Unconscious Messages

Over the last few weeks I’ve had several similar conversations and when that happens the ideas involved invariably cause me to consider if a blog covering the issue would be helpful.

The conversations I’m referring to, all started with a student saying something like “One of the reasons I wanted to learn Kung Fu was that on several occasions I got (beaten up / bullied / threatened) and now that I know I would be able to deal with a violent confrontation, I’ve had no trouble”.

Invariably people find this confusing because as far as they are concerned they aren’t behaving any different. They aren’t five stone of muscle bigger, they haven’t got “I do Kung Fu” tattooed to their foreheads or anything, so why, they wonder, are people behaving differently towards them?

The answer of course is that, at an entirely unconscious level, they are behaving differently and, at an equally unconscious level, others notice.

Unless someone is deliberately doing some quite sophisticated method acting most of the messages we convey to others are unconscious. We all understand that our body language will demonstrate a bewildering number of things about us and because we get that, we can often deliberately change aspects of our body language, but even the most expert actor will only be able to fake a few details. At a simple level, we might try to look more confident, threatening or relaxed in a particular social situation. At a more sophisticated level we might mimic someone’s body posture, breathing rhythm or speech cadence to make them feel more at easy with us. But there is a limit to what can be done with the deliberate adoption of such techniques. This is usually evident when we become aware that someone is not sincere. We observe someone and think, ‘wow he’s trying hard to look hard’ or ‘relaxed’ or ‘friendly’ or whatever. We often see through someone’s attempt at deliberate manipulation of their body language, particularly if we are looking for it. Of course sometimes we are easily fooled because we want to believe the message we are being given; we want to believe that the person talking to us likes us, for example.

It is because most of the details that we observe in another are unconsciously observed that we are usually unaware of their complexity. Let me point out some of the more obvious factors first. The angle or set of the spine and the position of the head, the position of shoulders and hands, where exactly the eyes are looking and how steadily, the tone and texture of the skin. Breath is very complex; the rhythm and speed are obvious, but also there is the smoothness of the breath, whether the breathing is being done high or low in the chest. A persons speech is constantly changing according to how they feel; the vocal cords undergo subtle changes of tension according to one’s emotional state. And I haven’t even mentioned pheromones! Again at a profoundly unconscious level, we are constantly reading each other’s chemical signatures. Apparently lap dancers who are taking contraceptive pills take, on average, significantly less tips. (“significantly” in this context referring to statistical analysis; i.e. not a small enough difference to be mere chance) It is believed that men are unconsciously aware of which women are fertile! From a negative perspective, have you ever tried to hide, from someone who knows you, that you are feeling angry or aggressive? You might carefully control you posture; your body language, but they might hear it in your voice, see it in your skin tone, detect it in your breathing or be actually smelling it in your sweat.

The simple reason that those who do Kung Fu don’t often get picked on is simply that they project their sense of self assurance, whether they realise it or not. Other people are reading them, at an unconscious level, and what they read is not “potential victim” but instead they read “potentially dangerous!”

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