Body Language – When the Knowledge Doesn’t Transfer

Sometimes I say, rather hyperbolically, that I didn’t know about non-verbal communication until I was nearly 29 years old.

It’s a nice sound-bite, but like most nice sound-bites, it’s not strictly true. I did know about some types of non-verbal communication before then.

I knew that shrugging meant “I don’t know.” I knew that nodding meant “yes” and shaking one’s head meant “no.” I knew about sign language. I knew that people gestured when they talked, and sometimes I even did so myself, but I didn’t know that the gesturing, among other movements, changed the meaning or added depth to the words that were being said.

Honestly, that last bit is still a bit difficult for me to grasp, more than four years now after first learning about it as a general principle.

I watched documentaries as a teenager and some of these actually happened to be about how to project “confidence” in your stance. They also explained that certain types of stances, like folded arms, projected a closed-off-ness or even hostility to others.

The assertions made in these documentaries made no sense to me, and still largely don’t. Even so, sometimes I would remember what they’d said and unfold my arms during intense discussions with others in the hopes that I hadn’t somehow unintentionally “projected” something incorrect to the other person.

My stances and body language, after all, tend to have much more to do with my sensory issues and what’s most comfortable to me than with pretty much anything else. This is out of necessity the vast majority of the time. I don’t understand, any more deeply than on an intellectual level, how other people can “project” the “correct” body language comfortably for any amount of time.

I sit cross-legged, with my legs up on wherever I’m sitting, pretty much whenever possible. This, I have gathered, is not a typical thing for an adult to do because folks assume I’m even younger than usual when I do so, but it’s the only position in which I can usually sit comfortably for extended periods of time.

The most interesting thing to me about this whole topic is that, even though I had a decent understanding about some types of non-verbal communication (things like nodding heads and shrugging shoulders), the information I understood didn’t translate at all to social interactions in general. 

Basically, when there were words present, I assumed that the information was coming either solely or mostly from the words, not the body language, tone of voice, or facial expression.

I was shocked then to discover, at nearly 29 years of age, that it’s widely believed that only about 7% of someone’s meaning comes from their actual words. Some people put the percentage a bit higher, but I’ve not seen that estimated percentage reach even 50%.

So, my entire life, I’ve been missing well over half of the meanings that people had likely been trying to communicate to me. Goodness only knows what I was communicating to them despite my very meticulous word choices, backed by whatever dictionary I had been reading at the time.

This explained so much! Every weird people-encounter I had in my life now makes some sense in retrospect instead of being completely baffling!

Another aspect that amazes me about this topic is that I’d managed to be a successful birth worker for several years. I was a birth doula and assisted a homebirth midwife. Before attending any births by myself (as the only labor support – there was a doctor there, of course) as a doula, I had assisted at several births and had become quite adept at modeling my own birth-assisting/supporting behavior and words off what the midwife and senior assistant had demonstrated for me.

By the time I attended my first doula birth, I knew exactly how to act and what to say. Also, I’d done extensive book research. Books and articles about labor, birth, and postpartum often very helpfully contain detailed explanations of the potential emotional states during those times, what they look like, their common orders, and how they are generally best responded to.

Also! At a birth, there’s really just one primary person to pay attention to: the person who’s doing the birthing! While birthing, people tend to become very verbally honest too, which helps a great deal 🙂 The partner, if present, needs some attention too, but not to the same extent. Births are finite (albeit unknown) lengths of time, so there’s going to be a definite ending at some point too.

This is in contrast to interacting with people in everyday life which is indefinitely, nearly everyone, and all the time I’m with them.

And yet, even having learned and become adept at noticing all those things at births and when people weren’t using words, I still didn’t transfer or apply the information gained by doing birthwork or watching those documentaries to my everyday life.

I hadn’t known that I needed to generalize that information in the first place. Even once I did know about how pervasive non-word communication was, trying to learn what all of those things meant was a huge contributing factor in my eventual burnout right before I shelved my autism research four years ago.

So, I do my best. I ask for clarification much more frequently than I used to. I let people know up front that I almost never pick up on hints or subtexts so that they can meet me partway and it isn’t all on me to try and figure out what isn’t being said lest things get socially awful.

It isn’t reasonable for me to burn myself out trying to learn everything or somehow manage to pick up on it. Other people have to meet me partway in order for us to have productive discussions where we can achieve mutual understanding.

Knowing that I need to ask for this social accommodation has been priceless.

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