In the previous installment of this series we explored the concept of nonverbal communication, and why reading and using body language is a skill of utmost importance, not to be underestimated.
Now comes the next step: How to learn, and where to start.
Throughout my post-diagnostic journey into the autism world, the questions most commonly asked of me relate back to my study of body language. How did I learn it? How is it that I can use it myself? What’s my secret?
Due to the popularity of questions like these, I can only assume that interpreting the nonverbal cues of others is a holy grail for autistics.
I understand this; I felt it too.
As soon as I understood what I was missing I became filled with a powerful drive to claim this hidden language. Perhaps this was the reason I had such a hard time making social connections! Maybe this lack was the missing link, the key to all my interactive failings—my anxious confusion and fear around others, the big fat target on my back visible only to bullies—and if only I could learn these social signals I’d been missing my entire life, everything would be better. I would finally connect to strangers with ease! I would feel in control in social situations! I would fit in!
Alas, as you can probably guess, it’s not that simple.
While learning to read and use the nonverbal language that comes naturally to neurotypicals is a tremendous advantage for any autistic, it is not a cure-all. Even with my newfound nonverbal expertise, my social anxiety is alive and well. While I know enough to see that oftentimes those I yearn to connect with would welcome my presence, I’m still crippled by the same old fears, and I still hang back. While I no longer appear angry to strangers, I still appear aloof—standing at the edge of the room, never starting conversations but happily engaging anyone who initiates. I’m still sneered at and excluded by insecure toxic adults. I still can’t summon up a confident handshake to save my life. Be warned that body language is not The Missing Piece that will solve all life’s social problems.
And yet, it does make a difference. I’ve found I have a much easier time making friends. My anxiety and uncertainty makes me quiet and shy, unlikely to initiate social contact, but once I’ve been engaged I can easily have a perfectly normal, mutually enjoyable interaction with a fellow human being. I am less offensive; I can spot the signals of boredom that tell me when to change the topic, I can better read my audience and gauge what kinds of jokes might go over fine and which would crash and burn.
That’s not to say that I’m always a Smooth Sally—I recently told a grisly story involving a dead baby over brunch, and despite the widening eyes and slack cheeks of the members of my audience I found I couldn’t stop myself until I’d finished.
But I no longer ramble for hours about a special interest to some poor trapped guest desperately waiting for a window of escape. And, perhaps more importantly, I no longer fear bringing up my interests on the chance that I will unknowingly trap my victim in a boring conversation and ruin their impression of me. I can’t describe how absolutely wonderful it feels to mention a passion of mine and actually see the interest light up in the face and body of my listener. There are few things more comforting than the sure knowledge that whomever you’re with wants to be talking to you.
I used to assume that if a person sat down next to me and stayed while I spoke, that necessarily implied interest; if that person lost interest, I thought they would get up and leave.
As a child, I had a habit of engaging my peers in endless one-sided monologues, because I didn’t realize that a person might stay and listen against their will out of some sense of etiquette. Over the years, I realized that just because I was talking at someone didn’t mean they wanted to hear what I had to say, and so I grew to fear strangers.
I knew that my friends wanted me around—years of heavy natural selection induced by my monologues meant anyone who had stuck around that long genuinely liked me, weirdness and all—but I had no way of knowing if a new person really wanted me, or merely tolerated me. I still retain much of that social anxiety today, but the simple knowledge of how to recognize boredom has gone a long way in helping me overcome this fear, and the first step in my journey in teaching myself to read body language.
Learning to read disinterest in a listening audience was one of the earliest sets of nonverbal cues I acquired. I say “sets” because messages spoken with body language are rarely (if ever) single signals. Individual nonverbal signals can be mixed and matched to convey a limitless number of complex thoughts and concepts. Learning body language is as much about memorizing the individual signals as it is about knowing how those signals combine to form fluid meanings.
When I was a senior in high school, long before I had heard of Asperger’s or knew much of anything about autism, I somehow found myself dating a neurotypical social butterfly. Quite early in our relationship, he noticed that I had a tendency to ramble on about a topic long beyond the polite threshold of an uninterested audience’s attention span. We devised a simple system: if I needed to change the topic, he gave my elbow a squeeze. Over time, as he explained the various reasons behind his decisions to request topic changes, I began to pick up on these cues myself. It wasn’t until after my diagnosis and long after the ending of our relationship that I began my formal research into body language and solidified my understanding of the signals I had been missing.
Because learning to read boredom was my first nonverbal epiphany, I feel it’s only right to start here.
How to read: Boredom (Disinterest)
This particular flavor of boredom is unique to conversation. A person may unconsciously begin to exhibit any or all of these signals if they feel trapped in a conversation they do not wish to be a part of. It may be time to change the topic if the person you are talking to…
- stops making eye contact, or looks away, when they were once looking at the speaker.
- responds with minimal answers (e.g., “hm,” “huh,” “yeah”) instead of full sentences.
- looks around for other potential engagements, topics, or routes of escape.
- slouches and draws the limbs towards or in front of the body, instead of sitting up straight with open posture.
- fidgets in self-entertaining or self-comforting ways, such as touching the face, cleaning under the fingernails, tapping the foot, etc.
If the problem (i.e., the boring conversation) persists, the signals will grow more pronounced, and may transition from unconscious to conscious and intentional. New, sometimes more obvious signals may appear, such as…
- checking a watch, or clock, for the time.
- yawning, and/or stretching, and other “tired” signals.
- adopting an “ejector seat position” when sitting, with hands on the knees, one or both feet pointed in the direction of a desired exit.
- relaxing the facial muscles and adopting a blank facial expression, or,
- freezing the face into an immobile, affected smile, keeping the muscles around the eyes relaxed.
- overtly engaging in another activity, such as watching TV, checking a cell phone, or reading an internet web page, while “listening.”
If the speaker still has not responded to any of these cues, the listening party will grow frustrated, and the signals often become exaggerated. If other parties are present in the immediate location, the broadcasting range of these signals will widen to encompass not only the guilty (rambling, clueless) party, but also any others, in an attempt to forge camaraderie of circumstance. For example, the bored listener may…
- look towards others in an attempt at nonverbal solidarity (“Man, can you believe this guy?”) or a silent plea for help (“Somebody get me out of here!”).
- turn the body away from the speaker and towards another person in the room.
- roll the eyes upwards and/or to the side while the face is pointed towards another person, and/or,
- widen the eyes while the face is pointed towards another person, and/or,
- press the lips together firmly while the face is pointed towards another person.
My personal rule-of-thumb for measuring the likelihood that I need to change topics is to pay attention to the ratio of words spoken by myself to words spoken by my conversational partner. If you are exchanging phrases of equal length in a conversation, you can pretty much guarantee your partner is interested and engaged. If you are speaking 5 sentences for every 1 of your partner’s, it’s possible that you are dominating the conversation because the other party is less interested. If you are speaking in full paragraphs while your partner has fallen silent, save for one- or two-word answers, it’s probably time to switch things up.
As this series progresses, I will explain several more sets of nonverbal cues, including how to tell when a person is actively flirting (or at least romantically interested) and how to use these cues to make one’s own romantic interest known. I also plan to go over the basic differences between shy and confident body language—knowledge that can be used not only to infer which individuals may respond positively to social engagement, but also to make oneself more or less approachable.
Until then, I want to share a broader view of “how” to learn body language. Body language is so complex that a true, practical understanding cannot be reached through a handful of blog posts on the topic. I can supply a few fish to whet the appetite, but I’d much rather teach you to fish for yourself.
How do I learn?
As I mentioned in my last post, my usual answer to the question of how I learned what I know about body language is that I googled “body language dictionary.”
I can still recall that the first thing I learned from the very first body language dictionary I found nearly five years ago (which, sadly, no longer exists) was the expression I’ve attempted to illustrate at the top of this post, and an expression I had previously never realized was a nonverbal signal!
I learned that a person squinting one eye—like an incomplete wink—while tilting the head towards the party to whom the signal is given, is an expression of (slightly patronizing) dominance, usually exhibited by a superior when giving instruction to a subordinate. I remember that entry clear as day because it was such a shock. I had thought my old boss at my first retail job had a facial tick because he always squinted one eye when talking to me. In reality he had simply been using this signal. What a revelation!
The basic method for learning body language is the same as for any self-taught interest. The first step is in the research. We autistics are humanity’s research champions, at least when it comes to things that interest us.
The following is an annotated list of free online resources that I have found particularly helpful for beginners looking to study body language.
This is the first episode of a six-part BBC television series by Desmond Morris. I highly recommend watching the other five episodes as well, but this first episode is the one most relevant to today’s topic. This video is a great example of a resource that helps one begin to learn to fish for oneself, so to speak, because it addresses overarching concepts as well as specific signals. Understanding body language requires a deeper understanding of the reasons and methods behind nonverbal communication, not just the bare-bones formulas of cue combinations, and I feel this video does a good job of introducing these deeper ideas. And because it is a video, not a written guide, it provides a type of research that is essential in the study of human body language: watching real people. Learning the overarching themes present in nonverbal communication is the first step toward inferring meaning from signals without the crutch of memorization. Of course, memorization is necessary to build up a nonverbal vocabulary, making those inferences possible.
A wonderfully detailed online book by David B. Givens, this is another great resource that goes beyond simple direct one-to-one translations of signals to provide conceptual context that can be applied to a variety of situations, and help one infer meaning from unfamiliar signals. This dictionary provides definitions not only of specific signals, but broader categories of signals. For example, the definition of “self-touch” provides a variety of types of self-touch across moods, cultures, and even species (a quote from a 1968 Lawick-Goodall paper describes chimpanzees scratching themselves with an intensity relative to their level of anxiety). This book includes peer-reviewed citations for each example, a very helpful fact for anyone looking to find further resources beyond compilation dictionaries. The sheer amount of context provided by this dictionary is an information-hungry aspie’s dream; any definition of “facial expression” that includes speculation on the evolution of various expressions is a top-notch resource in my book. Again, learning the reasoning behind various types of nonverbal cues is an essential part of learning that “common sense” inference that comes naturally to neurotypicals.
This resource is a straightforward dictionary, written in classic one-to-one style, where each signal is paired with a specific definition. I like this dictionary because it includes such a vast amount of information. Boasting “well over 500 terms,” this might be the most comprehensive of the simple dictionaries I’ve found. But be warned, the simple, straightforward nature of this dictionary means that many of the definitions are more simplistic than realistic. For example, the definition for “Ear grab” (“or ear rub or ear rubbing”), a common self-comforting stim, is as follows: “The ear grab refers to a subconscious desire to “hear no evil” and is done by reaching up and pulling the ear in response to hearing or saying discomforting things.” As someone who does this specific behavior quite often, simply because it feels good, this definition gives me pause. While touching the ear(s) is often a sign of anxiety, especially when lying, or nervous, it’s a bit of a stretch to make such a certain, specific statement about such a general category of self-touch. As with every one-to-one body language dictionary, take these definitions with a grain of salt.
This hidden gem, found under the unexpected URL “businessballs.com” is an example of the kind of wonderful thing that can result from a little digging on Google. This page includes a one-to-one dictionary, and though this one doesn’t come with pictures, I’m very partial to this list because of its flexibility—for example, the signal “blinking infrequently” is paired with the meaning “various,” and a longer explanation, addressing that this signal “can mean different things and so offers no single clue unless combined with other signals” (the definition goes on to give examples). This dictionary even includes detailed interpretations of leg and foot positions, and varying distances of personal space. Even more important than the dictionary, this page includes a thorough lesson on body language from a conceptual perspective. This website is a true “101”-style resource for those looking to understand body language as well as simply memorize dictionaries.
This last resource is shorter and less detailed than the others I’ve provided here, but I thought it useful enough to include. This page targets writers looking to add depth to their characters’ emotions, but because of the format it can also be useful for those simply looking to learn basic body language. The unique format of this short and sweet dictionary makes it a special find: instead of translating gestures, this “cheat sheet” starts with an emotion and lists body language cues that portray that particular emotion. It isn’t as detailed as I’d like, but I recommend skimming this page to get a general idea of the kinds of signals that pair with different moods. For example, this author’s description of bored body language is: “yawn, avoid eye contact, tap feet, twirl a pen, doodle, fidget, slouch.” An incomplete, shallow list to be sure, but the take home message carries: a bored person will distance himself from whatever is boring him and seek outside stimulation. While the other links listed could be thought of as deeper, conceptual resources, this page is a compact overview: simple, straightforward, and an easy way to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between various emotional cues.
I’ll conclude this post with a disclaimer: while I can list resources and explain various nonverbal cues, the ability to read and use body language, like any skill, takes time and dedicated effort. While I believe that anyone can learn to understand the fundamentals of nonverbal communication with the right resources and enough study, such things don’t come easy; the “10,000-hour rule” still applies. This may have been comparatively easier for me than for other autistics for a variety of reasons—chiefly the fact that body language became an intense special interest of mine. I learned what I know now because I have dedicated a tremendous amount of time towards my pursuit of these skills. It takes far more than an afternoon to become socially savvy through dedicated study. And yet, only one afternoon is all it takes to break the surface, to understand that there exists a vast and silent language that has always been there, just out of reach. You can’t learn to swim without getting your toes wet, and all it takes is that first foray into the unknown for the incredible world of human social games to provide the motivation to dive in.
Additional resources for understanding social interaction
- People Watching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language, by Desmond Morris (my particular favorite)
- The Games People Play, by Eric Berne
- Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman
- A simple guide to “cold reading,” a technique used by psychics that I’ve found practical for making small talk with strangers, among other things