When 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.