In this metalogue the daughter asks her father: “Daddy, why do Frenchmen wave their arms about?”
They discuss how we communicate so much without words, and what we are really saying when we do so.
The insights gained have implications for business negotiation, customer loyalty, staff retention, innovation and more.
What Bateson Tells Us
The daughter asks her father why Frenchmen are always waving their arms about when they talk.
Her father replies, well why do you smile? Or stamp your foot sometimes?
The daughter insists that no, it is not as simple as that. Frenchmen don’t wave their arms in the same way she would. And sometimes they wave them in one way, sometimes another. And they don’t seem able to stop.
Father and daughter realise that, for a Frenchman, waving his arms is something cultural. It might look silly to the daughter, but it can’t look silly to other Frenchmen because then they would all stop doing it. The daughter thinks a Frenchman waving his arms might be feeling excited but her father points out that if he waved his arms as much as that then he would want to be singing or dancing as well, so “The Frenchman surely does not feel when he waves his arms exactly as you would feel if you waved yours.”
They imagine what it would mean if the Frenchman suddenly stopped waving his arms. The daughter says that she would feel frightened, because he might be angry. They realise that, unlike the father and daughter, the Frenchman waves his arms when he isn’t angry and stops waving them when he is. So perhaps part of the answer to “What is one Frenchman telling another by waving his arms?” is that he is telling the other guy that he is not seriously angry with him, so that later he can tell him his is angry by stopping waving his arms.
That doesn’t make sense, the daughter tells the father: it’s too much work. After all, she doesn’t smile at him all day just so she can tell him she is angry by not smiling later. But then lots of people do smile on purpose, to show they are not angry when really they are. (It’s a way of “telling lies with one’s face, like playing poker.”)
Is it really so crazy that Frenchmen would work so hard to tell each other they are not angry? Father and daughter pause and think about what they themselves do. They wonder what most conversation between Americans is about: people might be talking about baseball or ice cream or gardens and games, but “are they exchanging information? And, if so, what information?”
The father remembers that when they are talking about fishing and the daughter teases him about how many fish he didn’t catch then he will often go quiet, because he is sensitive about it. This is like the Frenchman who stops waving his arms.
So maybe conversation is sometimes simply about telling other people you are not angry with them. And “sometimes, if both people are willing to listen carefully, it is possible to do more than exchange greetings and good wishes. Even to do more than exchange information. The two people may even find out something which neither of them knew before.”
This is worth repeating: “Most conversations are only about whether people are angry or something. They are busy telling each other that they are friendly.” And this information, that they are not cross, is a different sort of information from “the cat is on the mat.” But, like the cat being on the mat, it can also be lied about.
Now they get to the heart of the matter — the reason why it’s not enough just to say “I am not cross with you” and have done with it.
The reason is that the messages we exchange in gestures are not the same as any translation of those gestures into mere words. No amount of saying “I am not cross with you” can convey the same message as showing “I am not cross with you” with a gesture or with tone of voice.
In addition, there are never ‘mere words’ without the addition of some sort of tone of voice. Even written words have rhythm and nuance and overtones. Words always come with some sort of gesture or tone. But gestures without words are commonplace — and they say a lot.
(The daughter wonders why schools teaching French don’t teach pupils how to wave their hands. Her father doesn’t know, but thinks it would make learning languages a lot easier.)
As they draw things to a conclusion they realise “the notion that language is made of words is all nonsense” because gestures cannot be translated into “mere words”. And there is no such thing as ‘mere words’ without some accompanying tone or intent or ‘gesture’.
They realise they have to start all over again, because “language is first and foremost a system of gestures. Animals after all have only gestures and tone of voice — and words were invented much later.”
The daughter asks whether it would be a good thing “if people gave up words and went back to only using gestures?”
Her father isn’t sure. One the one hand they wouldn’t be able to have conversations like this. On the other, it might be fun. It might make life “a sort of ballet — with dancers making their own music.”
In this metalogue, Bateson tells us that there are three types of conversation or communication:
- One is about saying “I am not angry with you” and the like (which is best done by gestures, tone of voice).
- One is about conveying information (which is best done with words).
- And a third is about finding out things “which neither of them knew before” (which requires both parties to be “willing to listen carefully”).
He tells us with mere words. He shows us with gestures and tone. And if we listen very carefully we might also find out something which we did not know before.
At a basic level it is non-verbal messages that enable us to understand another person’s true meaning and intentions. Business is always much better done face to face, especially if you do not know the other person well, because until you know whether you can trust them then any factual information becomes irrelevant. Communicating via lawyers tells us one sort of information, but it does not tell us another. Emails about emotional topics are easily misunderstood.
If the other person is from a different culture, then it becomes more difficult to know whether they are being honest or lying. This is also why we are more likely to put ourselves into dangerous situations in a foreign city than we would at home: because we can miss the subtle cues that we would easily pick up on in our own culture.
In consumer advertising, television and video are best for building emotional connection and trust. Print media are then better for conveying factual information.
Similar “conversations” exist between the firm and its employees, suppliers, lenders and investors. How much time does your company spend ‘waving its arms’ at these groups of people to show it is ‘not angry’ with them? How does it do this?
For employees, the tip of the iceberg about people feeling that the company is “not angry” with them shows up in what we call diversity issues. If there are issues here, no amount of words will fix them. There have to be ‘gestures’ as well: non-verbal communication that provides an underlying foundation for the words to rest on. Does your company spend time ‘waving its arms’ at employees? Are those gestures true or are they lies?
When it comes to external groups such as customers, suppliers, lenders and investors, does your company rely only on verbal communications or does it put effort and resources into ‘waving its arms’? Would different actions generate different results?
This metalogue talks about French culture because its members have a very visible way of saying “I am not angry with you.” Other cultures will have their own ways of showing “You are one of us” or “I am like you”, but these may be less visible. What is the equivalent of ‘waving arms’ in your organisation? What signals do people send to show that they are ‘not-angry’ with each other? Do these vary by department? Are there other specific signals that indicate membership of specific status groups? What happens to people who do not display these cues?
Finally, the third kind of conversation was about finding out things that people don’t already know. How willing are people in your organisation to do the “careful listening” that Bateson tells us is necessary for innovation? Would changing that benefit the organisation?
There are three kinds of conversation in any organisation:
- “We are part of the same group, the same team, we are ‘not angry’ with one another”
- “We need to do a good job at what we already do”
- “We need to find new ways of doing things”
Which of these does your organisation do well? Which does it do poorly? What needs to change?