Getting in your face – it’s a sensitive issue

By Ray O'Reilly

Do you breed people like Nick Cave, or do they grow organically? Some adults and children are just more in tune with their surroundings.

10 December 2009

Let's face it, some people are crap at reading body language. They get in your face, keep asking uncomfortable questions, and basically ignore your subtle, probably subconscious efforts to shut them down. Do they learn to be ignorant of these signals or is it something more hardwired?

My suspicion is you learn some of the basics in childhood – you know when dad is bloody furious and your mum is exhausted answering your questions – but the really refined observations seem to be the reserve of a few more sensitive souls.

I have two boys who are under five years old. Both are bright kids and both are building a good of their surroundings – even basics like road sense are related here. But one of the boys seems more attuned to people, more aware of their so-called micro-gestures. The other, although younger, shows less of this sort of intuitiveness exhibited by his brother at the same age, or he's more focused on the content of the information he takes in than the delivery man.

I'll give you an example of the elder's insights. A while back I was reading The WORD magazine which ran a feature on Nick Cave. The article included a large face shot of the Bad Seeds front man. To an adult who can read the text and understand the context – the main point is Cave has just published his second book called The death of Bunny Munro which is quite typically dark – the shot does appear menacing. But to children, it's a man with no history – they don't know about his reportedly drug-fuelled, rock ‘n' roll lifestyle or his deeper poetic nature – it's just a picture.

So what does the picture say to a child?

Looking over my shoulder while I was reading the story, my boy says to me: “Why is he angry?”

I didn't answer straight away – because we were supposed to be having ‘quiet time' – but in the meantime he corrected himself (this is a true story) and added: “I mean, why is he thinking so much about things?”

Jesus, what a cracker! He was bang on. At first, the photo gives an angryish aura (the heavy furrows in Cave's brow dominate), but on closer inspection, and with the use of shadowy light, it means to explore the more pensive aspects of his nature. He is looking leftward but facing more or less front on. His eyebrows are curving only slightly downward, he has a don't-mess-with-me moustache but it's neat enough to say that I'm not really that wild. His bright blue eyes are more fiery than fury.

The caption to the picture (something my son could not read) says, “Cave ponders the male condition –‘a half-dead blob somewhere between a human and an ape'.” There you have it.

I told my son that he was right, that Mr Cave has a lot on his mind, that he is a creative person who needs to think about things more than most. I said he probably isn't angry but is trying to find answers to some questions people keep asking him. My son nodded, and accepted this explanation. It's important not to disabuse children when their instincts dish up new insights. The same goes when he asks “what were you and mummy just arguing about”. In this case, though, I do tend to embellish, because I don't like the truth myself.

So, my gut feeling is, like you get people who have ‘super-sensitive' noses that smell a fart 50m away, others are super-sensitive face readers,  the  people watchers of the world, the pure ‘paralinguists' on the planet.

Super-sensitive adults probably learn to conceal their observations out of necessity, because it makes others uncomfortable, and maybe it's easier not to see some things just to cope with the human condition. But in the case of kids, they're not likely to be that conscious yet, so giving expression to what they are seeing is just a learning process. And some are clearly better at it than others.  I'll be watching theses developments in my own two boys most keenly, especially as I've promised my electric guitar to the eldest if he learns to play properly.

Mmm, now it's time for me to ponder after finishing Caves new book…  Do I really want something like that in my life?

You betcha.  Better too sensitive and creative than being pig ignorant and getting in people's face without even knowing it!

A version of this article first appeared in (A)Way magazine. It is republished here with the author's permission. © Copyright Ray O'Reilly.


  • Ray O'Reilly

    Ray O'Reilly writes like he thinks… between the lines. Formerly a columnist for (A)WAY, an English-language magazine in , today Ray focuses on script-writing projects, blogging and avoiding parties.

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