Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Face Value

A reader just passed on this fascinating New York Times story that deals with the tremendous amount of non-verbal communication that people transmit with subtle facial cues. Cues that we people with Parkinson's Disease are often unaware we no longer send. (You can find an earlier piece that I wrote on this subject here)

This is a valuable reminder that if we do not understand and somehow compensate for the meanings and nuances that we do not transmit because of our frozen faces, we are likely to encounter more than misunderstanding, we may be dismissed as dull, or perceived as angry. Which of course we may be, but who wants to start with that as the default setting for their face?

The article discusses several strategies that people use to get around the problem of the paralyzed face. Unfortunately some of these, such as the exquisitely pitched voice, or the well-tempered laugh, are difficult for those of us with Parkinson's to execute. It's important to be aware of this and work out compensating strategies. I've found it useful, even necessary at times to explain my poker face. People may assume that if you appear to be hiding your emotions, there is some deep and nefarious reason for it, and it puts them on their guard.

How important is a facial expression? So important that it can be read across species lines by our pets. Dogs are great students of humanity (cats don't give a rat's tail) and can learn to mimic a "social smile" I know this because my old dog, the legendary Sadie, learned to do it. We came home one day from work and, in addition to the customary leaping and tail-wagging, we were greeted by a slight curling of her lips. "We've got a grinner dog! Pam exclaimed, and from then on whenever she would start with one of her peculiar little grins we would smile back with all the wattage we could muster, until she mastered a wide grin that, if you didn't read the rest of her body language, bore an alarming semblance to a snarl.

How do I know that this was a "Social smile"? I saw her use it as one, just as a human would. This was years ago on a ski trip that took two days. On the morning of our second day we emerged from our chilly sleeping bags and set about cooking a hot breakfast. I don't remember exactly what we fixed, but to a cold and hungry dog it must have smelled of heaven.

My friend Peter loaded his plate up, then set it down to fetch something. Sadie crept quietly up from behind and was about to devour his breakfast when Peter turned around and caught her, unleashing a fusillade of angry words. Sadie retreated about ten feet, then turned around and gave him the biggest "Who me?" apology grin of her career. It was a brilliant deployment of a facial cue, and it worked, getting her off the hook.

A hook that impales me frequently now that I must concentrate and remember to smile. It's easier when I remember even a dog will do it.

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