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The next time you’re in a conversation, pause for a moment to give your brain kudos.
When I stop to think about how much information we process in every encounter, and by process, I mean both take in and send out, it’s an amazing feat to communicate at all, let alone to communicate profoundly. I always tell my students that the reason we study vocabulary, writing and public speaking is because life can be awfully lonely if we can’t describe our inner experience, the life of the mind, to someone else in a way that is clear enough that they can share that experience. Words are slippery things, I tell them. Then we often launch into a lengthy conversation about whether my “blue” is the same as your “blue.”
On a side note, I heard an amazing piece on NPR—Science Friday, possibly?—on the history of blue. Did you know it is supposedly the last major color word to enter any language? The color exists so little in nature that humankind simply didn’t need it. You’re probably thinking what I thought as I listened: What about the sky? Isn’t the sky blue? The answer, according to these researchers, is, No. It’s grey, it’s white, it’s even yellow sometimes, but it is only very occasionally really blue. Only last week I was moved to say, “The sky is so blue today.” But is that a learned response? The fellow on NPR suggested that it was. He believes we would never call that clear sky color “blue” unless we had been taught to recognize it as such. Granted, I came in partway through the broadcast, but I remain unconvinced by the conclusions drawn from the research.
But I digress. Where I was going, at least at this stage of the game, was that words are delicate, flighty, delicious little things. They can as easily divide as unite. (Speaking of which, let’s just give a quick shout out to cleave, clip, overlook, bolt, dust—those lovely contronyms, words that are the antonyms of themselves.) So just the fact that we can find the right words to express our ideas, then receive those of someone else is miracle enough.
Yet we all know that what we say is so much less important than how we say it. Any doubt about that, try sending a facetious email. In the early days of public internet, I shot off a deeply ironic missive to a friend about how obvious it is that animals don’t have feelings. I thought she knew me well enough to be aware that I would never make such an argument. Let’s just say I didn’t need to hear her tone in order to interpret her response.
So there we are in conversations, seamlessly (for the most part) interpreting words and registering nuance of meaning as we take in tone of voice. But that’s just a fraction of what our brains are processing! We’re simultaneously registering and decoding the meaning of gesture, facial expression, eye contact, angle of the head, body language. In a nanosecond, we’re subconsciously determining how we feel about it all and what it means for us personally. Add to this the nuances of scent, taste and touch and we’re taking in thousands of tiny details each second. Move that conversation from your kitchen table to a cocktail party, a coffee shop, a restaurant, a city park, and suddenly you’re taking in quadrillions of details every second. So let’s give our brains a round of applause!
This line of reflection takes me inevitably to a number of my students for whom social interaction is a mystery on the scale of the ineffable mind of God. Some of them simply have no social intelligence. They don’t know that smiling at someone is an invitation to conversation while a scowl is off-putting. They don’t recognize that a comment about the weather might lead, eventually, to a substantive conversation; instead, they simply “don’t do small talk.” They haven’t grasped that when someone flinches away from them, that person probably doesn’t want to be subjected to a rib-crushing hug. Nuance of tone, body language or expression fails to penetrate their consciousnesses. I’m not talking about students who are on the Autism Spectrum; that’s even more heartbreaking. The young man with Asperger’s Syndrome who moves through the world in a bubble of isolation as he stares fixedly at the ground, unaware that a world of connection and communication is whirring away just inches from him. Or the one who charges up to a classmate, standing too close and speaking too loudly as he asks a question about last night’s English homework, all the while making eye contact with his classmate’s left ear or right shoulder.
I started thinking about all of this as I sat in bed this morning watching Cleo make her rounds of the back yard, tail extended straight out except for the last inch which tipped up at a particularly jaunty angle. She imparts a world of meaning with that tail. Canine communication may not be quite as complex as that of humans—no contronyms, for example—but no one can say it lacks nuance. As we walked into the groomer’s this afternoon, she tucked the first three inches tightly against her butt, leaving the middle and tip in a graceful arc away from her body, like a grappling hook. “I’m nervous,” it said, “but willing to keep an open mind.” When we went to pick her up from the groomer, she was still on the table in the last stages of being scissored. Her tail, by this time, was firmly tucked against her backside, the tip curling down and under her tummy, giving a darned good impression of Cleo with a sex change operation. This tail suggested, with minimal subtlety, “I have just about had it with this nerve-wracking place—water spraying, dryers blowing, shavers chattering. Get me out of here.” At night, when we let her out for her last hurrah, she charges out the back door in full bellow, skidding to a halt at the fence. It doesn’t matter if there is an animal on the fence or not, this is always how she makes her entrance for that last hurrah. At this point, her tail is ramrod straight, right out of her spine. I swear, you could put an eye out with that thing. “I’m fierce! Watch out for me, varmints!” this tail declares.
There are also, of course, the meanings of the tail in motion: the gentle side-to-side swish of the upbeat-but-sleepy Cleo responding to our “Good morning, puppy!” The exuberant wag when she greets John as he comes home from a gig. The minimalist swing as she trots over to greet a guest who has come into our office.
My favorite of all tail communications is one she surprised me with when she was just a few months old. It continues to this day. The thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of a happy, much-loved girl wagging her tail in her sleep. That speaks volumes without a single word.