Monday, May 4, 2009

Snark, smirks, and the Great Lakes

This week, the Great Lakes Town Hall website has a quick quiz about the Great Lakes. Biggest, smallest, longest shoreline, etc — just what you’d expect. But it left out one amazing fact about the Great Lakes. I won’t tell you what it is until I finish this diversion.

The anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell (a student of Margaret Mead’s, among other distinctions) called himself a kinesiologist, studying movement in context. You can study movement in context by watching TV or a movie with the sound off, and decipher the unfolding story through the actors’ movements. Birdwhistell argued — contradicting the body language people — that a movement has meaning in context, rather than an absolute meaning.

In other words, yeah, maybe the person who folds her arms as she speaks to you is shutting you out. But that movement could have a different meaning if you look at the entire scene: all the movements being made by all the participants.

Birdwhistell was also a student of faces. He got five minutes of fame on late-night TV explaining his observations, and manipulating his own face into regional configurations. For instance, people who grow up on the southern Great Plains do this and this and this — and, wow: there’s Eisenhower (from Abilene, Kansas). An upper-class Englishman does that and that and that with his eyelids and nose and upper lip, and wow — there’s the Tory then-prime minister of Great Britain. Before the world had heard of Jimmy Carter, Birdwhistell showed us the toothy, ever-smiling face of the southerner.

One night, long ago, with friends in Poland, Ohio, we watched Birdwhistell go through this performance … which he concluded with the face of people “in states bordering the Great Lakes.” The key to the Great Lakes states face, he said, is that “people there smile with their mouths closed so you can’t see their teeth.” We looked around the room at each other — and we were all smiling without showing our teeth! Suddenly the roomful of friends had turned into an anthropological experiment. And I remembered specifically being taught (by my mother and aunts) to not show my teeth when I smiled.

I’ve thought of Ray Birdwhistell often, especially during the last eight years of snark about W’s smirk. I too am at a loss to understand that look (although I associate it with certain upper-middle class women, and it blows me away when I see it on Christmas card pictures), and wish that Ray Birdwhistell were still around to decode it.

Incidentally, in Belles on Their Toes, the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, Mrs. Gilbreth is interviewed by someone who refers to her making a “deprecating moue.” “I’ve never made any kind of moue in my life,” snorts Mother.

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