Recommended: "City Lights" (1931)

A couple of days ago, I posted a suggestion that people who feel hopeless at reading body language start watching some silent films, and see what they can get from those. It apparently struck the fancy of Captain Awkward herself, who is also a filmmaker. She asked some excellent questions on Twitter, which I will probably have to go mug a university library to answer properly. This is not difficult; I live in Boston, where I think it is a legal requirement that there must be at least one park and one university within easy walking distance of every subway stop. And as far as I know, the only one whose library(s) I can't just blithely walk into during regular business hours is Harvard.

To the best of my knowledge, there has been no research specifically on whether autists have difficulty following pantomime or silent film. [Note: I type 'autists'. This is because typing 'people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders' is ridiculously long. If you refer to me as 'female', it's understood that you're talking about a female human; likewise, one cannot be an 'autist' -- coming from a root meaning 'within the self' -- without being a human being with a self to begin with.] There have been experiments investigating whether autistic or Asperger's children can follow body language without verbal cues, but they used purpose-made animations. If anyone on the autism spectrum happens to be reading this and wants to give it a whirl, please do -- I would really value your input.

On a different level from the social difficulties of autists, there are a variety of gross physiological deficits that can result in an inability to grok body language. Prosody is the technical term for the ebb and flow of language that carries emotional and other meta sort of content, and there exist the conditions of aprosodia and dysprosodia, usually brought on by the brain damage of a stroke or chronic alcoholism, that can prevent a person from being able to correctly perceive or correctly convey the emotional connotation of speech and movement. There's alexithymia, in which a patient feels things but lacks the ability to use words to describe the experience; it occurs in psychiatric contexts with severely depressed or schizophrenic patients, but also in victims of stroke or other physical brain trauma. Various things can interfere with perception and imitation of kinesics (movement and expression as it specifically relates to and enhances verbal communication) or kinesthetics (movement and expression in a wider sense, including proprioception, the sense that tells us where our bodies are in space).

Anecdotally, I know a few card-carrying official-type aspies, mostly online. I know a lot of other people who consider themselves socially awkward. The largest difference seems to be that while both groups are perfectly capable of training themselves to spot a lot of non-verbals in a conscious, cognitive way, the people with Asperger's have the most trouble distinguishing between similar-looking gestures that mean different things, and the people with Hideous Paralyzing Social Awkwardness Syndrome or whatever it is have the most trouble coping with non-verbals that don't match the verbals. Either one overrides the other, or they get caught between two conclusions and think themselves into catatonia over it.

The best analogy I can draw is that the Asperger's folk are kind of hearing-impaired. They get it, but not perfectly, and they have the most trouble when people are mumbling, talking to the other wall, or are otherwise being inconsiderately unclear. Lip-reading helps, but only so much. The HPSAS folks are fluent but nervous foreign speakers. They get it mostly but are always unsure as to whether they heard what they think they heard, or if they're getting mondegreens because their brain is trying desperately to hear familiar words in unfamiliar sounds, or if that's just a thing they don't know at all yet and they're mistaking it for something they've forgotten from their second-year class.

The good Captain also wondered about good example films to use for tests, and I would humbly suggest the 1931 film "City Lights", starring Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill:

I find this film endlessly charming. One of the reasons is that Chaplin is not only working in his trademark well-practiced, balletic Pantomime, he uses more than one dialect of it. Linguistically, this is called 'code-switching'. People shift back and forth between styles of speech, accents, dialects, and even entire languages, all the time in real life. You speak differently to your boss than to your buddies, to friends and to strangers, or to your priest and your favorite stripper. It's been a consistent feature of language for as long as language has had variations, and people have cared about them.

In "City Lights", Chaplin uses a very broad comedic dialect of Panto in the scenes with the wealthy fellow he befriends. His gestures are large, his reactions exaggerated. There is a lot of careening off walls and wobbling hilariously around the streets. When he is interacting with the flower girl, though, he switches to a much smaller, subtler, gentler set of gestures. His movements are less dramatic, slower, more cautious. The choice to use two different kinds of Panto itself is meaningful here: the large kind echoes the excesses of the wealthy man the tramp is following around, mocking how over-the-top the entire environment is, while the small kind is more intimate, and much more careful, appropriate to how the tramp sees his interactions with the flower girl.

The two relationships are not the same, and how he 'speaks' reflects this. Were he to switch the two dialects around, the movie would read very differently -- using the smaller set of gestures with the wealthy man might be seen as submissive or toadying, and being broad and dramatic with the girl might be construed as an overenthusiastic attempt to woo her at any cost.

To add another sample, here's some backstage footage of Chaplin directing the film:

For the body-language impaired, the subtitles on that one are all ARGH BARGLE NOT GOING WELL. Chaplin had not worked with his leading lady before, and cast her because she was excellent at acting convincingly blind; unfortunately, she was not excellent at doing anything else that he wanted to get on film. Chaplin was a notorious perfectionist, although for purposes of language lessons here, I feel it's also important to note that, as much as his posture and gestures say that he's getting very frustrated, they also reflect that he is making an effort not to actually take it out on anyone. It looks different than uncontrolled anger.

A brief reminder that my birthday is next month and I'm running a pledge drive of sorts. Carry on!

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