The Truth as Told by Nonverbal Cues
An essay on non-verbal communication based on the pilot episode of TV series Lie to Me.
Seven billion people on Earth, each wants to hear the truth. But in a world where everyone speaks lies, to whom would you believe?
Some would say that the truth is in the words of those we trust or in the actions that we deem genuine. Others, probably lawyers, believe that only valid evidences expose the truth. Perhaps, some would think that only those that uphold their beliefs are true. One US television series presents a unique perspective on identifying what’s true and what’s not. It suggests that the truth is written on all our faces and revealed by our actions, and most often than not, we are unaware of it.
Lie to Me is a crime drama series featuring protagonist Dr. Cal Lightman who, through his company The Lightman Group, solves investigative cases with his body language expertise. In its pilot episode, Lightman was asked to search the truth behind the murder of a female teacher involving a 16-year-old high school student, James Cole, from a family of devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. Believing that body language and facial expressions do not tell lies, Lightman never fails to find answers.
While nonverbal communication was a major element in the show, the objective of this essay is not to establish it as an effective tool in finding the truth behind spoken lies. The objective of this essay is to analyze the truth behind nonverbal cues as integral part of our daily communication process as well as to determine its potential role in the Philippine context. Are actions more honest than words? Are the meanings behind someone’s body language similar to everyone? Is it ethical to judge a person based on nonverbal cues which are open to different interpretations?
“Emotions look the same whether you’re a suburban housewife or a suicide bomber,” said Lightman (Garcia & McCarty, 2009).
This line is congruent to Paul Ekman’s facial expression studies in 1960s which stated that expressions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise are universal (Littlejohn and Foss, 2009). The idea that non-verbal cues are universal seems to defy the concept of individuality. Humans are unique from each other and capable of developing distinct ways of expressions. But if we agree that everybody smiles with wrinkling eyes when it’s genuine or half-covers the face when feeling shame, individuality is in question.
I believe this is where human instinct enters the story. Babies cry when hungry, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid when anxious, and our hand temperature lowers when nervous. It’s no surprise that we respond to things similarly because despite individual differences, humans share the same instincts.
Given this observation, we can infer that forms of non-verbal communication are only universal when done out of human instinct. This explains why James Cole’s father, despite his religious background and practices, exhibited non-verbal signals common to everyone during his first encounter with Lightman. In addition, this perspective of basic human instinct does not take individuality out of the picture and is still open to the possibility that unique non-verbal cues and ways of expressions are still present especially in various social and cultural groups.
According to Mark Knapp and Judith Hall (2009), two of the three classifications of non-verbal communication are the communicators’ physical characteristics and the behaviors they manifest. Such can give light to the they way Lie to Me characters were formed. For instance, the way non-verbal cues play a part in the characterization of James Cole’s parents is apparent in their choice of clothing and the submissiveness of the wife to the husband, which are common in conventional families having strong religious foundation. And if Littlejohn and Foss’s (2009) were right that cultures differ radically in the symbolism of their attire and in their use of bodily and vocal cues, then we can say that non-verbal cues can define the unique identities of various social, religious or cultural groups.
“Well, I like horses, Manhattans, briefs not boxers. All of which makes us equally likely to lie,” said Lightman (Garcia & McCarty, 2009).
Again, Lightman’s main weapon to discover the truth is his expertise in nonverbal language that even a man of God, who is less likely to lie, was not spared. Is it really possible to judge a person based on nonverbal cues? And if it does, is it even an ethical thing to do?
Littlejohn and Foss (2009) said that people make judgments about someone’s nature and behaviour based on their non-verbal and visual cues rather than on their verbal communication. This, however, is a general statement that is less likely applicable to specific cases especially when culture is involved because according to the abovementioned statements, cultures differ in nonverbal codes. If that so, how can Lightman or we as communicators arrive to right judgments based on body language, micro-facial expressions, and vocal tones? I believe this is where the universal and cultural relativities of nonverbal cues become more relevant. If the cue is acted out of human instinct, then one might judge it based on its universal meaning. If, however, it was done with cultural reference, then it is particularistic and should be seen based on its distinct meaning. But is it even ethical to judge nonverbal cues?
Our minds conceive different realities shaped by a variety of factors we have grown up to. Our eyes see things differently. What’s ethical to someone may not be ethical to another. Some would perceive nonverbal basis on judgment as unethical, wrong and unacceptable while practitioners would defend it as an ethical thing to do. This is because ethics are relative.
Can We Have a Lightman in the Philippines?
The surge of crime in various parts of the archipelago has to be given much attention. Crime rates for January to May 2014 reached a total of 289,198 with solution efficiency of 35.5% (Cupin, 2014). While the efforts of the authorities to curb the trend are appreciated, an improved system would help. I’m no expert in police investigation but perhaps having a Lightman in the team to enhance the strategies in identifying suspects the way it’s done in the show will bear improvement in crime solution efficiency. Integrating a different yet potentially effective practice in crime investigation must be taken into consideration.
The world is a vast playground of meanings. Meanings we try to decipher to find the truth. Everyone has their own version of truth. Whether words or actions, at the end of the day, it’s not our judgment basis and ethical standards that matter, it’s where we are comfortable to believe in. Lightman left us with a quote worth pondering and I’m ending this essay with the same line, “you can believe whatever you want. It’s what everyone else does (Garcia & McCarty, 2009).”
Cupin, B. (2014, July 27). PNP reports surge in crime in 2014. Rappler. Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/nation/61798-pnp-crime-stats-2014
Garcia, T., & McCarty, M. (Reporters). (2009). Pilot [Television series episode]. In S. Baum (Producer), Lie to me. Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox Television.
Knapp, M., & Hall, J. (2010). Nonverbal communication in human interaction (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Littlejohn, S., & Foss, K. (2009). Nonverbal Communication Theories. In Encyclopedia of communication theory (pp. 690-694). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.