Authors: Allan & Barbara Pease
Observation! That's the keyword. As far as I can recollect, there have been only four times in my entire life so far that I have been so strongly reminded about the importance of this word.
The first time was by Gerald Durrell in my primary school. There was this lesson in the English textbook about animals and birds. It was about their lifestyle, how they make their nests and houses etc. written based on pure observation. I was really very fascinated by the entire narration. I don't remember how many times I reread the chapter. And I was deeply ashamed too for I used to spend countless number of hours playing beneath the shade of those huge trees at the ashram-like backyard of my ancestral home filled with a wide range of animal and bird species and yet never bothered to spend even as little as five minutes to sit and observe and try to know something about those creatures that included squirrels and rodents (and once i spotted even a large yellow snake) and a wide range of birds from the common crow to the parrot, from the house sparrow to the eagle and many other species of which I don't know the names, including the bluish-black & white feathered bird which was so common around there, not to mention the numerous families of bugs and tiny creeping things. Had I been interested I could have observed these lively beings in my own little way, if not as elaborately as Gerald Durrell. But I never did it even once. Nevertheless I felt how enjoyable it would be to watch these creatures and make notes on them. Anyway the lesson got me thinking that all of a sudden, as if some revelation had descended upon me, I became aware of the bewitchingly fabulous world that surrounded us all every day, every moment, so prominent and conspicuous that we see it yet fail to really see anything at all.
The second instance was when I was in high school when I got really addicted to Sherlock Holmes stories, and started prowling in the yard scrupulously looking for microscopic details in everything like the guy in the Karamchand serial which used to be aired on Doordarshan back in that zamana. And I remember how thrilled I was when I could finally spot as a result of painstaking effort and perseverance a set of new, strange footsteps in the sand that were pretty indistinct and not from any of the footwears that belonged to our house. There are not many characters in litearture that earned more credits than their authors. Even the Pease couple has started the introduction of this book with a Holmes quote:
"By a man's fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his
trouser-knees, by the calluses of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression,
by his shirt-cuffs, by his movements - by each of these things a man's calling
is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent
enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable."
- Sherlock Holmes
The third instance was when in college I started reading the novels of the Malayalam writer Khalid. I noticed his peculiar style of narration. He follows an elaborately descriptive style. He starts by describing the minute details of a place, the persons in the place and the things around them. That is how he neatly creates the foundation of a scene. And from there flows out the story. It was interesting to read those stories paying attention to this special characteristic of watchfulness in the act of story-telling.
And now for the fourth time, I have been made to reflect once again, by a book, upon the power of observation and that how enjoyable the very act of observing things could be.
The third chapter of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities starts thus:
"A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted
to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration,
when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered
houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses
its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts
there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something
of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn
the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it
all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as
momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and
other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a
spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that
the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on
its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my
neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the
inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that
individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life's end. In any of the
burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more
inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to
me, or than I am to them? As to this, his natural and not to be alienated
inheritance, the messenger on horseback had exactly the same possessions as the
King, the first Minister of State, or the richest merchant in London. So with the
three passengers shut up in the narrow compass of one lumbering old mail coach;
they were mysteries to one another, as complete as if each had been in his own
coach and six, or his own coach and sixty, with the breadth of a county between
him and the next."
- (A Tale of Two Cities)
But this book, The Definitive Book of Body Language, says otherwise. However closed a person appears to be, their countenance, gestures, movements of body parts, idiosyncrasies, attire, and many other factors which include a lot of subtle details disclose their innermost and most vigilantly guarded secrets and intentions and many things about their character to you even without they themsleves knowing of it, but only if you have an exceptionally watchful eye. This is an A to Z book on body language, with comprehensive yet in-depth analysis of each and every aspect of it and discussing many topics in relation to it. The facet that interested me most is the importance of taking cultural differences into account while trying to decipher a person's body language when he/she is from a totally different geographic region who grew up with a set of etiquette rules entirely different from yours, because that helped me get a better understanding of certain experiences I have had as an expatriate from different peoples.
The picture is vivid in my memory of my old Egyptian friend Mohammed's eyes turning red with anger and his shouting at me just because I had sat near him with one of my legs folded and placed on the thigh of the other near to the knee (which constituted something like a figure of four). It took me by extreme surprise as he was perhaps the only pious muslim I knew in Saudi Arabia then to whom I could openly talk about my disbelief in the religion and even make 'sacreligious' observations and yet get away without being harmed in anyway or reported to the Religious Police or betrayed. I didn't get what was it in my actions that drove him so intolerant and furious. A little later, still not fully out of his chagrin, he asked me:"Why do you show your shoe's sole to me?, Would you like it if someone does the same to you?" I was more surprised hearing this. Why would I feel bad if someone sits beside me with his one leg folded over the other? Was that such a big crime? I was only confused. It took me very long to learn that for an arab, being thrusted upon by a display of shoes worn on one's foot, especially their soles, is one of the greatest insults. Years later, I see that this book makes the same observation. Also, it's not so long ago that the media discussed this matter when the Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi tried to offer George W. Bush what he believed to be what the then US President deserved - his shoes, that too a full pair. The greatest insult. (See the you-tube video).
Another tidbit of information from this book regarding the figure-four leg-cross: "During the Second World War, the Nazis kept a lookout for the Figure Four as anyone using it was clearly not German or had spent time in the USA." The figure-four leg-cross is mostly American or of a people who have been Americanised in some way. The British people and other Europeans and even Asians with their influences basically show a tendency for placing thigh on thigh, with closed crotch, and foot dangling down, which forms an entirely different posture from the figure-four.
Yet another experience in Saudi Arabia was when I was new there. My Arab boss was coming from the other end of the long corridor. I was at the opposite dimly lit end with my friend John Samuel. My boss's eyes were fixed on me, and apparently he saw something wrong in me. Somehow I understood that he was not happy with my not greeting him 'Good morning'. But how could I greet 'Good morning' in that situation? Should I shout out 'GOOD MORNING SIR!' so that my boos could hear it from the other end of the 100 metre long corridor? It is not good manners. The other option was to just move your lips as if you were uttering 'Good morning Sir' and at the same time bow a bit to show respect. But I was sure he would fail to notice the gesture emanating from a poorly lit far end of the corridor. I was perplexed. Then John my friend asked me to raise my hand to greet 'Salam'. I looked at him confused because that was a gesture used among friends, or by superiors to inferiors. How could I greet my boss that way? But John prodded me forcefully from behind, and my right hand rose up in a sudden refelx action with an open palm as if I was a Congress party leader standing in a slowly rolling open vehicle greeting his voters. I was waiting to see the result of this John-induced 'insult' to my boss. To my amazement his face beamed like anything and he too raised his hand in the Congress greeting to return the salutation. It was considered the most common and the most basic way of greeting among Arabs, irrespective of the age difference of the people involved. My salam was supposed to be a signal of respect towards my boss, whereas it was deemed very disrespectful by one of my uncle's freinds and some others when after my long stay in Saudi Arabia I returned home and continued extending the same greeting to elders around me out of inertia, because in my place, it was a way of greeting among friends and acquaintances of the same age group or from an elder person to a younger one!
Yet another interesting example as to how variations in bodily expressions from place to place can create misunderstanding and confusion was my encounter with a Filipina colleague who, though unintentionally, damaged a part of an equipment because of improper handling. I was trying to explain to her the correct steps to use the gadget and in certain places i was pointing my finger towards her to complement the word 'you'. Within no time she burst out like a volcano, warning me seriously, "Don't point your finger at me!". Perhaps she thought I was trying to blame her by pointing my finger to her for damaging the machine, even though I didn't have the least intention to. That's what I thought then. But the truth turned out to be graver. And it took so long. I had to read this book after so many years to know what the Filipina girl meant. In Filipino etiquette, the gesture of pointing your finger is only meant for animals!! At least that is what this book says! Perhaps that is also the reason why they, instead of using a finger, purse their lips as if to form the shape of a pointed finger and points with it to the direction of the way when you lose your way and ask them for directions? But a person who is not familiar with such Filipino nuances in communicating, for example, an Indian male, who happens to have such an experience from a Filipina girl might think her only to be signalling a kiss with her lips which might make him feel she is somehow interested in him and is giving a discreet invitation to her bed.
A serious thought that flashed across my mind while reading the book was about people who act in films. Like anyone else, they too, as individuals must invariably have their own characteristic gestures and body language strongly indicative of their personal character, about which neither they themselves nor the film director may be aware. Couldn't it be that these personal, outward physical traits are sometimes in clash with the character they play in the movie they act in? Couldn't it be that even when a layman like me and numerous others say that a film was superb in craft and cast and direction and all, there could be people who are very well versed in reading body language who could find countless flaws in the movie and thus find it imperfect, as far as the bodily movements of the characters are concerned in contrast to what they utter, especially in Malayalam movies where even the tiniest of movements and appearance of actors are very closely watched and scrutinised and each actor/actress is identified with his/her signature gestures, thanks to the widespread craze and success of the art of mimicry?
Well, so the book tells us, from cover to cover, of the importance of observing people to discern from their faces, appearance, attire, movements, and gestures, what is there in their minds. But I've come across a different kind of observation, or to be more correct, observation aiming at something else, which is not touched upon in the book. What I'm talking about is not observing the person's face in order to know what he/she is hiding in the heart, but observing for the sake of identifying the person herself in the first place, hiding behind a black burqah that covers her from head to toe, including the face. And it becomes a hard necessity when your job demands official interaction with a bunch of such people, who work in the same organisation as you, on a daily basis. My time in Saudi Arabia taught me how to do it efficiently, and I guess I'm a master in the art :) Otherwise, how was I to survive in the middle of people like Tahani, Yasmine, Jameela, Hind(not rhyming with 'mind', but with 'Sindh'), Zahra, Maryam, Hanan and Faiza? But honestly, I don't think it's a big deal. You would learn in no time to tell Yasmine from Hind even when you see her at the other end of a 100 metre long corridor, because it forms a part of your job, and you can't survive unless you learn your job. Eventhough initially you have to make a conscious effort to remember certain factors about each person that help you in identifying the person behind the cover, gradually you become so used to it that you feel that someone sitting inside you is telling you that the girl near the pillar talking hurriedly on her mobile is none other than Tahani and the one waiting near her impatiently(oh yeah, you would also learn to perceive that the person is impatient, even without seeing her facial expressions!) for the conversation to finish is her friend Zahra, and almost 100% of the times, the guess turns out to be incredibly right. It is like when you move to a new home and lose your way on the first day when you return from office, and thereafter you consciously try to remember that your house is the third one after the two similar looking buildings and just before that awkward looking tree near to the big rock and the turning leading to the open ground at the other end. But gradually your brain records all these details so indelibly that even if your mind is wandering in a dreamland, you car doesn't forget to turn at the right bends and finally stop in front of the right building. So, what are the factors that help you distinguish a woman from her fully-covered appearance? There are plenty, in fact. The height of the person, the kind of physique, the gait, the voice, accent, and characteristic expressions in speech (if she talks to you), the kind of glasses she wears(in the case of persons wearing glasses), the colour of the eye (as the niqab mostly have a slit for the eyes and thus the eyes are visible, though the rest of the face is covered), the visible portion around the eyes, the kind of fabric and border designs etc. of the burqah (eventhough all the black-clad girls look alike in the first look, if you observe keenly enough you'll find each shrouded form is amazingly different from any other), the style of hijab and naqab and the way they wear them (The abaya(burqah), naqab, hijab etc. have their countless variations in style and endless ranges of trends in fashion, though to an outsider all look alike!), their hands, fingers, and fingernails and any ornament worn thereon (unless a pair of black gloves is worn), the kind of wristwatch they use(when it is revealed by the slipping back of the edge of the sleeve at the wrist when they move their arms), the kind of handbags and gadgets they carry or handle regularly like the mobile phones, any characteristic gestures and body movements etc. And what's more, I've felt that the girls themselves make a conscious effort to maintain a fixed form of themselves, which constitutes a set of some or all of the factors mentioned above or more (of which some are natural and some are deliberately maintained), so as not to confuse others and thus save trouble for others and themselves. Such a 'fixed form' of someone appears as normal as any other person who never covers her face, and distinguishing the person is never a task. That's why the below picture, though appearing funny to many around the world who have never had any close interaction with such people and their culture, fails to elicit laughter in me. The women who are posing for the photograph (including the non-Arab maid whose face is uncovered) or the man who photographs them are in earnest, they don't think they are doing something funny. I'm sure the kinsfolk of the women would tell one woman from the other in the photograph the same way they do when their faces are uncovered.
(On a happy note, I've been lucky to see the uncovered faces of Yasmine, Zahra and Hind. I consider myself highly privileged as Saudi girls normally never show their faces to others :) )
And finally, some interesting tidbits from the book:
. Seven out of ten people cross their left arm over their right. Evidence suggests that this may well be a genetic gesture that cannot be changed.
. Most men put on a coat right arm first; most women put it on left arm first. This shows that men use their left brain hemisphere for this action while women use the right hemisphere.. The head-shaking gesture signals 'no' and owes its origin to breastfeeding. When a baby has had enough milk, it turns its head from side to side to reject it's mother's breast.
. In most cultures the Head Nod is used to signify 'Yes' or agreement. In India, the head rocked from side to side, called the Head Wobble signals 'Yes', which is confusing for westerners as it means to them 'Maybe yes - maybe no'. In Japan head nodding doesn't necessarily mean 'Yes, I agree' - it usually means 'Yes, I hear you'.
. Hasta la vista (Spanish) means 'See you later'.
. Studies show that not only a man's nose is inflated by increased blood pressure when he tells a lie, but his penis swells too.
. Brain scans reveal that men can feel emotion as strongly as women, but avoid showing it publicly.
. Bottle-fed babies are three times more likely to become smokers than breast-fed babies.
. Men have 10 to 20 times more testosterone than women, which makes them see the world in terms of sex.
. Women have dramatically more nerve sensors for experiencing touch than men, making them more sensitive to touch sensations.
. Marilyn Monroe reputedly chopped three-quarters of an inch (2 cm) off the heal of her left shoe to emphasise her wiggle.
. Women are, on average, 2 inches (5 cm) shorter than men.
Book, courtesy of Maisa