Friday, February 6, 2009

Non-verbal Communication

One continuing difficulty with communication is in the fact that our mechanisms of conveying meaning lag behind the change in social behaviors and conditions. Coupled with the fact that almost every means of communicating becomes subverted by those who wish to deceive, it is sometimes a wonder that any meaningful exchange occurs at all.

Witness my experience of last night. I was returning home from my place of employment, and needed to stop at a bank branch to use the ATM. The time was around 12:30 AM when I pulled into the bank's parking lot. The night was dark, and cold, though not unpleasantly so. As I entered the parking lot, a young woman crossed my path and entered the bank, presumably with the intent of using the ATM herself.

Conventional mores suggest that it was my role to wait patiently, and use the ATM in turn after she had finished. There was little difficulty in me for that. However, what ought I do to signal my intent to do so?

As is habitual, I was dressed in black. Much of my outerwear is black leather, and the overall tone is somewhat quasi-military. My general manner of dress conveys a set of tribal signals, and makes use of certain ingrained archetypes to send preconscious signals of danger to many members of the mainstream culture. In short, I sometimes frighten people. There are certain reasons why I do this, and allow it to happen, but those reasons did not apply to this situation.

How then was I to convey that I had no intent in this situation to be dangerous? I lacked any intent or inclination to assault, rob, rape, or kill this young woman. I merely wished to use the ATM when she had finished her transactions. However, I was conscious of the suggestion that my intent was not clear.

Was I to follow her into the building, waiting some socially acceptable distance away? Or should I wait outside, knowing that doing so might be construed as "lurking in the shadows?" I decided to wait outside, underneath a street light, with my hands visible and a stance that suggested restful waiting; a stance hat was not poised for sudden movements. I offered her a "good evening" as she left the building, and moved slowly and with copious personal seperation into the building.

I hope I didn't frighten her. Doing so was not my intent.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes it is not even your manner of dress that can be threatening, but the fact that you are male.
My own experience...several years ago while I was working at the University of Minnesota, there were a series of brutal attacks in parking ramps in the city in general. One woman was killed as she walked to her car. Given that situation you can understand my hesitation, as I was headed into an elevator in a U parking ramp, to enter with a well-dressed, probably mid-level faculty man. It was not the fact that he was a stranger, but that he was male. Dress had nothing to do with it. It was gender and situation.
In contrast, one of the nicest people I have ever met, polite and respectful, wore his hair in the most brilliant blue Mohawk. He was like some outstanding tropical bird, but far from accepted in the elevators of Moos Tower.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and yes, you did exactly right, conveying non-threat by removing yourself from close by. Not sure what else you could have done, though she must have had a huge helping of self-confidence to have been out so late alone. Maybe it was YOU who should have been afraid!

Anonymous said...

In similar situations, I've feigned playing with my cellphone. Or just calling my voicemail, even though I know it's empty. The goal is to look bored.

The situation is a screwy one... any direct communication would be seen as unusual, and therefore threatening. You can't say to someone, "I'm not here to hurt you," without them becoming worried about it.