SOCIAL dominance is expressed in many ways, yet you cannot hide your true expression of yourself. That writer G. K. Chesterton, now mostly forgotten, once said that there is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect. You’ll have gone this way many times; how you noticed that a smile given to you was fake and not at all from the heart.
You only need to contract the major zygomatic muscles to create a cheesy smile but less discernible pulls come into play to produce a genuine one, and these involve the orbicularis oculi, which also give you those subtle lines of crow’s feet. How could we, in an instant, recognise what’s genuine and what’s fake? Ours has been a lifetime of learning: we learnt to read all that when we were babies looking at our parents. There, too, we learnt intonation, body language, soft actions and loud.
These are the soft skills that once were parts of us. There is always a conflict in us between trying to be dominant and the necessity, sometimes, to show compliance. Perhaps deference is useful in some contexts; for everyday purposes, respect for one another puts everything into perspective. Sometimes, so deeply are we in our own selves that we forget others around us, people in their own selves, too, existing in their own right.
Well, let’s take people for instance and how they transgress into each other’s lives. I say transgress because that’s the impression I get whenever a young person I know reports to me about his experience with a Malaysian students’ football group every Friday in a corner of London.
“What is wrong with these Malaysians?” he asks. “I don’t know,” I reply. “You’re one of them.” The problem seems to be repeated every time regular players meet a new group of robust, high-achieving Malaysian would-be leaders and technocrats.
“They offer a half-hearted handshake,” my informant tells me. “They grunt something dismissive, or they look away as you press their limp hand.”
“So, what do you do?” I ask. “I have to reach out to them; their hand is proferred in such a way that their elbow is bent. You are forced to reach out.” “Ooh, that does say a lot,” I observe.
In a study cited by writer Leonard Mlodinov in his book Subliminal, it was found that wolves, after being in close contact with humans, could respond to their non-verbal cues. How do wolves know that? The answer is the same for them as for us: right from the start, wolves had to learn to read the body language of the pack. They had to look for signs of presumed dominance and submission; from how the ears are standing proud or pressed close to the head, if the tails wag and so on. Human beings show much the same traits. How long you look in the eyes of someone whose hands you are shaking is an expression of your dominance. Some, and I see many politicians do this, don’t even look at all. People who have cats will know better than to approach one with eyes wide open, unblinking like a knife ready to stab.
People skills are becoming a lucrative trade once again because we have, in our obsession with our own selves, lost much. Much of what we now call social media is not at all about other people but about ourselves — call them Tweets or Facebook or even the simple text message. Many young people have turned inwardly as a form of deep expression of themselves. Sometimes, they go too deep and bury themselves in holes and crevasses. They are at a loss when it comes to communicating without the keypad.
This is what deep reading, or at the very least, reading beyond skimming the surface, can give us. A deep insight into a novel that examines the human condition is a study of the dilemmas we have in life, how we interact, and, more importantly, how what we do in our interactions affect other people and us. Good literature does that to us because reading develops an awareness. An awareness of characters is a mirror to ourselves. How we relate to characters in a book is the deep basis of bibliotherapy and is often good for children who feel alienated, alone in a bewildering world we have created.
Reading develops empathic muscles. There are studies that show reading narrative fiction influences attitudes, something easy to understand because what we seem to have lost is an awareness. Being considerate is being aware of other people and how you behave towards them. And of the ways that breed a better understanding of others, reading must rank at the top.
And where will all that awareness take us? Mindfulness is one, something that is all the rage nowadays. Emotional intelligence. Better social skills. The realisation that we have to relate.