Monday, May 7, 2012

It's Not What You Say

          Last month, what people “say” was our topic. Sometimes, however, nonverbal cues - what people do - can be far more telling. For writers, turning nonverbal cues into tags avoids the tedious repetition of “He saids” and “She saids.”  Eye contact or lack of it, for example, says a lot. Full and open gazes inspire confidence, but we identify our villains by their shifty looks. A warm gaze invites intimacy and trust, while cold looks erect a barrier. People often avoid eye contact when they are hurt or upset.
          Body language, posture, and gestures can also be very telling. How a character stands or the direction in which they face communicates their feelings of confidence, fear, boredom or hostility. Some facial expressions are universal. Almost anyone understands the significance of smiles and tears. Even a blind person smiles. Body cues, though, are not universal but are specific to cultures. Some cultures who would not understand the significance of a thumbs up, shrugged shoulders, or an elevated middle finger.
          So what does gender have to do with the way people communicate nonverbally? It depends on the culture. One component of a writer’s due diligence is researching and observing to portray the characters authentically. One example is body space. In the United States, an arm’s width is considered comfortable, a bit less for women. In Italy, it is common for men to walk with their arms linked with no sexual intent. It is the custom of Arabic men to speak to each other with their faces only inches apart. (Check out the pics the examples of how the body space between men and women.)

           Finally, at our local rather primitive shooting range, I have observed that when in the wilds men greet each other by spitting on the ground, adjusting themselves, then shaking hands. They also blow their noses through their fingers without the benefit of handkerchiefs. Just spray it all over the place. Furthermore, they always walk past a perfectly good port-a-potty to use the woods behind it. Anyway, personal observations can certainly add color to your stories. 
Happy reading and writing until next month, 
Rita Bay
Into the Lyon's Den, August, 2012


Big Mike said...

Right on, Rita. Clever arrangement of dialogue should alleviate 99% of "He said's". Every tag should covey more than just whom issued the words (IMO). The character's confusion, anger, hesitation, attraction, embarrassment, etc, the properly formed tag can pull the reader into the character's mind extremely well.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2011)

Rita Bay said...

I agree, Mike Whenever possible, I avoid the "saids." Too many pull me out of the story. Rita Bay

January Bain said...

I agree, I prefer a little more than she said, he said!

Allison Knight said...

I'd volunteer that even parts of a country have different gestures. The south of the US is decidedly more friendly than the north and there's a lot more hugging and kissing here in the south than in the cold north.

Rita Bay said...

Thank you for visiting, January & Allison. Didn't talk about touch behavior too much. It is true that many southerners are more demonstrative. When I took my high school students on a trip to Chicago, everyone on the train was carefully ignoring everyone else. By the time my students departed, everyone was talking to everyone else. Rita