Wednesday, July 15, 2009

And if I cross my legs over my chest, does that mean...?

This recent article on nonverbal communication got me thinking about whether I might have anything to add to the literature in that area. So, after lengthy consultation with my own team of experts*, I have decided to provide some additional tips on body language.

1. Zipper und
one, genitals in plain sight. Indicates a carefree, open attitude towards life.

2. Dead-drunk, vomiting on coworkers. Indicates that you live in a state with high unemployment benefits.

3. Intense glare, arrive for meetings carrying scythe or chainsaw. You're serious about business, determined to have the last word in any negotiation.

OK, I sup
pose I could get sillier and siller (as if the foregoing examples aren't silly enough). My point is that I think we make too much of these supposed "cues" to what's going on in people's hearts and minds, and shows like Lie to Me and The Mentalist don't help matters. Nor does Tonya Reiman (shown), that saucy body-language expert who's always popping up on O'Reilly (though certain male media acquaintances of mine report that they very much like what her body is saying). Not everything that appears on the outside is a dead giveaway to something specific that's going on on the inside, and I think we risk being very unfair to others (or drawing grossly misleading inferences that may cause us great embarrassment or worse) by assuming that a "mastery" of these unconscious signals provides an unerring road map to the human personality in all its myriad diversity. It behooves me to point out that when I cross my legs, it's usually because my knees ache and I'm trying to find a more comfortable position. Where this is especially unfairI dare say it's criminalis when jurors think they can "read" a defendant, just based on the way that defendant sits there in court, and they go as far as to form judgments about guilt or innocence (particularly guilt) based more on these readings of demeanor than on what the actual evidence shows. If I hear one more juror say "He just didn't look believeable to me" or "He had such a cold expression in his eyes" or even "He seemed like he was lying," I'm going to find that juror and do something that will require my own appearance in front of a jury.

I've blogged about th
is before, in a post that foreshadowed (and to some degree inspired) my piece in the current issue of Skeptic, but I don't even think jurors should be permitted to consider whether someone "acted appropriately" in the aftermath of a crime; after all, what constitutes "appropriate" behavior when your family has just been slaughtered? As I write in the Skeptic piece, "It's one thing if the defendant was observed in the backyard at midnight tossing machetes and bloody towels into an oil drum, but of what legitimate probative value is testimony from cops or witnesses that a woman 'didn't act the way you'd expect someone to act when she learns that her spouse was murdered.' " I illustrate with the case of Cynthia Sommer, a San Diego housewife and mother who was convicted of poisoning her husband, Todd. It was clear that jurors didn't like the fact that she lived a swinging lifestyle after Todd's death, or that she used part of the life-insurance proceeds to buy herself a new set of boobs. After more than two years behind bars, Sommer was freed when sophisticated tests on saved tissue samples found no trace of the poison she supposedly used to kill Todd.

While I realize it's only natural to want to know as much as we can about what makes people tick, I don't understand why that means that we need to reduce everyone to caricature. We do it in court, we do it at work, we do it in forming snap judgments about kids in school or at the playground or on a Little League ball diamond.
We do it constantly in self-help, a la, say, that whole Mars/Venus thing, which teaches us to relate to one another as stereotypes rather than people. We'd do well to remember that the first part of self-help is self. Humankind is astonishing in its varietynot in a gender or racial or ethnic sense, but in an individual sense.

I don't care if we all share 99 percent of the same DNA. We all eat lasagna or listen to music or begin a kiss a little bit differently. And in that there is magic.

* The pitcher and third baseman on my over-45 baseball team.

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