Just a Little Smile is All it Takes*

nonverbalsWhen most people think of communication, they think of language. But there are plenty of ways in which we communicate non-verbally. Winks, smiles, and of course, that famous one/two-fingered wave, are all examples of the way people send messages without using words. And research shows that we tend to be quite attuned to those non-verbals. In fact, we pay more attention to them than we do to the words people use, or the signs they use, in signed languages.

The police and other investigators know the value of paying attention to non-verbals. That’s how they often get clues as to whether a person is lying. It’s also how they pick up on whether someone is afraid, would like to say more but doesn’t want to, and so on. It’s no wonder, then, that we see those all-important non-verbals in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, John Cavendish invites his old friend, Captain Arthur Hastings, for a visit to his (Cavendish’s) home, Styles Court, in the village of Styles St. Mary. Hastings accepts, happy to renew his acquaintance with Cavendish, his brother Lawrence, and their stepmother, Emily Inglethrop. All is not well with that family, though. Neither Cavendish brother can tolerate Emily’s new husband, Alfred. There are other tensions, too. Still, all goes smoothly enough until the night that Emily is poisoned. There are several suspects with different sorts of motives, but neither Cavendish wants the investigation to be made public. So, when Hastings learns that another old friend, Hercule Poirot, is living in the area, it seems like a very good solution to have him look into the crime. Poirot agrees; Emily Inglethorp was his benefactor, so he feels a sense of obligation. Hastings, of course, tells Poirot everything that he knows about the night of the victim’s death. And one thing he mentions is the ‘ghastly expression’ one the face of one of the characters. Without knowing it, that character has revealed something, and it’s interesting to see how Poirot uses that one non-verbal communication to put one of the pieces of the puzzle in place.

Very often, facial expressions and other non-verbals are important forms of communication when people don’t speak the same language. That can be risky, though, because different cultures have different ways of using non-verbals. For example, in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, we are introduced to the Thornhill family. In 1806, bargeman William Thornhill is convicted of taking a load of wood. From his perspective, he needed to sell the wood in order to feed his family. There is a certain amount of sympathy for him, so instead of being executed, he is sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. He, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long voyage and start life again in Australia. But it’s not going to be easy. There’ve been people in Australia for many thousands of years, so one major challenge is going to be interacting with them. The Thornhills, and many of the other immigrants, speak English. The Aboriginal people have their own languages. So, verbal communication is limited at best. In fact, Thornhill sees their words as,

‘between them like a wall.’

When Thornhill does encounter Aborigines, there is an attempt to communicate non-verbally. Pointing, pictures drawn in dust, and holding things out with a hand are some of the ways both sides try to communicate. And in some ways, they’re successful. But that doesn’t prevent tragedy. There’s already been bloodshed as the two groups have clashed. Thornhill himself has no desire for butchery, unlike some of the other settlers. But, he’s expected to support his own. Besides, he’s found a piece of land he truly loves, that’s perfect for him and his family. He soon learns that he’ll have to get his hands bloody, too, if he’s going to keep that land.  

As I mentioned, most non-verbals are culturally contextual. One of those is the wai, which is a Thai greeting. Like the Japanese bow, the wai is nuanced, and, among other things, reflects the relative social status of the people involved in the interaction. It’s got several meanings, too, besides greeting. It’s used in thanks, in apology, in farewells, and in other situations, too. It is a very useful gesture, and communicates quite a lot without a lot of fanfare. To see the wai in action, may I recommend Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney, PI, novels. Keeney is an Australian ex-pat who’s now based in Bangkok. She’s been there long enough that she’s fluent in Thai, and that includes the non-verbals that are used in that culture. In more than one situation, Keeney finds that that simple-but-nuanced gesture is very helpful in easing tensions and in getting her out of difficult situations. John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels, and Timothy Hallinan’s ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels also include this simple gesture that can mean so much. A note is in order, too, about the ‘Thai smile,’ which is also woven into these authors’ books. There are dozens of situations in which a smile is used in the Thai culture, and the context often determines what the person who is smiling is communicating. The smile can mean many different things, including, ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘No harm done,’ and ‘I’m embarrassed.’

As this is posted, pitchers and catchers are reporting to their training camps to get ready for this year’s Major League Baseball season. It won’t be long now, baseball fans! So, as we’re thinking about non-verbals, and what they mean, it’s also worth mentioning Alison Gordon’s series featuring sports writer Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry, who works for the Toronto Planet. She follows baseball most especially, and Gordon’s novels often feature scenes from games, where pitchers, catchers, coaches and batters often communicate without using any words at all. Henry is thoroughly familiar with what those non-verbals mean, as was her creator, and it’s interesting to see how that knowledge comes through in Henry’s writing and in the stories.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we do communicate a great deal through facial expressions, eye contact (or lack of it) and other non-verbal means. When detectives pay attention to those messages, they can learn a lot. And it’s always interesting to see how people use non-verbals, especially when they can’t, or don’t choose to, use spoken language.


ps. The ‘photo is of Raymond Teller, one half of the famous illusionist duo, Penn and Teller. If you’ve seen these guys in action, you’ll know that Teller doesn’t speak during the show. Instead, he uses non-verbals to get his meaning across, and he’s quite good at it, too. If you’re reading this, Mr. Teller, Happy Birthday!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Everybody Loves You Now.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, Angela Savage, John Burdett, Kate Grenville, Timothy Hallinan

22 responses to “Just a Little Smile is All it Takes*

  1. Great post on body language, Margot, and thanks as always for the mention. In my research this year, I unearthed a whole lot of new to me verbs involving smiles, such as a ‘dry smile’ — a smile used to deliver bad news — and a ‘to smile with difficulty’, pretty self-explanatory. These are just two examples of a host of smile nuances in Thai.

    • Thanks, Angela. And it’s my pleasure to mention your work. Also thanks for sharing your finds. Smiles really do have so many shades of meaning in the Thai culture, and it’s fascinating to learn about them. I like those descriptions, too. They suit the sort of smile that’s being described.

  2. This interesting post made me think about sign language as used by so many deaf people (and others). I think it would make a great ingredient in a crime story, but I can’t think of any instances. If there ARE any I bet you know about them, or perhaps another reader….

    • You know, Moira, I was thinking about the Deaf community, too. I’m glad you mentioned it, because signed languages are quite nuanced. Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay features a Deaf protagonist, Caleb Zelic. And Clarissa Draper’s The Electrician’s Code also features a Deaf character. There are others, too; I’m thinking, for instance, of Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, which includes a Deaf person as a major character (later, victim). Which ones have you folks enjoyed?

      • Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay is brilliant; the main character’s deafness is portrayed as part of his personality, rather than as a disability, while at the same time adding tension to the dénouement.

  3. It’s the ingredient that’s missing from internet communications, isn’t it? So much more difficult to really gauge when someone’s being serious, funny, sarcastic, etc. I suppose that’s why smileys have become so universal – they take the place of these non-verbal signs that we all understand when talking face to face… 🙂

    • Oh, there’s no doubt in my mind about that, FictionFan. People really do depend quite a lot on non-verbals. In online situations, you don’t have that. I face that when I teach online, actually. And one does rely heavily on emoticons/emojis and other hints to add layers and substance to a message. There are even arguments that young people who spend too much time online (and not enough in person) can sometimes have difficulty interpreting real-life non-verbals. I haven’t seen utterly convincing evidence, but it’s an intriguing connection.

  4. Another great post, Margot. And I love the photo! I think we’re so tuned in to non-verbals that we don’t even think about them, we don’t realise we’re picking up on them or even signalling them ourselves. As a writer though, it’s something I need to remember more.

    • I do, too, Rebecca. IF we’re going to create well-rounded, credible characters, they need to notice others’ non-verbals and respond to them. And they need to send out signals, too. As you say, we do it a lot, and we don’t even think about it, so writing about it has to ‘showing not telling.’ Thanks for the kind words, and I’m you enjoyed the post. It was a real privilege to meet Penn and Teller, and they couldn’t be more polite and accessible with their fans.

  5. Great photo and interesting post, Margot. We humans do tend to talk loudly at times without saying a word. I guess it goes back to the old saying, ‘actions speak louder than words.’

    • Thank you, Mason. And you’re right; people do communicate an awful lot without saying a single word. And it’s interesting how we tend to pay more attention to those non-verbals, and put more faith in them, than we do in the words people use. That’s especially true if what we say sends a different message to our non-verbals.

  6. It’s fun to think of all the signals we send off with body language–and whether sometimes those can be misread, too! Lots of opportunities for both clues and red herrings in mysteries. 🙂

    • You’re right about that, Elizabeth! Non-verbals can make for terrific clues (or red herrings) in a whodunit, just because we’re always communicating that way. And, as you say, those signals can be read accurately…or not. The author can play with that as the characters interact. Or as a way of engaging (or misdirecting) the reader.

  7. Such an interesting topic for a post, Margot. When I went to WPA last August, I was in line at the airport and saw an officer periodically take people from the line to check their tickets, etc. As I watched, I noticed he was reading their body language. Those that looked sketchy got a closer screening. I, of course, smiled at him and looked him square in the eye (like I always do) and he came to chat with me. I told him about my findings, and he confessed that was exactly what he was doing. We had a fascinating chat about body language that day.

    • Oh, I’m sure you did, Sue! Thanks for sharing. Airport security people really do learn to read everyone’s body language and facial expressions. They say a lot more than we may think they do. And I do think those forms of communication can be interesting tools for the writer to use. They can convey a great deal, and they can allow for misdirection of the writer wants.

  8. I can’t believe you posted this today when I’d just watched a TV interview with a body language expert who was giving her opinions on President Trump’s body language in relation to each of the foreign visitors he has been hosting since his inauguration. She was so interesting and the examples she chose to depict each relationship with every new Prime Minister, President and so on he met, was fascinating. So revealing. It helps to find out about these things and use them in our writing. I had forgotten all about the power lean and shake from the 1970s. The dominant person gets in close to the other person, leans in a little and shakes hands with their hand on top of the other’s and with little space to move the arm. I can recall seeing that shake somewhere before, but cannot think where. Apparently Trump is an old fashioned guy who likes to use old fashioned methods of power play and domination when meeting people. Out of fashion with the rest of us it would seem. Well, until now…

    • Thank you, Jane, for sharing that show. I think it really is fascinating to see what people’s non-verbals are like, and what that says about them. And, yes, it can be very useful to think about those things for writing. It makes the story that much more credible, and allows for ‘show not tell.’ And you make an interesting point, too, about the way non-verbals change depending on whom we’re addressing. That in itself is great ‘food for thought,’ so thanks.

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