Watching an infant frown or gag when medicine is dripped into his mouth, you know instantly that he dislikes the taste of it. As he starts to grow, he makes grabbing motions at things he wants, and points in the direction he wishes to go. But, how does a baby know so soon after birth that frowning is an expression of negative emotions, or how to laugh when tickled? Who has taught him to communicate so perfectly without words so early in life? It all seems to be innate.
Yet, as we get older, we appear to lose some of this natural ability, relying more on words and abstract thoughts than on gestures, tone of voice, and other nonverbal skills.
When they learn to babble, babies start to use words to “command” their caretakers, like “hold me, I want, or give me,” instead of crying or holding out their arms as they did during their pre-verbal stage. All parents remember “the terrible twos” when every question is answered with a “no” and the power of words is first being tested.
Making faces gives way to spoken language. In general, as soon as we learn to use words, our dependency on nonverbal expressions tends to decline. We give up some of our expressive repertoire in the name of efficiency. Could this be why mature adults with greater verbal and intellectual skills sometimes miss more obvious clues in their immediate surroundings? Could this be part of the difference between people with a higher “EQ” or “IQ”?
We all know some people are smarter socially, some intellectually. But can we have both high “EQ” and “IQ” at the same time? Do grownups ever think about expressing themselves without words–pretending they had never learned language, and then combining our natural gestures and expressions with actual words? In ancient times, we seemed to keep this skill into adulthood. We were more attuned to the power of image, metaphor and symbol. Everyone understood the visual cues of burning bushes and bloodstains over doorways. I remember growing up in China reading grownups’ faces, especially that of my mom’s. I often knew what she’d say before she uttered a word. Of course, she was once an actress.
We don’t often see this type of “double expressions,” except in theatrical plays or movies these days. It’s sad to see the rich cues embedded in our environment and faces are left mostly untapped, and a large number of the skills we use to voice our needs naturally at birth end up wasted and unused.
While being intellectually smart is achieved through “education,” being socially sensible mostly has to come from within us, or through our observations. No one teaches us to develop a repertoire of nonverbal communications, at least not formally. From China to America, everyone goes through years of schooling, learning to read, write, and solve math equations. Yet no part of our education is dedicated to exploring the rich world of our nonverbal communications, helping our children to decode human kinesics and behavioral expressions, or simply to communicate more effectively in the nonverbal parts of our daily communications.
Those who pay little attention to their environment or express themselves poorly in body language suffer greatly. They usually have a hard time mingling socially and may end up becoming reclusive hermits if not caught early. I still remember how a very special boy in my old neighborhood was nicknamed “the smart idiot” in school simply because he didn’t “get” what the other kids were up to.
Fortunately, the boy grew out of this stage and has become quite a successful and sociable young man. But, many don’t, and will live an eccentric, isolated life. As a parent, it’s important to pay attention to your child’s behavior now, especially on the nonverbal side.
It may be time to do some research or pick up a book or two, educating yourself and helping your children. After all, no one can say “I’m a perfect communicator.” And it’s always easier to catch things at an earlier age. Eye contact, understanding of social norms, and being more aware of the human environment can all be learned.
Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words only when you can understand the picture. And, the most competent communicators often have to combine words with the nonverbal skills we so depended on as babies.
You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.