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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Attentive and kindly

Body language is 70% of speech, I read somewhere.

I was asked to talk about my experiences with the body language of others.

Ok... let's take on the grumps first.

One knows instantly whether anyone disputes your humanity. It can be little things. There is a tendency for these persons to wear a mask of expressionlessness when you approach them with a question or whatever. They give the shortest answer, and then turn away. You observe them with others. They're not doing it to them. Yet if you challenge them on it -- "Don't you like me anymore? etc." they will typically deny there is a problem, and wear an aggrieved expression, as if to say: "not only are you weird, you're also paranoid."

Or, their eyes may sweep over a group of people that you're standing with -- mutual friends, shall we say. The eyes may move faster when they cross the space you're in. You are not there.

Or, they may talk only to the person next to you, not both of you. You may be interrupted or ignored when you chime in.

Or, they look with mild distaste at a coffee carafe when they realize you have just used it. For now, they may decide to switch to tea. They may make an effort to get into the other line at potlucks, using the utensils before you do. They do not turn around to chat. They may actually hover with their plate and cup, waiting to choose a table at which you are not sitting.

Or, they may turn and leave the bathroom quickly when they discover you are in there. (If, of course, you went back to the old bathroom there would be even more trouble. But you have no option to pee in front of the doors -- some have had serious bladder and urethral injuries while dealing with this, especially elementary and junior high school students.)

Or, when they call your office they may not choose your number, even though the matter at hand is in your area of responsibility. Or they may perhaps wait until your shift is up and then come to the service desk. Or they may walk the short way through the area when you are not seen to be there, but the long way around if you are seen to be there.

Or, when it's your turn to present to a meeting they may stare out the window or doodle on their notepad. As soon as some other person begins speaking they straighten up and pay attention again. Or in roundtable discussion, if they are the moderator and you raise you hand, you are not called on. If you hand out papers they fail to take one or even fail to hand them on. If someone else hands out papers they pick them up.

Or, in a group that is going somewhere, they may pair off with someone else. They will answer if anyone else in the group replies to something they have said to "everyone," but when you reply they simply switch to another topic, or start talking to the person next to them, even if you're not done yet.

Or, they may nudge one another when you are approaching, and give one another "significant" glances. Their conversation drops in volume and their heads move closer together. This posture says "Don't join this conversation."

Or, jokes may be made about you but only in your absence; these are told only to trusted comrades as this is expressly forbidden by (in my case) company policy.

In many places it is unspoken (but understood) company policy that such behavior towards you is to be encouraged.

This has contributed to my people having, on average, far less income than our peers, leading, in worst case, to chronic joblessness and uninsurability, depression, hunger, self-destructive social behaviors, exposure to increased risk of abusive language, beatings, rape, and murder; to falling into prostitution, porn modeling, alcohol, drugs, STDs, self-injury, assorted preventable medical and debilitating mental conditions, and suicide.

And who would want to rent to or hire people that might let such things happen to them?

Dying beneath a bridge or in an alley, no ones marks the passing of such a one, except perhaps the one who marks the fall of the sparrow.

Yet it is called a lifestyle choice.

Off-campus, before I became fairly passable, people turned about 1/8 so that their eyes could follow me. From peripheral vision I could see that they weren't just staring. I know it as the stare that among my Appalachian kinfolk used to be called the evil eye. If I looked back they would quickly straighten up and look away again, pretending not to have done anything of the sort. This is not good for them; it hardens their hearts.

In such an atmosphere the Nazi Party found their scapegoats, with spectacular results.

Sadly, I would observe that in instances of these kinds of treatment where I knew the identity of the other parties, I also knew them to be notably religious...

I suspect they may have been lied to about what I am, whatever it is I supposedly represent.

When I have looked into this I have learned that Matthew 7:1-5 is not to be applied in my case.

I have no idea why not.


Then there are the others...

Most men for whom I'm not a problem, I think, are able to carry themselves in a relaxed, upward posture that is neither deferential nor condescending, and yet they tend to reach doors before I do, in order to hold them open for me.

They ask how I'm doing, and actually have time to hear the answer.

They lean slightly forward while I'm bringing them up to date, and their eyes and the wrinkles above their cheeks appear both attentive and kindly.

They offer to hug me, and I accept, and it's not a nervous A-frame thing, nor lingeringly salacious in tone, but something like a single bite from a Euphoria® chocolate ...

They call me to ask how I'm doing.

They want to know if I need to sit where I can see or hear better, or am out of the draft, or warm enough, or comfortably seated. At this point, their bodies lean into an active posture, a bit like a runner at the starting line. They will go where I send them.

In a word: gentlemen.

Women walk with me to the restroom and talk with me while I'm washing my hands or checking my eye shadow. They walk towards me when they recognize me, and stand with one hand holding the elbow of the other arm, which says: "I have time for you."

They lean their heads toward mine, in a posture that invites me to do the same: this says private conversation commencing. They ask more precise questions at this time than the men: Does Beloved take you shopping, are you still sleeping in the same bed, is she happy, do you find yourself doing more of the housework; I notice you haven't worn pants in years, whereas I always do ... they're expecting direct replies, information; we walk together, we do not lose track of these topics while interrupting ourselves to admire trees in sunlight, wind-rustled daffodils, absent-minded squirrels and chuckling jays.

Short hugs, long hugs, a squeeze of the arm, a shoulder or hand touched. Shall we have coffee? Let's go stair-climbing. That's great, what you did with your hair. Are you happy? Are you taking care of yourself? Here's something I thought you might like to have. You must make sure you have enough sleep.

The shoulders completely relaxed, the corners of the mouth turned slightly upward without a hint of irony.

The words and gestures run out. They lean on the service desk counter, arms folded, watching passersby in silence with you, eyes shining.

-- risa b


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