Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Non-Verbal Communication: Bearing

It's writing post time again (yay!) and I'm continuing my discussion of nonverbal communication.

This time, I'm going to talk about sitting, standing, walking and lying -- all the very basic states of being. People have characteristic ways of sitting, standing and walking, and being able to describe that will make your characters more real. These things may or may not say something specific about the character -- you're the author, so you can decide. Someone who's been in the military (or in a marching band) may have a very upright posture and may walk in a march-like cadence. A ballet dancer will likely stand with her feet turned out. Someone who's in pain may stand, sit or walk in such a way as to minimize that pain. Someone who's very conscious about her appearance may stand as though she's posing. A shy person may stand with her head down and eyes on the floor.

But where the real power of this kind of body language comes is in changes. If someone has a characteristic way of doing something, then when that changes, it's a signal that something is going on. Your posture and bearing are going to be different in different situations. You may lounge on the sofa at home, but you'd sit in a very different way in a job interview or on the antique sofa in your prissy great aunt's parlor. Your attitude toward the situation will also affect your bearing. If you love your great aunt and enjoy spending time with her in spite of her prissiness, you may sit properly to please her, but you'll be more relaxed. If visiting your great aunt is a family obligation, you may sit with a lot of weight on your feet, like you're ready to launch yourself out of there the moment you can safely end the visit. If you dislike your great aunt but are being nice to her because you hope you'll be included in her will, you may mirror her prissiness.

A lot of this will be unconscious, but being conscious of the way you're sitting or standing will affect the way you do sit or stand. Like in the job interview -- if you're read books or articles about how to behave in an interview, you'll be intensely conscious about sending the right body language signals and will make an effort to lean slightly forward, not cross your arms over your chest or any of the other things that are supposed to be good signals. Have you ever been in a situation where you suddenly become acutely aware that you have hands, and you suddenly have no idea what to do with them? They're at the ends of your arms all the time, but when you become conscious of them, there's no good thing to do with them -- do you clasp them in front of you or behind you, put them on your hips, find something to hold, let them hang at your side? No matter what you do, it feels wrong and you become more and more conscious of your hands. That's a great way to show that a character is in a situation so uncomfortable that she becomes intensely awkward.

If someone who normally stands straight and upright slouches, then that could be a sign that he's particularly tired or dejected or has given up. When someone who normally strides purposefully drags his feet, he's probably on his way to a place he doesn't want to be. Someone who normally ambles casually will walk in a different way when he's running late. Just a shift in posture while sitting or standing can signal an emotional response to something that's happened. This is an area where watching TV or movies is a good exercise because those actors generally can't use interior monologue to tell you what they're feeling and how they're reacting. They have to show it physically. They may stiffen or slouch, hunch a shoulder, cross their arms, move their arms behind their backs, walk faster, walk slower, etc.

I hadn't really thought of what the way someone lies down could tell you about a character until I hurt my shoulder recently and couldn't sleep in my usual favorite position -- and then couldn't get to sleep because I wasn't in my sleeping position. People do have characteristic ways of lying, and if you ever show a character going to sleep, either from his point of view or when watched by someone else, you should probably think about what your character's primary sleeping position would be. There may be some psychological reason for sleeping positions -- I even once saw a "what his sleeping position tells you about him" article in a magazine -- but for the most part, it's the changes that matter. Not being able to get into the right position and therefore having trouble falling asleep could be a good way of showing the way an injury affects all aspects of a character's life, even in little ways. Sleeping position also comes up when sharing a bed with someone else. If a man's customary sleeping position is lying on his side and facing the edge of the bed, the first time a woman sleeps with him, she may worry that him turning his back to her means he's shutting her out. Cuddling or spooning may keep one member of the couple from being in the "right" position to get to sleep, which can lead to discomfort or conflict.

To come up with ways people sit, stand and walk, indulge in some people watching. Go to a place where you have the opportunity to observe people and look for the variety of postures and walks, then think of how to describe them. Do any of these postures or walks remind you of the characters you're currently writing?

I think next I'll tackle characteristic gestures and mannerisms.

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