Read between the lines

Tuesday 16 September 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Opening of the 69th General Assembly of the United Nations

There are many priests in our diocese who are bilingual and even trilingual. I am not one of them. Call me linguistically challenged, but I’m monolingual. Sometimes there’s even a question about that. 

Come to think of it, there is another language I can read fairly well. I read body language, although not fluently. Body language can vary by individual and by culture but, generally speaking, it’s universal. It can never be the primary method of communication because there are too many nuances and variables. Nevertheless, reading body language can be helpful to those who work with people. It’s a language you learn from observation.

When a priest is teaching, leading prayer, or preaching, he can readily tell when the people are with him and when he has lost them. Where have folks chosen to sit in the church or hall? Up close or as far away as possible? Are they making eye contact with you or studying the ceiling? Are they fidgeting with the bulletin? Fanning themselves with the missalettes? Chatting? Feeding the kids Cheerios? Texting? Dozing off? What facial expressions do you observe? What is the overall body language?

The same principles apply to large assemblies, small group meetings, and one-on-one sessions. People speak volumes without saying a word. I set the stage for communication beforehand by carefully choosing and placing the furniture.

In the Sacrament of Penance, the penitent usually has the option of kneeling anonymously behind a screen or sitting face-to-face with the confessor. Of course, if the person chooses to remain behind a screen, you are unable to read body language. Even remaining behind a screen can have its pitfalls.

The “screen” here is a piece of white waffled plastic. The problem is, the plastic is jammed in place and not solidly fixed. If a penitent sneezes too hard, he or she could easily blow out the screen and end up staring at the priest. I must remember to have that fixed before flu season. 

On the “face-to-face” side, there are two chairs. I arrange them at an angle so that the two of us are not facing each other head-on. This seems to make people more comfortable. On the other hand, I don’t want people to be too comfortable. These chairs are not La-Z-Boy recliners. They’re high-backed wooden chairs, with a seat cushion as a concession. I also try to keep a box of tissues handy. Sometimes heartfelt body language involves tears.

In the counselling room, the chairs are upholstered and a bit more comfortable. These are swivel chairs so as to better make eye contact by facing in the direction of the person speaking. There is also a low table separating the chairs. The table serves as a psychological barrier and seems to make people more comfortable.

In the council meeting room, the chairs are hard. This encourages meetings to end sooner rather than later. The table is oblong, rounded at both ends, to encourage eye contact and to signal that everyone at the table has an equal voice, but the table itself is purposely a formidable personal barrier. A conference table means business.

If I wanted more personal sharing, there would be a circle of chairs and no furniture between the participants. 

In my office, I have a big desk. This is for very formal meetings. If I want to be a little less intimidating, I move my chair over and away from the desk. By the way, I have found it best in such a setting that the individuals sitting (or, rarely, standing) in front of me have clear access to the exit. It’s comforting to know one can make a beeline out the door. 

When people arrive, the furniture speaks to them. Now let’s look at what my guests are themselves saying. 

— One leg resting across the other, ankle to knee: American male posture indicating independence or stubbornness. If the ankle is also grasped by one hand, it means resistance.

— Legs crossed and parallel: If the knees and feet are pointing towards me, it means attentive but cautious. If the knees and feet are pointing away, it means disinterest.

— Legs straight and parallel: if the knees are pointing towards me, it means properness and respect.

— One foot behind the other, with legs parallel: defensiveness.

— Legs apart, both feet on the floor: dominance, even arrogance or combativeness.

— Tapping the fingers: excitement or impatience.

— Lowered eyes: bored, embarrassed, deflective, or calm. 

— Elongated blinks: nervousness, boredom, annoyance, disbelief. 

— Looking away: disinterest.

— Direct eye contact: confidence.

— Eyes firmly closed: stress, alarm.*

— Constantly twitching mouth: agitated, annoyed.

— Passing facial twitch: amused, irritated, excited.

— Tightened eye muscles: lying.

— Staring unblinkingly: hostility.

— Leaning forward: interest and engagement.

* I need to be aware of my own body language. At an intense meeting, I may firmly close my eyes and rest my head on the table to minimalize visual distractions and better concentrate. People ask if I’m sick. “No, I’m just thinking. Sorry. Wrong body language.” 

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts