22 May 2008

"And Don't Underestimate the Importance of BO-dy Language, Ha!" -Ursula the Sea Witch

I remember the day I sat in my creative writing class at the University of Utah listening to a guest speaker, a friend of our teacher's. The purpose of the guest's presence was rather unknown to us, as were the purposes of most things in that class. That is not to say that they were not enjoyable--they were enjoyably random, like the time we walked around the classroom for fifteen minutes, only allowed to say our favorite word (mine was "ausgezeichnet," which lost some of its curiosity after that day and was retired soon after moving to Germany because no one says it).

I'd had a particularly difficult appointment at the physical therapist or chiropractor's the day before. Consequently, my shoulder/neck area was giving me more pain than usual; it was difficult for me to pay attention as the guest speaker told of us of his interests in sociology and how he could easily read people. I struggled to find a comfortable position without disrupting the small class. Suddenly, his arm swung his finger around the room in a dramatic gesture until it was pointing at me. "YOU, for example!" he said, excitement sparkling in his eyes at the chance to diagnose someone and be praised by the class. I started and looked at him, wondering what judgment or curse he was going to lay upon me. "I can tell a lot about you by your body language. You're sitting like that with your arms folded. You are someone who doesn't listen to anyone." He said a few other things and the class laughed at my expense as I tried to explain that I was sitting that way because of pain. My explanations, they said, further proved his point that I listen to no one.

Why do I relate this story? I have many times since been criticized for crossing my arms, most recently when I was giving a presentation in class a couple of weeks ago. Many of the other students have difficulties not "having a conversation with the professor" when they present, or reading from their papers, or forgetting what they're going to say. Not I. The feedback I received was that I "worked the room very well," which pleased me since I had made a point to look each student in the eye as I spoke (no easy feat since these presentations are done sitting at our regular tables). However, I was advised not to cross my arms while speaking because it portrays that "you are closed to everyone." This feedback made me shake my head, since exactly at the moment that I had crossed my arms, I'd had a fleeting thought that I shouldn't do it, but figured the desk was there anyway, so it should be okay. At least I know what not to do when I present again in the upcoming week.

Since then, I've noticed myself sitting that way several times; in fact, just about everywhere. In church, during class, as I teach, sitting on the tram, at home alone reading. I've even noticed that I kind of sleep like that, although on my stomach with usually just one arm under me or on my side with a blanket enfolded in my crossed arms. I started wondering, what is at the bottom of this tendency of mine? I wondered if it had started with the shoulder/neck problems I had for years and still sometimes struggle with after a rough night of little sleep or during extremely stressful times. Perhaps it's my horrible ergonomics during my hours upon hours working at my computer?

Then I started trying to change the behavior. Each time I caught myself with my arms folded, I tried some other position but always came back to crossing my arms. My final contestation is that it is simply the most comfortable. What else are you supposed to do with your hands? I tried clasping my hands together, but the resulting knot has no where to rest unless you are sitting very relaxed with outstretched legs (which also has a bad image and makes you look pregnant), and it does not keep my hands or the rest of me as warm. Hands in the pockets--works, except your elbows get in everyone's way. I am simply perplexed by what to do with my arms and thus hands, which is only exacerbated when pictures are being taken. What do people do? I should start paying attention.

In the mean time, I don't see anything wrong with continuing to cross my arms (except during my presentations in class) and hoping that people know my intentions are good. Body language. Is it a social construct? I underestimate the importance of body language and knowingly continue to do so.

See? I don't listen to anyone.

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