Prejudice and pre-judice in non-verbal communication

We live in an ontological, social and cultural context that governs what we are, what we do and how and why we do it (1). It is neither a limit, nor a constraint. It is a fact, ineluctable, prodromal of being able to understand each other, communicate and interact.

This context evolves over time, just as the other things around us and, although this evolution is accomplished with local differences - differences in the social and cultural habits among different ethnic groups are, for example, well known to all - exists a significant intersection, sanctioned from being physically similar and being part of one and the same real world, and local diversity are not so strong so that they can shatter this fundamental common part (on the contrary, on the theme of the importance of physical-conceptual similarity , see the statement "If a lion could speak, we could not understand it" by Wittgenstein (2)).

Being part of such a context, even with the differences just described, if on the one hand it represents a sort of gnoseological foundation, which sets the boundaries of what we know and can aspire to know, on the other it also represents a potential constraint for our ability to move from general models to private models, which come into play when the interaction is realized with specific subjects, who have their own experience and their own private world, which act as elements of specialization and characterization of the more general models.

Every interaction, every communication always happens "here and now" and, although this is based on the prescriptive character of the general models - each model, inevitably, also dictates the rules that allow it to manifest itself in its extensive representation – it cannot avoid to take into account the experience of the individual, his emotional state of the moment, what has happened before, what is happening now and what, presumably, could happen later.

Ultimately, therefore, when we interact and communicate with someone, verbally or non-verbally, we inevitably bring with us a set of information, which represents our a priori knowledge, our toolbox, which allows us to listen, observe, talk and understand what happens in this interaction.

This knowledge, however, is not always a value and the transition from being an enabling element to understanding to becoming a strong constraint for it is all in a dash, which separates the “pre-judice”, a priori and inevitable, but linked to the models and evolving with them ("it is so, but it could also be different"), from the "prejudice", a priori and inevitable, like the first, but that represents the sclerotized version, rooted so firmly in the personal convictions of being impervious to any attempt at rational analysis ("it's just like that") (1) .

The pre-judgment is what we know, but that we're also willing to reconsider, and that is a condition sine qua non to make every interaction really possible; the prejudice is what we firmly believe, and that, on the contrary, we are not willing to question and that, therefore, compromise ab origine any possible interaction with others.

Personally, I believe that both these two elements have as their common origin that of the progressive formation of our knowledge about the world and about what inhabits and lives in it. Our continued interaction with it, creates a continuous flow of information and it's up to us to decide whether and how to make them our own, knowing distill them based on what we are and who we want to be, according to intentionality (5) that, in each of us, characterize our being-in-the-world (to say it with Heidegger (3)).

Exist - and I would like to say, inevitably - a moment in time when the way in which this information settles ratify the difference between pre-judice and prejudice. Perhaps it depends on the constancy with which certain information comes to us, perhaps from the local context in which we live (the family, friends, the oratory, ...), perhaps from our experience and the emotional state that characterized it or, perhaps and more likely, from all these things put together.

This moment, when it is revealed, is as if it puts in read-only mode that part of knowledge relating to what begins to sclerotize and which, in short, will lose its positive value, to become a sort of blurred lens, whose blurring will depend on the force of prejudice, which will make it possible for us to see and understand only partially what we will observe in the future.

If we ask then what role these two elements play in non-verbal communication, the only possible answer can only be that which refers to the very foundations of this discipline, those foundations that remind us how vital it is to never lose sight of the rule of the "3 C" (Context, Cluster and Congruence) and always take into account the basal behavior (in essence, their gestural habits) of our interlocutors.

If the "3 C" rule reminds us of the importance of the overall analysis of what our interlocutors express through the use of all their communication tools (verbal, para-verbal and non-verbal elements) and, in particular, the consistency among what these instruments produce, the basal behavior instead traces a profile of our interlocutor, of what he usually does and how he does it (gesticulates a lot or little? Does he have a facial mimic as a consummate actor or is he a wax mask? And so on).

However, if the "3C" rule has a methodological character, as it tells us how to conduct the analysis and is essentially based on what happens from the moment in which the interaction begins, until it ends (I am deliberately simplifying, given that the way in which each of us applies this methodology is influenced by our singularity), the basal behavior, on the other hand, represents what we know - and we might not know anything - of our interlocutors and, therefore, essentially , it is in the basal behavior that the risk of the transformation of the pre-judice is hidden in the much more nefarious prejudice.

The first thing we must then accept is that the basal behavior, representing in a certain sense the past, the history of our interlocutors, does not absolutely certify that the present (let us always remember the "here and now") will follow the same steps and that, therefore, what we know about habitual gesture will necessarily have to show up. A regular gesticulator, for example, could have at that time a joint pain that will prevent him from behaving as we expect, or a person notoriously not inclined to gestures, could frequently touching a body part, significant for non-verbal language interpretation, just because of a particular state of health or, finally, a subject normally smiling and open, could, due to a particular emotional state, intense and distinct from what is happening in the interaction, take a different facial expressions from the usual, serious and painful, which has nothing to do with what is said (here, by the way, we see an important connection between the C that represents the Context and the basal behavior, a connection that tells us that the past history affects the present, but does not constrain it).

Another fundamental aspect, beyond its completeness, which can vary from a profound, intimate knowledge (think of how much we know the basal behavior of our partner or our children), up to a lack of absolute knowledge (as is the case when we meet a person for the very first time), it's the way we built this basal behavior, which we could have done by direct observation or indirectly by means of the information obtained by people we know and, in turn, that they know the interlocutors we are going to meet.

In the first case, theoretically, the confidence is greater, although we must not forget that we too, interpreting what we observe, we do by our interpretative filters, also influenced by our prejudices and our specific experience (education, political and religious beliefs, social habits, ...); in the second case, the problem becomes even more complicated, since we add to our filters, those of people who act as messengers for this behavior.

I think it happened to everyone, in anticipation of a meeting with an unknown person, but that plays an important role for what we do (a customer, a professor of our children, a doctor, ...), that some friend has told us something like "ah, do you have to meet that guy? Be careful, he says one thing, but it seems that wants to intend another " or "John? Oh God, he always has an attitude of superiority and you never know if what he says he really thinks!"

All this information, more than we get from other sources, is the way we build basal behavior, but it is also the bricks that gradually give shape to our pre-judices and prejudices, which will inevitably affect the way we approach the interlocutors, conditioned by our a priori judgment, which will lead us to classify them even before meeting them. Referring to the two examples given above, we could be led to classify them, respectively, as devious or arrogant people, which will make us run the risk of interpreting each of their gestures, their facial expressions, as a confirmation of what we have hypothesized, giving life to what is normally referred to as cognitive bias.

Finally, we must not forget the causality that exists - and that also justifies the importance of the non-verbal aspect of communication - between what the body communicates and what the mind thinks, so the progressive construction of the basal behavior, beyond of the ways in which it is realized, it is also a progressive focus of the very nature of the interlocutor, of his character , which will inevitably lead us to get an idea, to create expectations, which go well beyond his simple gestures. For example, if we observed, over time, a person who tends to shake hands with the back upward, we would be led to conclude that that person is haughty, that he feels superior to others, which would bring us, even in not completely conscious way, to approach it in a different way from what we would do if it were not.

Basal behavior, therefore, must be seen - and used - as a starting point, as a sort of Rosetta stone that lays the foundations for understanding the body language of our interlocutors and not, on the contrary, as a hypothesis to be tested during the interaction. Basal behavior, in fact, is not something that can be right or wrong, that must be proved or disproved: it is simply an initial interpretative key, which gradually gives way to the flow of communication and that is enriched by new information, that can supplement or correct what we already thought we knew.

The rule of "3 C" and the baseline behavior, when applied with common sense, are nothing more than a way of myths g are the errors that may result from the mere application of the theory of interpretation of non-verbal language - error that at the beginning, however, it is often done - looking exclusively at gestures and mimicry (6) (7) , guided by rules that, as such, are necessarily general and must therefore be lowered, once again, in the here and now repeatedly referred to.

The slavish application of the rules - here I am taking a certain interpretative freedom - is nothing but a different form of prejudice, what makes us believe in their universality, making us ignore that every communication act makes history to itself and therefore requires an immanent interpretation, which, although inspired by the learned rules, still requires their contextualization.

It all seems very complicated and, indeed, it is. But I think it is always better to face things aware of the difficulties they conceal, rather than doing it superficially, mechanically applying rules without trying to contextualize them, trusting in the absoluteness of causal links that link a gesture to a meaning ("he crossed his arms, so not there is no doubt that it is closing and putting itself on a defensing status").

Andrea Zinno - De Corporis Voce

Bibliographic references

  1. Ferdinando Menga - “Sulle opinioni largamente diffuse: dal “pre-giudizio” al “pregiudizio” (sugli altri)” - 2017
  2. Ludwig Wittgenstein - "Philosophical Investigations" - 1953
  3. Martin Heidegger - "Being and Time" - 1927
  4. Hans Georg Gadamer - "Truth and Method" - 1960
  5. John Searle - "Intentionality : An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind" - 1983
  6. Allan Pease and Barbara Pease - "The Definitive Book of Body Language" - 2003
  7. Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen – “Unmasking the Face” - 2003
  8. Paul Ekman – Emotions Revealed” - 2007