Nonverbal communication: Beware of tail-wagging dogs

September 21, 2013 

While my wife was teaching at N.C. State, her friend Dr. Becky Leonard was teaching a course in something called nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is the art of communicating messages without words.

The subject came to mind recently as I was sharing my pearls of wisdom with a guest. Suddenly, I realized she was paying me not one whit of attention, but was furiously texting on her iPhone. Without actually saying so, she was telling me to shut up – a case of non verbal communication.

Spouses practice nonverbal communication all the time. I remember the time when I was scheduled to drop my wife at the airport for a flight to a professional meeting in Chicago.

After a career of deadlines, I’m a clock watcher. So when she came partially dressed into the den and found me reading The N&O, she said, “I can tell you’re angry with me.”

“What makes you say that?”

“By the way you’ve been rattling that newspaper!”

“That’s ridiculous! You’re the one who is catching the plane. So you miss the 10 o’clock flight. There’s always another. Your friend Donna (from Fort Worth, Texas) won’t mind waiting a few hours for you in the terminal so you can taxi to the hotel together.”

A reader remembers a Sunday morning when on the way to church, his wife seemed aloof and noncommunicative.

“As we stood for the first hymn, she not only didn’t join in the singing. She wouldn’t even hold her half of the hymnbook,” he said. “I knew I was in trouble.”

I once read about how dogs communicate nonverbally. I wish I had read the article before a pit bull bit bit me on the leg as my sister, her friend and I were walking along a rural road in Surry County.

The article warned that a tail-wagging dog isn’t necessarily friendly. Probably the opposite. It’s only when he wags the entire rear half of his body that he’s saying, “Hi there, friend.”

This tail-wagger sniffed the feet of the two women, then sank his teeth in my calf.

I was distressed to learn later that the dog’s owner had shot the animal. So were the locals.

Word got back to me that one of the natives had said, “After all, the guy he bit was from Raleigh,” as if the dog had performed a public service.


A historic case of nonverbal communication occurred when President George Bush, the elder, was caught glancing at his watch during one of the debates.

The press interpreted the gesture in various ways: Mr. Bush was wishing the debate were over. Mr. Bush was just bored. Mr. Bush was checking to see whether his opponents were exceeding their time limits.

When I was a boy, a certain neighbor would ride horseback into our yard on a summer morning. Just the self-satisfied way he sat tall in the saddle, his eyes critically surveying our nearby fields, conveyed his wordless contempt. My dad would cheerfully respond, “Mornin’, Lem. You ride like you got corn to sell!”

Talk about nonverbal communication! Watch the Cialis ads on TV. Although the couples say nothing to each other, the looks they exchange as they sit on the park bench or walk into the sunset convey raw sexuality more potent than any dialogue writer could compose.


Nonverbal communication can be subtle at times.

Say you’re observing the 70 mph speed limit on Interstate 40 when suddenly another car hurtles past like a rocket launched at Cape Canaveral. Once again, the driver is nonverbally communicating his disdain for you and your gray hair.

A fellow with a nervous eye tic at an estate auction can find himself the owner of an unwanted $1,000 corner cupboard simply because the auctioneer misinterpreted his affliction for a bona fide bid.

We, as recipients of nonverbal messages, must be careful how we interpret them.

A guy slouching through the mall with pants sagging so low on his hips his underwear shows is sending some kind of message. We mustn’t assume he’s a bum. He could be a budding rocket scientist.

As for my guest’s texting during my discourse, she could have said, “Excuse me. I need to remind Jim to make sure the children are doing homework rather than twittering their time away on their iPhones.”

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