Did the subtle angle of my elbow cause a posh British woman to sell me her car?

An investigation into whether so-called “body-language experts” actually tell us anything.

Did the subtle angle of my elbow cause a posh British woman to sell me her car?

An investigation into whether so-called “body-language experts” actually tell us anything.

In London once, when I was 25 and broke and more adrift than I have ever been, I got asked to this very fancy dinner party. A friend of a friend’s mother invited me for reasons that remain unclear — I did not at the time give off the energy of someone you would want to be seated next to at a dinner party. I was so broke, and so unemployed, so lonely and, for some reason, itchy all the time. I was quite literally listing to one side; I had sprained my ankle and could not get it together to even buy an ankle guard. Also clothes wrong, hair wrong, shoes wrong, shoulders wrong.

Maybe this woman was just being kind. I said yes, because I didn’t have anything else going on, and I realized the fatality of my error as soon as I arrived. It was a properly fancy dinner, full of seriously posh and frightening English people who didn’t know that it was wrong to be a tax exile. I hated them all a lot straight away, and hated myself even more for still wanting them to accept me as one of their horrifying, braying own.

There weren’t actual place cards, but the way we were directed to our chairs made it clear that the hostess had worked the seating arrangements out well in advance. I was next to a woman who for this story will be called Alice. Alice was rich, and busy, and quite evidently the boss of any situation she happened to find herself in. A good person to sit next to, and from whom to take cues until I could make my escape.

I did my best. I sat up straight, I did not fidget; I copied what Alice was doing with her napkins and cutlery. I was so obviously out of my depth, and all I wanted was to get out of there and with luck be remembered only as a strange, uncomfortable, limping individual. And then. With no warning or build-up of any description. Alice leans over to me and goes “I have a Honda I’m thinking of selling. Would you be interested in buying it? It’s very commodious. VERY.”

I had not said anything more than hello, and where I was from. What was I telling this woman, and how?

I sort of reeled back in wonder, but I did not ask her to repeat herself. I knew what she had said. Did I or did I not want to buy her very commodious Honda. A simple question. I said thank you, but that I wasn’t really in a Honda-buying space just then, and then dinner finished, and then I limped to the bus stop, and then I thought about it constantly for the next eight years.

What had made her say it? To me? I did not see her raise the issue with any of the other guests, and as I have mentioned I was studying her every move. Don’t say “because she was bonkers.” Don’t say “drunk.” I have brought up the Honda Incident with many people over the years, and they always say stuff like that, or else “that sounds like a weird evening,” or else “maybe she thought you were someone else.” Someone once asked me if Alice was an Aquarius. These responses are not even close to being adequate. Why especially did she look at me and feel that I needed to be apprised of the fact that the Honda was commodious. I had not said anything more than hello, and where I was from. What was I telling her, and how?

Now. In the improbable event that you have not already done so, stop what you are doing and look at pictures of Theresa May curtsying. More accurately, “Theresa May trying to curtsy.” “Theresa May looking like Rumpelstiltskin inching forward as he prepares to play a trick on a king.” It’s very full on, very intense to see. People have been trying to make sense of it for some time, and the questions they ask are always the same – what’s wrong with the old gal’s curtsy? What’s going on there?

These are the wrong questions. They are too easy to answer. We already know what’s wrong with her curtsy: it makes her look like she is Rumpelstiltskin. We already know what is going on there: like many of us, she is a physically awkward woman who does not know how to curtsy. It’s fine for me that I don’t know how to curtsy — it’s not going to hold me back or be one of the reasons that people make fun of me. The same cannot be said of Theresa May. That’s what’s going on there.

So then why do we keep bringing it up? Why are there so many articles in the British tabloids headlined “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THERESA MAY’S CURTSY” featuring so-called body-language experts telling us that what’s wrong with her curtsy is that she is “too low to the ground” or that she is “bowing too deeply” or that she “looks uncomfortable.” We know this already — we have eyes. Why then do we keep circling around it expectantly, waiting for yet another etiquette expert to inform us that she shouldn’t look so weird when she is doing that. It’s because it feels like there is More to This Story, I think. It feels like a message is being passed from May to us, as I passed my Honda-wanting message over to Alice without knowing I was doing it, but that we do not have the tools to decipher it yet.

Watching her trying and failing to curtsy feels like watching an alien take off its human make-up at night, or like the final episode of The Jinx, when Robert Durst makes those gargling noises and you see a part of himself that he has been desperately trying to suppress just come bubbling and seething right out of him. Something is being revealed. We don’t have a hope of finding out what that might be, however, because we don’t know Theresa May personally, and really we are strangers even to ourselves. All we have to go on is her body language and the word of the “body-language experts” who promise to translate it for us, and it turns out that this is not much at all, really.

Listen to an interview with Rosa Lyster about this piece on The Outline World Dispatch.

The story of body language analysis as a wider discipline is long and complicated and involves many neuroscientists and social psychologists viciously attempting to destroy one another’s careers, and is, as such, beyond the scope of this investigation. The neuroscientists and the social psychologists are in addition not given to going on TV and making confident and unfounded statements about Theresa May’s inner life, and are therefore of no use to us.

The kinds of people who will do this are grifters almost by definition, and although we should not believe them, we do. I do, at least. There is something very comforting about the idea that you can look at someone and know that they are lying, or preparing to make a u-turn on Brexit, and this is the wisdom the TV body language experts claim to be able to impart. They have been doing this since the ‘70s, in the face of mounting evidence that people are terrible at detecting lies. Yet they keep at it, and god bless them. Another thing they like to do is put a slightly oracular spin on just a very garden-variety observation about what someone is doing or wearing, making it seem like they are handing over a highly prized secret. They are excellent at this.

There is something very comforting about the idea that you can look at someone and know that they are lying.

Here is famed body-language expert Judi James on May: “This is her Achilles heel — socially she is not particularly good… we see this and we feel anxious, we don’t feel reassured.” Indeed. Body-language expert Blanca Cobb digs deeper, attributing motive and intent: “I believe that Theresa May gave a deep curtsy to show her deep respect for Prince William, but in the process she made herself look awkward and unpolished.”

Ya. This is hard to argue with, but it is also not interesting or revealing, and it is hard to imagine why one would need the services of a body-language expert to make this observation when a relatively perceptive 9-year-old could probably come to the same conclusion. It’s not just analysis of Theresa May’s curtsy that prompts these kinds of responses. This is how it goes, seemingly, with the body-language experts.

Here is Judi James weighing in on the relationship between Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle: “[Kate’s] Achilles heel was always Harry who often looked duty-bound to make her laugh or giggle and it seems from the body language here that Meghan might be adopting a similar role to try and forge a familiar and very congruent friendship with her sister-in-law.” James thinks Kate and Meghan’s connection might be stronger: “While Kate sits smiling as she watches the tennis, Meghan face-checks her closely in what looks a little like admiration bordering on hero-worship.”

In further pitiful efforts to ingratiate herself, James ruthlessly observes, Markle employs “a rather cheeky-looking grin that she must have mimicked from her husband.” Also, also: “While Kate keeps her eye contact down or to the side, Meghan's eyes to the crowds and her dipped head and rather shy, lowered smile forms what is known as The Cute Effect, a trait of using pseudo infantile body language to lower your own status and form instant bonds of likeability,” she said.

It is hard to imagine why one would need the services of a body-language expert to make this observation when a relatively perceptive nine-year-old could probably come to the same conclusion.

That’s what we’ve got from TV’s No. 1 body-language expert Judi James. Not much. Let’s turn to yet another body-language expert, and a situation that does not involve the British Royal Family in any way: Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un at the Singapore summit, and the promise that we will find out “what they were really thinking.” Well? They were thinking that they wanted to convey confidence and control. Mmm. Seems like we didn’t need a body language expert, there.

Back to Judi James, then, and Trump and Putin in Helsinki. This is her best work yet, I feel: “Both men arrived performing the kind of alpha posturing you normally see in a boxing ring, swaggering with puffed chests and in Trump's case a mouth clamp plus what was bordering on a scowl to camera as both pulled at their jackets in what is commonly a ‘prepare to fight’ ritual.” Wow. But then just when you feel that you are getting some behind-the-scenes insight, Judi James describes Trump and Putin sitting “rigid in their seats with absolutely no eye contact or communication. This could be a ploy. It could be about pre-meeting posturing and the men could emerge showing friendship signals suggesting they'd each fought hard before allowing themselves to bond.”

This could be a ploy. It could be, yes. Maybe. All sorts of things are possible, but again, we have no way of knowing, because we have no actual privileged access to what is driving these people, or to what is being said, and nobody tells us anything.

It’s been many years since the Honda incident, and I still feel as if it holds the key to some part of myself that it would be beneficial to understand, or at least be aware of. We are mysteries to ourselves, but if someone came to me now and said I was also at that dinner party and everything about your body language was absolutely screaming that you were actively on the lookout for a roomy Honda, I would drop everything and listen to what they had to say.

What was it? My hands? My posture? Do I still look like I need or want to buy a Honda? Where is the body language expert who will tell me what I need to know?

Rosa Lyster is a writer in Cape Town. She last wrote for The Outline about white genocide.