted above his beet-red face. Sunlight danced on the flecks of spittle erupting from his mouth. “I agree with you! Fried Oreos are great!”

The takeaway? Never once mentioned anger or rage, but it’s obvious from the context. Jacob agrees with me, but he hates himself for it. And let me just say, self-loathing is an apt feeling after a couple of deep-fried Oreos.

Nonverbal cues aren’t rocket surgery to write. Some things – cadence, for instance – can be tough to put into words, but describing what an angry person or lust-filled Medusa or even nervous people who’ve been tapped to have sex with lust-filled Medusas is easy. Watch people for a while. Next time you’re in a conversation pay close, conscious attention to what their body is doing while they talk to you. Some people have grandiose hand gestures that come out when they’re excited. Others scrunch into a little ball and mumble when called on in Zoom meetings. Some people pound tables, others click ballpoint pens frantically. Everyone has a tick, all you have to do is remember it and apply it to a character.

Or you could just, you know, state the obvious, he said, sad that no one paid attention.

Comments, as always, are welcome and appreciated. Especially if they come with fried Oreos. Narrator Voice: Please do not send fried Oreos.

8 thoughts on “Read Me Shrugging

  1. Nonverbal communication will be interesting in the weeks and months following covid. People are going to have to reacclimate to in person encounters.

    Great post, Eric, and cool degree!

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