Friday, May 17, 2013

The World's Worst Tenants Illustrate Body Language

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when "body language" was a hot topic, I sometimes felt that I was the only one who'd noticed: Not all bodies speak the same language.

On the principle of making a point easier for people to grasp by giving them a chuckle, I used to add that just mirroring the most obvious things you saw someone else's body doing, and assuming that the person meant by them what you thought you might mean by them, is like translating "Sic transit gloria mundi" as "Gloria was sick on the transit on Monday."

Over time I think enough people either recognized that different bodies have different languages, or were annoyed by other people's misinterpretations of their body language, that the whole topic of body language seems to have cooled off. Too bad. There are still useful things to be learned from observing body language, provided that we recognize the immensity and complexity of the subject.

My main body language problem used to go like this: Someone would shove something too close to my face. I'd back away so my astigmatic eyes could see what that thing was (if you move fast, it's possible to shove something into my hands before I can see whether it's a map or a book or, for all I know, a dinner plate). The other person would interpret my body language as some sort of rejection or withholding of attention, and would then start flapping and squawking and yelling and emoting in a frantic demand for immediate attention. By the time the person started flapping his or her hands and/or grabbing at me and/or yelling, I'd be able to see the object the person was trying to call to my attention, and even read what was printed on it...but by that time I would be more concerned with discouraging the person, since s/he was behaving in such an obnoxious way.

So many of the problems children have in this world come from the way we as a society treat children. Children outgrow many of their behavior problems as soon as they reach an age where no normal person does the things to which their undesirable behavior was a reaction. As an adult I need even more time to be able to read a piece of paper that's been thrust into my hands, but society now expects and allows me to stall politely for as much time as I need...

Fast-forward: Although I don't own a set, sometimes at friends' houses I watch television. A show that some people I know find entertaining is the Spike reality series about the "World's Worst Tenants." In some episodes the team who deliver complaints and eviction notices have seemed reasonably respectful of tenants and have even taken the tenants' side, but in one recent show I wondered whether there was a conscious intention of showing how those hired to deliver bad news can make their job more unpleasant than it should be.

In one hour, we watched the team confront (1) an ordinary eviction of a squatter who presented blatantly bogus cheques as evidence that he'd been paying rent, (2) what seemed to be an ordinary eviction until the renter got mad and destroyed the owner's car, (3) the foreign family participating in an unauthorized home exchange, (4) a Santeria group, (5) a taxi service that had sublet their building to an adult service, and (6) what were reported as illegal dogs but turned out to be human renters playing werewolves.

In each encounter, the tough-guy character, Todd, got louder and more belligerent. Maybe the idea was that thinking about the renter who'd destroyed the owner's car made him angry, and his week just went downhill from there. He spoke first to the next four groups of tenants, and in each house someone threatened him; someone pulled a knife, and one of the "werewolves" physically attacked him.

Of course this show is being reenacted for Spike, so each scene is supposed to be stripped down and speeded up, but I found myself disliking Tough Guy Todd as this informative (about landlord-tenant laws in California) and often funny show played on. Noticeably taller and heavier than anyone else on the show, Todd barged into houses and yards too fast, talked too fast and too loud, got too close and literally loomed up over people, interrupted, tried to hurry people through confrontations that seemed to be completely unexpected by them, and generally seemed to be turning a stressful job into a way to look for fights.

By the scene where the team realized that the tenant who wasn't making it easy for the landlord to display the property was operating an adult service in the building, I found myself rooting for the that's how you know you're watching the character with the legitimate job doing his job really badly.

Barking orders while people are trying to process what you've said may fit into some people's dominance fantasies. It does work well with dogs. It may even work with some humans; humans with extroversion have always reminded me of dogs. It does not work with humans who don't enjoy being bullied. It generates resistance, sometimes even violence.

When Todd approached the house where the exchange was taking place, a young man came to the door and summoned his parents. Todd barged inside while the older people came to meet him. As the young man tried to translate what he understood Todd to say for his parents' benefit, Todd seemed to fall into the really stupid mistake of imagining that everyone in the world can understand your version of English if you shout loudly enough. Instead of politely straightening out a misunderstanding, everyone was yelling and screaming.

Somebody really ought to tell guys like Todd: Don't open your mouth until the other person has finished speaking. Listening provides information you need.

When Todd approached one of the other houses (the team visited both the werewolves and the Santeria group twice), nobody answered the front door, so Todd barged on into the back yard. Not too surprisingly, somebody waved a serious-looking knife and yelled at him to get off the property.

Somebody really ought to tell guys like Todd: Back off. If you're trying to communicate with people in a situation that could become hostile, be extremely respectful. Never get even close enough to shake hands until you've made sure that the other person is willing to shake hands with you.

And I'm not sure about the law in California, but in any place where I've lived as an adult, if you're (a) on someone's property, (b) unexpectedly, (c) yelling and acting angry, you're likely to be shot. In real life, even police officers aren't supposed to act the way Todd was acting.

No, the surprise was that, even in view of Todd's manners, several of the tenants seemed to hear him say "I'm working for the owner" and give him a chance to produce evidence that he was. In real life, people often fail to hear words that are spoken in a loud, aggressive manner. When people feel threatened, their attention shifts from listening to words to defending themselves. If Todd popped up in my yard, having some sort of legitimate business there--e.g. hand-delivering a message--but acting the way he was acting on TV, would I hear him explain his business? Of course not. I wouldn't even bother to tell him I was calling the police. I'd lock myself into the office and do it.

Somebody really ought to tell guys like Todd: If you can't be calm and peaceable when approaching someone you don't know well, fade back and let someone else talk. Even if you're notifying people that some distant acquaintance died without an heir and left them a fortune, they don't hear the words when you're yelling.

When people really understand even one other person's body language, the "psychic bond" between them will seem conspicuous and even supernatural. Most of us are doing well to identify a few of the common elements between our body language and those of other people. However, demographic factors can sometimes help us decode other people's body language.

One thing that was well portrayed on this TV show was that panicky body language doesn't indicate guilt so much as it indicates surprise. The house swappers, who weren't doing anything immoral and had no reason to think they were even doing something objectionable, panicked because they were suddenly confronted by a large angry man screaming in a foreign language. Who wouldn't? The madam, who had obviously researched local laws to find a place where what she was doing wouldn't get her straight into jail, didn't panic because she expected hostility and was prepared to deal with it.

One thing that's unlikely to be portrayed on this particular TV show was how the expectations people have, based on their social status, shape their body language. Even the werewolves were much more tolerant of Todd's bad manners, because they were renters, than anyone could reasonably expect property owners to be.

On the other hand children, who have no rights to speak of, would also be likely to react to a loud, bullying manner in a completely different way than the renters did. I remember, as a child, being told "Just ignore the pests and they will stop pestering you." For years I couldn't seem to convince pests that I was ignoring them, and then, it seems to me now, I suddenly got the hang of it and was able to lock down almost any reaction at all, becoming so motionless and expressionless that I could even intimidate a few timid people who hadn't been pestering me. I wonder whether that's what's going on when children who may have had learning or personal problems, but have seemed normal up to age ten or twelve, are suddenly mislabelled autistic. Whether these children see and hear as much as they ever did, but are really focussing on their success in not cooperating in what they perceive as bullying in any way. ("But these are adults..." Children feel bullied by adults too.)

Why do people use the counterproductive body language Todd was using? Because, in the first scene, it worked. The squatter, who had no rights and knew it, used the human equivalent of underdog body language in response to Todd's top-dog body language. Unfortunately, for the rest of the hour we watched the body language that had worked with the squatter failing to work with other people. Even more unfortunately, when we don't take time to think through our behavior choices, we behave like pigeons in a cage: If something works for us only one time out of ten, we'll wear ourselves out repeating the behavior in the hope that the next time will be one of the times when it works.

In real life, domineering over someone else may feel good; for some people it even seems to be addictive. The only trouble is that, for those who become addicted to loud, angry, aggressive communication, maintaining relationships where that kind of behavior is tolerated tends to demand a lot of violence and cruelty. On the TV show Todd and his wife seem to be satisfied with their relationship, but in real life men like Todd often feel that they can only enjoy the relationships they have with their wives or children...because those relationships are abusive. They have to act civil at work, so they compensate by falsely accusing and beating up some family member at home.

If I sent this complaint to Spike headquarters, no doubt the response would be, "It's supposed to appeal to young men only, so what are old aunts and grandparents like youall doing, even watching this show? You're supposed to hate it." Well, too bad...nobody who was watching this show hated it. Everyone who was watching it agreed that it was funny. But it was funny because it was unrealistic; in real life guys who act like Todd don't live to be as old as Todd looks. An addiction to angry, stressful communication and bullying relationships is part of a deadly physical disease.

In real life, guys who act like Todd--or want to--may appreciate the support of other men in learning more effective ways to communicate. Real police officers and FBI agents get this kind of training at work. If you don't want a career in law enforcement but do want to be able to maintain real control of a situation by not appearing to be a bully, here are two web sites maintained by mature men who may be able to help: