When I think of language, and how little of the stuff it takes to make meaning, the way a few tiny sparks can bloom into a barn fire, I think of poetry.
And when I think of body language, and how little of the stuff it takes to make meaning, the way an arched eyebrow can set a whole classroom ablaze, I think of my old instructor, the late and luminous poet Bill Knott — whose “I Am Flying Into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960-2014” just came out.
Everybody was terrified of Bill, and I loved him for it. He could make a 10-floor elevator ride up to the Emerson College writing department feel like a nine-circle descent into hell just by leaning against the back wall, staring down at the floor, and maybe, if this all grew too much to bear, arcing his head to glance up at the rising numbers.
Bill would crane attentively over a student’s poem and let a trusty wince pass over his face like he’d once again remembered the same terrible thing. He’d shift uncomfortably in his chair as though a great weight had settled upon his shoulders. And, if you were unlucky enough, he’d look at you, exhausted already. His eventual questions would only sweep the pieces he’d reduced you to with a look into a tidier pile. Best poetry workshop ever.
Bill’s effortless skill with language (really, read him) was in true poetic symbiosis with his effortless (in the other sense) use of silence to speak for him. It calibrated my sensitivity to the stuff early on — and to how even the most minimal body language can speak volumes.
Not that you have to be especially attuned to pick up on body language. One study out of Princeton found that our faces actually don’t communicate intense emotions nearly as effectively as our bodies do, and that, according to one researcher, “there is a lot of information in body language people aren’t necessarily aware of.”
We’ve also had decades of cringe comedy and reality TV, from Christopher Guest mockumentaries to “The Office,” cultivating and elevating body language’s status from sub- to primary text. That is, when you watch a Real Housewife grow rigid and clutch her clutch at the sight of an uninvited Other Housewife at a birthday party, for example, you are consuming the main story line. The silent stare and resigned, hanging limbs of Larry David: Same thing.
More recently we’ve experienced the rise of the Internet, a terrain that is highly visual and thus a powerful new medium for body language. Our memes have effectively cataloged body language into a sprawling reproducible lexicon of unspoken meanings, with sites like giphy.com serving as de facto dictionaries. With a short search and a few clicks, any emotional state can be captured and looped, distilled and concentrated, softened or italicized, and deployed in a fresh context.
But the Internet hasn’t just expanded the ways we use body language (even by proxy) to express ourselves; it’s also enhanced our ability to use body language to interpret others. When it comes to body language, it serves as both microphone and microscope.
This is especially true in politics, where milliseconds of video have become as easily subject to review as lines of a speech. Debates are no longer judged only on the merits of arguments, but also on patronizing “palm shows” and aggressive “proxemics.” And like any language, when someone hasn’t mastered body language, you can tell. It’s why Marco Rubio hasn’t been caught thirsty in four years.
Thousands of words have been written about political encounters in which only dozens of words were spoken — scrutinizing Michelle and Melania’s uniquely static electricity, or clinically observing the Obamas and Trumps playing nice, or deconstructing Trump’s almost chiropractic approach to handshaking (which left Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looking . . . shaken).
And the most reliable information to come from Trump’s surrogates has been the involuntary stuff silently broadcast by their visible unease — like the nervously darting (or, more likely, dutifully reading) eyes of Stephen Miller, or the telltale hair-flip of the embattled Kellyanne Conway.
As the actual words issued by some of our elected officials come to mean less and less, and as meaning melts more permanently into seeming, body language may be one of the only glimpses of the truth we get (and video manipulation technology will soon take care of that problem, too).
For now, we don’t have to sweat the ambiguities of subtlety too much. Trump’s looming, pacing, pointing, all-caps approach to body language doesn’t leave much room for interpretation — it barely leaves room for whoever he’s talking to. Meanwhile, his Russian counterpart’s body language gets lost in translation; his chronically shirtless strutting is intended to signal virility, but comes across as a Munchian scream into the closing finitude of time.
Trump has mastered reality TV and Twitter, but unlike my wise and thorny professor, has a long way to go when it comes to mastering the unspoken. If only he knew the true power of silence, we’d all be better off.