Nothing to see here. Move along.


posted by on March 13th, 2012

One thing that I’d like to address:

In many discussions of pickup, and sexual communication generally, there’s often talk about how some people lack the skills to properly interpret non-verbal communication; in rare cases, this is in combination with an acknowledgment of how this might relate to how an emphasis upon explicit verbal communication might involve the invocation of privilege. But what I’d argue is that even this second case falls far short: it still overlooks the fact that, in general, the ability to communicate verbally, with a base level of clarity (i.e., fluency and lucidity), is assumed of a speaker — and thus, it still overlooks the fact that these debates are rooted in ableist assumptions about verbal and non-verbal communicative capabilities.

It’s for this reason, I think, that the ability to “read” body language — itself an expression that betrays those assumptions1 — can come off as, as they say, “magical.” It’s for this reason that people can make comparisons of people who are good with such reading with aliens and alien cultures in science fiction; and it’s for this reason that they, those with these “magical” skills, can find work in entertainment, doing magic and working as carnies, and be portrayed as working in specialized careers, especially in law enforcement or espionage.

It can become, in its way, a variation on the supercrip.2

And it’s telling, with this in mind, that the discussions tend to frame this as a one-way impairment, as people having difficulties with non-verbal communication, and not as the reverse.3 But the impairments work both ways. Aphasias occur, and occur in degrees; language function can change through repeated seizures, through injury, through disease, and through age. What senses we have available to us, and how acute they are, affect what kinds of language are. How we are able to vocalize can be affected, and can change. And not every baseline begins the same.

There are many variations in language between being able to speak fluently, and not being able to speak at all. And that’s not to touch on issues related to accent, to education, and to being believed when one speaks in the first place (a crucial concern rarely mentioned, when at all).

When taking these things into account, one starts to realize exactly how privileged the “I’m not good with non-verbal communication” argument actually is.

  1. With personalized results turned off, a Google search returned an estimate of 32 million results for “read body language,” without quotes, and 42.4 million for “listen to” (though, granted, both inflated by connections with media titles); for “interpret,” it was only 3.62 million, and for “interpreting,” 1.75; for “perceive,” 3.07 million, and for “perceiving,” 337,000 results total. Only using the more general term “understand” returned more, with 69.4 million.
  2. See this recent study, for example, noting the opening paragraphs.
  3. At best, there’s an acknowledgment that one might be “better” or “more skilled” at verbal communication than another. But this still assumes a baseline level of capability, similar to how someone might admit to the privilege of being “more educated” than someone else, but not admit the possibility of a cognitive impairment on the part of that other.



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