During Pierce College Welcome Day’s on the first two days of every quarter, the Puyallup Post sets up a table to promote the newspaper. We give out free copies of the newspaper to anybody who walks through the hallway of the College Center. Couple this with the fact that non-verbal language can constitute up to 75 percent of all communication. Together the two of these can make for an interesting social experiment.
Most people are socialized into cultural and social norms that determine what exactly is appropriate in non-verbal communication and interactions. People know how to interact with, or more specifically avoid, the paperboy handing out newspapers to passerby. Based on my observations manning the Puyallup Post table, I determined what body language was taboo and what was not.
There are rules to non-verbals. Take eye contact, for example. The eye contact rule: four to five seconds of eye contact and blinking normally to acknowledge the person. The taboo: as with all non-verbals, eye contact can be tricky, but in general, it’s considered strange to be on either extreme of eye contact. If a person doesn’t look long enough into someone’s eyes it can make them seem dishonest or insecure, if they stare too long then they’re staring and it’s creepy.
As there are social rules to interact non-verbally with a person there are also methods used to avoid people. The trick is to do it while being polite but also manage to dismiss them.
During my assigned two hours at the Puyallup Post table I observed a few people did want a newspaper, but the majority didn’t want a newspaper nor did they want me to ask them if they did. So, as the social game dictates, they avoided me, politely. And in doing so I noticed several methods the people of Pierce College used to courteously ignore me.
The cell phone: Upon approaching the table, the person notices me and correctly assumes that I’m going to ask if they would like a newspaper. So they pull out their cell phone or something to look down at in order to ignore me as they pass the table. Once they have passed the table, they put away their phone and keep walking without a second thought, all in an effort to avoid my questions.
I’m in a hurry: This person upon seeing me at the table suddenly “realizes” they have something urgent to do. Usually they will utter something to themselves, and then hurry past my request to take a newspaper hoping that I will see how busy they are and understand why they don’t want a paper.
Extended stare: This technique involves the person staring at a point beyond the table, and as they pass me they keep their eyes focused on that same spot until they have walked past the table. Then they reset their eyes in front of them without ever looking directly at me or answering my request to take a paper.
Pseudo interest: The person will make eye contact with me for a moment and act interested with something at the table. They glance at something on the table but not me, and nod their head or smile in interest. That’s until they are past the table. Once they are, they drop the smile and resume walking.
So why do the students of Pierce College bother with such indirect ways to tell me they don’t want a paper rather than outright saying they don’t want one?
The answer is that the fear to offend turns out to be one of the greatest fears we have. We feel obligated to the stranger so much so that we will play a ludicrous game of social grace to avoid insult. It seems Shakespeare was right when he said, “all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
The Puyallup Post is the award-winning student news of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2017. Twitter/Instagram @puyalluppost