Monday, July 28, 2008

Don't forget the importance of body language

After yesterday's post I've been presented with a number of interesting language systems to chew on - but it's going to take me more than a single day to come back with ideas! One of the things that came up peripherally, though, is the question of body language. So I thought I'd muse a bit on it this evening.

I won't discuss sign languages here, except to say that they are fully elaborated language systems with their own complex layers of grammar, all executed in the visual medium using signs in combination with posture and facial expression.

Body language is something every writer should take time to observe, because it's useful in every genre. It's great for the purposes of "show not tell" to express characters' emotional states. Closed body position is a classic indicator of discomfort, and can include crossed legs, crossed arms, tucked chin, hiding of hands, and lack of eye contact. Open body position, the opposite, indicates comfort, and if taken to the extreme, can indicate attraction. Personal distance is also a really great thing to observe and to use in stories, and can be used along with general body position.

If you really want to take the idea of investigating body language seriously, try carrying a notebook to a place where lots of human interaction is taking place, and making note of the different types of body stances, hand gestures, head angles, gaze gestures, and facial expressions that you see.

Basic facial expressions are common across cultures - things like fear, anger, happiness, etc. But gestural signals and personal boundaries vary.

Here are some real-world examples from my experience. Americans tend to stand at hand-shake distance, while Japanese people stand further away, at bowing distance. I have watched people conk heads (ouch!) when the standards cross. Americans will point to their hearts when saying "I," while Japanese people will point to their noses. The Japanese gesture for "come here" is executed with the wrist above and the fingers below, with the back of the hand facing the person being called - almost exactly like the American gesture for "move a little further off." My husband nearly got lost in Tokyo because of this distinction. I have seen many Europeans point using their middle fingers, where Americans point with their index fingers. The Japanese generally with their entire hands, and consider the single-finger point to be rude - though it doesn't have a meaning anything like the middle finger in America!

Oh, what lovely potential for misunderstanding there is in gestural communication! Gestures tend to be iconic, which is to say that their meanings seem obvious to those using them. However, as I've noted above, not everyone agrees on the same obvious meaning.

Alternate physiology (aliens!) only adds to the possibilities. Consider the vast difference between human and canine gestural language. A human might point to his mouth or stomach to indicate hunger, while a puppy has the instinct to lick its parent's chin. I've found that learning a bit about dogs' gestural communication has further widened the parameters I feel I can play with in gesture, including head position, body posture, tongue gestures, bites, etc.

If you want to think about how to make an alien look inquisitive, think about what kind of sensory organs it might be using to investigate things, and work from there. Cocking the head to get the eyes closer to the person they're talking to might work. Or swiveling their ears forward. Or raising their antennae higher. Try to think about it from the point of view of their communication needs (and if you're feeling ambitious, the social significance of gestural communication), and the possibilities will start to open up.