As a writer I sometimes struggle with the idea that words aren’t as important as we think they are. As a linguist, I’m fascinated by this reality of communication. Depending on which studies you believe, anywhere between 80% and 90% of interpersonal communication has nothing to do with the words. Linguists call this meta-linguistics – the parts of communication that aren’t words. Meta-linguistics is broken into two categories – the things that are directly related to the language and the things that are communication unto themselves (eg. Body language).
Starting with the second category – you know that you can tell what someone is thinking without them saying a word. You see it all the time. A friend comes in, throws her purse on the table, drops into the chair and sighs. You know that something bothering her and she hasn’t even said one word yet. A teenager thrusts her hip out to the while rolling her eyes. Four year old thrusts his lower lip out as far as it will go and stomps off to do what you’ve told him to do. The man across the bar makes eye contact and lifts his chin and eyebrows at the same time. The woman he’s looking at flips her hair and looks away. In all of these cases communication is happening and not one word was spoken (I’m aware of irony of writing about this).
Of course these wordless conversations are not always as clear as we would like them to be. Misunderstandings abound when you rely on these kinds of things for communication – which can be fun to write about. When a teenager rolls his eyes is he telling you that you are being stupid? Or maybe it’s that you’ve already told him this six times today, or maybe he’s just bored. He probably isn’t trying to tell you that he doesn’t respect you at all, but I don’t know many parents who wouldn’t get that message from the eye roll. What about the co-worker who never manages to meet your eyes. Is he shy, scared of you, or secretly plotting your demise? Is he showing respect or disrespect?
This part of the meta-linguistics also includes facial expressions. You know when your friend doesn’t like the dinner you cooked from that fun looking recipe. He can’t keep it off his face, no matter what he might say about it. Facial expressions can also enhance or negate the meaning of the words you say. Imagine saying “I have a headache” with a smile on your face. That’s how your facial expression can negate your words. On the other hand saying “I have a headache” while scrunching your eyes adds information about how much your head hurts. People react to that. An experiment to try (if you are secure in your relationship) tell your sweetie “I love you” while blandly looking at your fingernails. See what happens, and be prepared to make up for that.
The other section of meta-linguistics is all about how you say the words. This part is a little harder to discuss just because it is so closely related to the words. Sometimes this is referred to as prosody – the tone, pace, and pitch of the speech. Prosody is usually how you tell the difference between straight and sarcastic speech. Try it for yourself – say “I love that” in two ways and see how it comes out. Record yourself if you can’t hear it while just sitting there in front of your computer. The difference is quite striking when other people say it.
For real life application, have you ever said or been told “It’s not what you said that pissed me off, it’s how you said it.”? There are hazards of asking people to do the dishes if you are annoyed when you ask them. My Sweetie does this one all the time. There is just something about his tone of voice that tells me that he’s annoyed. I react immediately by getting annoyed myself and tell myself that it’s because he sounds like he’s said a million times but this is the first I’ve heard of it. To be fair I do the same thing about putting the towels back in the bathroom, usually with the same effect in him.
In writing fiction the prosody is the hardest part of speech to mimic. You can put in some dialog tags to show things like yelling or whispering, but it is generally considered weak to use things like “she said sarcastically”. You get a little more leeway if you say “her words dripped with sarcasm.” You are better off showing the attitudes of your speakers through their body language, and the reactions of the other characters, and trust your readers to add the right prosody on their own.
Just like body language and facial expression, prosody can either support or negate the meanings of the words you say. If you talk about being excited with a slow pace and a low tone, people won’t believe that you are really excited. The same is true if you shout rapidly about how bored you are. Switch the prosody on these examples and you will be supporting your message.
Now I challenge you to observe all these things in your daily life. You can’t not use body language, facial expression or prosody – they are all intrinsic to communication. What you can do is deliberately alter any one of these and see what happens. Go play, then come back and tell me what happened.