Listen to the tone of my body language…

Nicole Kidman discussing her role in the film “Destroyer”

A lot of the video I have worked with looks at the large-scale motion of crowds and traffic, with a focus on how social infrastructure can invisibly serve our urges to wander, or visibly obstruct and contain those urges – sometimes with increased conflict as different wanderers are constrained into competition within narrow spaces. Amongst that video, however, some have included people talking, expressing themselves through their words, their gestures, and through the tone of their overall body language.

Body language and tone are very hard for me to interpret, a common trait among autistic people. We see that body language is present, and perhaps its intensity, but it is like sounds in a foreign language. Misinterpretation is frequent (there is proof in the dents in my shins from being kicked under the table), especially when the spoken and the body language are sending different messages.

Pedestrian flow within Times Square, New York, bounded by vehicle traffic on the surrounding rounds

I have made heatmaps of motion intensity, converting a video of motion events into maps of change in the visual field. Classroom heatmaps reveal distractions and attention magnets, most of which are not the teacher. Roadways show traffic flow, and pavements (such as the bird’s eye view down into Times Square, above) show the desire lines that pedestrians follow around street furniture, towards pedestrian crossings, bounded (or not, in Cork City!) by moving vehicles.

From left-to-right: Tom Ryan, Megan Goodale, Stuart Neilson, Katerina Karanika and Danielle Sheehy (panel discussion, St Peter’s Cork)

Occasionally people feature as distinct individuals, rather than desire lines or aggregate crowd movement, with some fascinating observations. In the panel discussion above, I was surprised to find the two men (Tom Ryan left, myself centre) so obviously man-spreading – not only are our knees wide apart, but we also move our elbows far out from our bodies, dominating a large sphere of space around our centres, while keeping the upper body relatively static. In contrast, the three women hold themselves much more compactly, knees together, hands in their lap, knees close to their sides, but with a relatively less rigid upper body.

As a woman, being told to take up space is rare.

Kate Nash on learning to wrestle for “Glow” (
Gerard Howlin and Paul Cunningham, RTE Primetime

One set of images, when I was looking at the distractions deliberately introduced to style and brand current affairs TV, brought out to me how differently individuals use their body during speech. Some people have expressive faces, some have emphatic body language and some gesture widely around and above their centres. Women, in the main, are more constrained than men.

Sometimes the text of language – if you wrote out the spoken words, stripped of the speaker and all the speaker’s attributes – is not merely different from the intent, but completely separate, or completely reversed. Obvious examples, which can be learned one-by-one, are “I am not a racist…” or “With all due respect…”. They are not all obvious – it took me ten years after moving to Cork in Ireland that “God love you” is not a compliment of your sincerity or goodwill, but at best condescending and more likely an insult.

Mistaking body language and the stream of intention and tone underlying the text is embarrassing (and embarrassingly frequent). It is also dangerous, when not perceiving anger or threat. It is also a danger in consent, where we are taught from the youngest age to be polite, compliant and accommodating. If you can not verbally tell restaurant staff that you do not like the food, how can you tell a potential sexual partner to stop? Especially if you neither receive nor send meaningful body language?

I often feel that people ‘lie’ when their words are not literal reflections of their intent or subsequent behaviour. Some of my worst workplace and personal experiences have been with people who, on the face value of their words, were kind-hearted and valued me as a colleague or individual. Had I understood their body language (and the veiled warnings of others) I might have been safer.

“Listen to the tone of my body language…” – Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Emma Stone and Nicole Kidman

With the idea of body language and its tone in mind, I looked for some face-on interview video of people talking, attempting to mark out the locus of their position over the duration of the motion sequence, and map the intensity of their motion. Both Boris Johnson (claiming to make models of buses out of wine boxes) and Nigel Farage (decrying ludicrous and ridiculous exclusion from the BBC, in response to a question about climate change) are expansive, elbows wide, dominating a large space around their centre. The two men are verbally talking deflective bollocks, whilst emitting a powerful message about their status and power. Emma Stone (describing her role as Abigail in “The Favourite”) and Nicole Kidman (on being bad and ugly in “Destroyer”) use gesture much more sparingly and less expansively. The two women are highly expressive, but their gestures are highly aligned with their text and serve to elevate and stress elements of the speech. Listening to the words without comprehending the body language could prove a costly mistake with the two men, leading a listener to assume that nobody would be swayed by their logorhea, or to minutely dissect the truth or falsehood of irrelevant statements about kippers, CO2 or American gun control rather than the substantive unstated position on Brexit.

Heatmapping the motion of these four individuals beautifully illustrates the relative intensity of their face, hand and body motions. Some people dominate a wide space, with expansive arm movements and frequent broad hand gestures, creating a strong impression of power and personal comfort in an alien studio space. Some people are less gesturally expressive and use their eyes, mouth and face as the focus of their words, creating a sense of earnestness.

Objectivity, or not

I like to create a sense of objectivity and impartiality in my images – for instance here I have balanced two men and two women, all adults, all filmed in similar settings, with similar lighting and cropping.

Don’t be fooled by this sense of scientific impartiality, because less obviously I have selected a particular kind of man and woman, taken a tiny (possibly unrepresentative) sample of their media exposure and carefully selected how to present the grouped images.

Hoewever, the images are for me a powerful talking point to start a conversation about relating to other people’s ‘holistic language’ and how to consider the meanings that are intended, apart from the literal interpretation of words.