The Ecphorizer

Speak to Me
Bill Harvey

Issue #37 (September 1984)

Reprinted from the Bulletin, the national Mensa magazine, just in case you missed it

"In Japan, the gesture for 'come here' is not what it is here."

[quoteright]I read the other day that nearly 52% of all English words are not readable to people who read lips. There are lots of words that use the same mouth motions, and some words that use no mouth

In Japan, the gesture for 'come here' is not what it is here.

motions at all. Based on this, a person reading lips has to suffice with a little less than one word in two. How do they do it?

They watch everything. Gestures. Facial contortions. Eye movements. Everything.

Of course, some of what you are saying is decipherable solely by context. For instance, if you have just finished telling a person how fantastic she is, what beautiful eyes she has, how great it is to be near her and how you worship the cement she walks on, the term "I love you" is not likely to be confused with "I live zoo." Unless, of course, you are in dire need of a haircut.

I'm a people watcher. So is my wife, Ann. We sailed to Catalina Island a few weeks ago, and spent nearly the whole trip watching people. It's amazing what you can pick up by watching. Sometimes you can tell what a conversation is all about even when the conversants are thirty feet away. Two people, a man and a woman; the man skipping sideways beside the woman, his arms somewhat outstretched and his shoulders hunched; her, marching along with nose in the air, chin jutting and fists balled.

He wants to do something and she doesn't. Suddenly he stops, and starts shuffling along, arms dangling, eyes downcast, the picture of absolute dejection. She stops, hands on hips, a look of anger on her face that slowly fades and is replaced with an expression of loving concern. She says something to him, a tentative smile crosses his lips, and is slowly replaced by a broad grin. They start walking again, holding hands. I don't know what he wanted, but I know that he got it.

The teenage doll sitting on a bench, dressed in her most fetching bikini; the surfer-type, sitting exactly 11.365 inches to her left. Each seems totally unaware that the other exists. Each looks surreptitiously at the other when the other isn't looking. He's afraid to make a move, and she's afraid that he won't. Ah, if they only knew what we know, huh? Finally, he does something that I thought went out twenty years ago. He executes an exaggerated, body-contorting stretch, as if he has been asleep for 10 years, and allows his arm to settle lightly on the bench behind her. Nothing intimate, you understand, and he looks poised for instant withdrawal, as if he were trying to steal the bait from a bear trap. She looks the other way, and smiles. Twenty minutes later they're totally engrossed in each other. The bench could collapse and they wouldn't notice.

Some gestures are universal; some are not. In Japan, the gesture for "come here" is not what it is here. We turn our palm up, and either wiggle the forefinger or all of the fingers. That means come here. In Japan, they turn the palm down and wiggle all of the fingers, much the same way as we wave bye-bye. Needless to say, this causes a lot of confusion 'til you learn what to do.

Ann and I sometimes communicate nonverbally. She points at the table and looks at me questioningly. That means "What do you want for supper?" I turn the corners of my mouth down and shrug my left shoulder. That means "Whatever you make."

Sometimes I leer at her, smile evilly, and raise and lower my eyebrows about four times. She knows exactly what that means. She reacts one of two ways.

Sometimes she throws something at me. 

More Articles by Bill Harvey

We have collected the essential data you need to easily include this page on your blog. Just click and copy!close
E-mail Print to PDF Blog
Return to Table of Contents for Issue #37