Vincent Varney

Body language: The tough life of the gesture-illiterate

Image: Jessica Tainsh

The inability to read body language is causing Vince Varney to lose arguments and objectify people, so he wants to know: Is there a handbook for the gesture illiterate?

 

Thelma and Louise, Charlie’s Angels, Mary-Kate and Ashley, Bananarama. These affable female teams aren’t just drawn together by their mutual crime-fighting skills or raw talents (especially the Olsen twins), but rather, something deeper. The women behind these successful squads are joined by an unconditional understanding of each other and always know what the others are thinking – it’s kind of sweet.

Then I look to the father-son duo in A Good Day to Die Hard – the only thing they have in common is a love of blowing stuff up.

Maybe it’s just the bubble I’m living in or the films I watch, but I gather that women are a tad more perceptive and more attuned to body language than men. It’s probably a result of the “suck it up, princess” mentality drilled into the male brain from the early years – while I made it out emotionally stable (a psychiatrist may beg to differ), the mindset has left me and the other men I know completely inept at reading other people.

I discovered my gesture illiteracy back in high school, around the same time the girls cottoned on to it. The girls on the bus would occasionally drop from spoken word to non-verbal transmission so I couldn’t follow the conversation. I would attempt to infer the gist of the discussion by examining their eye movements and occasional nods, but just like the numerous times I tried to learn sign language through observation, all I learnt was the least effective method of eavesdropping.

I know…some friends they were, taking advantage of my predicament! In a fruitless attempt to prove that boys are just as discerning, a friend and I tried our hands at a non-verbal conversation. First, he glanced at a girl across the room, looked at me and nodded, then I glanced at the same girl, looked at him and nodded – the universal gesture for “check out that hottie.” Shamefully, that was the limit of our wordless conversation. In less than 20 seconds, we’d managed to lose an argument and objectify a girl.

I did learn something from the second incident – it ain’t just me. I’m guessing men don’t place nearly as much weight on body language as women because gesture illiteracy is plaguing all the dudes I know. I have a close group of guy friends and we all really suck at extending support to each other, mainly because we never recognise the moments of need. Over the years, the guys have offered me comfort a handful of times, but only when nothing was wrong. Clearly, I haven’t mastered smiling.

My lack of fluency in the arcane expressions of the body has been the source of inter-gender conflict, too. Oh, the silent treatment, how I loathe thee! It’s not that the silent treatment is gender-exclusive, but the failure to understand body language puts men at a serious disadvantage. Too many times have I fallen into this situation:

Me: How’s it going?

Girl: *No response*

Me: Is something wrong?

Girl: No.

Me: Are you sure?

Girl: Yes.

Me: *Concerned*

I’ve gathered from her aversion to speech and her snappy answers that something is wrong and I assume I’m the culprit. So…what have I done wrong? I’m staring at her face, to the point where it’s making her uncomfortable, but I can’t make out the problem. Did I offend her with a joke? Or forget an important date? Is my incessant staring making her angrier? It sure sounds irritating, but I can’t know for certain without a sound knowledge of body language.

Knowing how tough the life of the gesture illiterate can be, I do feel for the women who have trouble reading men. From what I’ve been told, the problem works in reverse: The lack of body language makes reading men rather difficult. In fact, the scarcity of bodily expression once led a female friend to ask me if boys have feelings or if they’re just hardened to life’s traumas. You can imagine how absurd I thought this question was – I mean, we’re still human – yet it was a genuine inquiry that shows the different degrees of significance men and women place on body language.

Seeing as she’d asked me about men and our emotional responses, I thought I’d ask a question in return. What’s up with the silent treatment? Is it a reminder for guys to be more considerate of how their actions affect other people, or maybe a test to see if they can resolve a dispute without any prompting? It turns out women just do it to screw with a guy’s head.

That’s great…just great.

Vincent Varney

Vincent Varney is a Sydney-based writer, recent Communication graduate and lover of food – provided it’s non-dairy, non-soy, low GI, low salt and unprocessed. You can see him lament his depressing diet and other things by following him on Twitter.

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