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The ethical use of the non-verbal

I think I know too much. And it feels dangerous.

The realization came in my first semester at Concordia, when I took “Nonverbal Communication.” I was worried about studying for a 200-level course, but I quickly found that most of the material was common sense to me. I attribute this not only to being the youngest child in a perceptive family, but also to being involved in performing arts my entire life. After years of coaching and training on specific postures, expressions, and vocal patterns, I already had an innate understanding about much of what we say without saying any words.

As it turns out, we rely on the nonverbal. We often know just what’s on a person’s mind long before they say anything: we process a frown or an excited stare before the words “I’ve had a bad day” or “I aced the quiz!” A famous – and frequently misinterpreted – study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian asserts that 93% of communication has nothing to do with words. This study only applies to communications of attitudes or feelings, and not whether you can lie your way to a job with just a winning face, but the numbers still have great implications: we rely on the body, the voice, the face – the eyes – for much of what we mean, often before we’ve spoken, often before we are able to conceal our behavior. And we do this, my textbook asserted, because we know people are capable of inventing their words but incapable of inventing nonverbals.

Except I realized in the Fall of 2011 that I could.

Like I said, a lifetime of acting experience will make you pay attention to nuance. You learn to watch cues, to make every motion and action and glance mean something, to make the words become more than just words. And we enjoy the script in a play, sure, but we will truly invest in an actor who can make the words seem real. With just the right tone and posture, and just the right pauses, a great actor can make fiction seem believable. In theatre, in a way, we often cheer for the best liar.

It makes life difficult at times. Often the first response to “I’m in theatre” is “you must be weird.” The second is often a question about memorizing all those lines, or awe at how brave you are to go up on stage in front of all those people. But I sometimes think there is a quieter assumption, a judgment not stated but filed away in the back of the head for future reference, a cautionary note to self: “this person must be a good liar.”

I’m not. At least, I don’t think I am. But I’m terrified by the thought that I might be.

I pride myself on my perception, on the ability to tell when something isn’t quite right. I can tell when my friends are in need, or when a stranger is uncomfortable. I can tell when someone just doesn’t want to be friends, or when they want to be better friends than I’m prepared for. But when I start to participate in the equation, when I begin to speak or gesture, communicate in any way, I worry about deception. I’ve learned so much about manipulating a performance onstage – in a community that expects it – that I worry I’m constantly manipulating my real-life relationships in a community that has not explicitly learned the rules: a community that is expecting you to not fight dirty.

I feel guilty about all the little “psychology tricks” – true or not – that I’ve heard over the years: that you nod your head down for an acquaintance and up for a friend, that you look to the left to invent something and the right to recall it. If I’m talking to a girl and trying to show that I’m friendly but not interested, I wonder if I’m spending far too much time in the conversation just balancing the perfect amount of eye contact. I choreograph my posture for the perfect moment to end a long-winded discussion. I get the slimy feeling that I’m collecting strategies, like some sort of friendship pick-up artist. I worry that I’m conning people into liking me.

The real truth, of course, is that I’m not unique, and that theatre people aren’t any different. Any social being can pick up on the basics of communication, and anyone perceptive can become a master. And that’s not a bad thing. We value people who can effectively communicate their needs and desires. It’s enjoyable to talk with someone who’s good at conversation. And we want to trust people, but that doesn’t mean that we always can. And so we watch for the seams in an expression, we watch for the falsehood, we watch for the con. Because we are all liars and manipulators in some capacity.

The question, of course, is whether or not we’re trying.

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