There are these rules that make everyone get along. They are rules that govern how we behave with each other. They are ways of saying things without actually SAYING them. And what they say (without the saying of them) are things like, “You are standing too close to me” or “I am uncomfortable with your breath” or “I have become disinterested in this conversation and wish to leave”. We say things like, “I’m nervous” by smiling and showing our teeth. We tell a person how much we like them by how we cross our legs – towards or away from them. We tell a person whether we wish to terminate a conversation by our eye contact and, well, whether we start to move towards the door!
And life goes on. And all is well. We can speak the language of society with our bodies and our eyes and move pleasantly through millions of interactions every day….with friends, family, strangers, coworkers, bosses, loved ones, people that we might not like, and, well, you get the picture.
Then one day, you are reminded of this unwritten language that keeps our social interactions smooth when you meet someone who does not seem to speak this social language. They are socially illiterate. And you are suddenly painfully aware of the messages you are trying to send, desperately trying to send, that do not seem to be received in the subtle and socially-correct non-verbal medium that usually works so well for you.
I am reminded of a certain eccentric man that I used to know who would corner people – literally CORNER THEM – telling stories, sharing anecdotes….well, not really sharing seeing as it was not reciprocated in the slightest….and the (shall we say) victim was throwing out streams of “leave me alone --- I am not interested – I have things to do” non-verbal cues which just weren’t received. One day, a friend recounted, as she was trying to escape the clutches of the unpleasant conversation, this man continued to speak to her as she tidied up her desk and packed up her bags and headed towards the door and turned off the lights and walked backwards away, then forwards away, then stood next to her car, then got in….. then shut the door.
Sometimes it’s fun to meet a socially illiterate (albeit because they just haven’t had enough time to learn the rules) child. On the subway or on a bus, where people politely avoid eye-contact, a kid will stare up at you. They won’t expect you to talk to them if you catch their gaze, they won’t look away sheepishly, and, if you’re lucky and they’re really feeling saucy, they might even stick their tongue out at you.