It is amazing how many physical cues we interpret without noticing. The set of the shoulders, the tip of the head, the tone of voice, where someone looks, how they cross their arms, every motion of our body tells people something. I am learning that what it tells people is as culturally encoded as the verbal language.
There are universal signs, like a smile, that are easy to interpret. Those ones I’m clear on. The ones I’m less clear on are things like how someone stands when watching me do something. Very often, their posture says to me, “Go ahead and try that. Sure, try to impress me. I don’t care, you can’t do anything I haven’t seen before.” When I read that from people while I’m training, I just get ticked off. If you don’t want to watch me, go away. I really don’t like it when people watch me train. On the other hand, when I read that body language in a workshop, it feels defeating. I become disengaged from my own material and my own workshop since it seems to me that no one else cares. The first time that happened, someone came to me after and told me it was a very interesting workshop.
How could it be an interesting workshop when all I read off that person’s body language all day was boredom and a strong wish to be elsewhere. So, now I’m learning again how to speak with my body. I keep coming back to conversations I had in college with my housemate who had Asberger’s Syndrome. She talked about having to learn body language and sarcasm by rote. I feel like that is where I am now. I can’t trust the things I grew up learning.
Similarly, in my purview, sitting and watching someone who has not stated that they are performing is rude. It is rude to stare, right? Not so much. Like I mentioned earlier, I get watched while training. Really, me doing fifty spin kicks can’t be that interesting, but I am still the best entertainment they have so they sit and watch me. This drives me bonkers. I find odd hours to train, times when no one will be around or I hide in places that aren’t frequented to do my training. It is better than the sense of rudeness I get from someone staring at me while I train. Then again, they get entertainment by sitting and watching me read a book for hours. I’m amused by the book, I don’t know what they are amused by, besides the color of my skin.
In a related and unfortunate note, I can’t trust my reading of physical cues to tell me when violence is imminent. In the States, I would look for tension in the shoulders, maybe a balled fist, standing up and looming or tightening of the jaw. Here, I have no idea what to look for. I just hope I’ll recognize it if I see it and I’ll be getting myself out of the way before it happens.
On the other hand, Ni-Vans are, on a whole, not a subtle people. They make Jason look like a master of intrigue. Standing under a grapefruit tree saying, “I’m looking for grapefruit,” is a subtle way of asking someone to get you some. Body language, from what I can read, follows a similar pattern. A boy who had raped a white woman wouldn’t even turn to face me while I sat on his family’s porch and drank tea. He had too much shame to actually look at me so he dealt with it by sitting with his back to me for an hour. Not subtle.
Though this is an interesting study in my failure to read body language, what will be even more fun will be what I have assimilated without meaning to. I know I’ll be raising my eyebrows at people in the States for years to come. Raising eyebrows here is acknowledgement of someone’s existence, acknowledgement that they said something and agreement all rolled into one. It was probably the gesture I make the most often. I don’t know the other one because like a fish in the ocean, I don’t notice the water. But it should be good for a few laughs when I get home.