Posted in animals, Cleo

Cats Teach Me How to Read Human Body Movement

Today is Stop the Shock day, and I’d love if my readers joined me in calling in protests.


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🤓 Intellectualizing Social-Emotional Skills

My favorite class in undergrad wasn’t from the English Department. It wasn’t even at my university. Nineteen years old, attending Orange Coast, and preferring to sit in the wash of students in the middle of the classroom, I never would’ve suspected I’d fall in love with the anthropology class I enrolled in to fulfill my IGETC requirement:

💙💛Nonverbal behavior!🧡💜

This anthropology professor didn’t approach nonverbal behavior—the 70-90% of communication we offer beyond our word choices, through our bodies and mannerisms—the way it was introduced in my interpersonal communications course.

She wasn’t interested in teaching us how to communicate effectively, like how my interpersonal communications professors focused on; rather, she was interested in reading the body movements of others to discuss culture, age, gender, stress level, and many, many other variables above-and-beyond the conversation at hand.

Several of the lessons she taught felt familiar to the students; looking back, I think she meant for these lessons to act like bridges of common knowledge to cross, on the way to the Great Unknown. For example, most neurotypicals—people who aren’t on the spectrum—generally know crossing your arms is a defensive gesture.

But I hadn’t absorbed most of this knowledge naturally.

I needed to be taught.

And since I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until I was thirty-two years old (although I identified autistic at twenty-eight years old), I never really had a teacher. In that anthropology class, under her kind guidance, I felt Pandora’s Box creaking open, a superpower that could be used for good or evil.

👍 Bombard’s Body Language

My sixteen-week college course felt very much like this YouTube artist’s analysis of Mark Zuckerberg, from the gentle, instructive voice to the matter-of-fact explanations:

Nonverbal behavior analysis can reveal quite a bit about the people who are actively working to change our world for the better:

But it’s difficult for me to analyze the people in everyday life as deeply as this YouTube artist because, well, there’s no footage. It doesn’t feel appropriate on a social-emotional level, or ethically, to walk around recording everyone’s nuisance nonverbal behaviors in your life; I know I certainly wouldn’t appreciate it.

My anthropology professor, on the other hand, could think on her feet. (Think on her toes?) I’m guessing this YouTube artist can think quick, too; she’s just creating an art form to educate the public.

While my professor needed visuals to teach us, and videos to enhance the analysis, she could also pick up nonverbal cues on a dime. She always knew which student needed to be approached, versus which should be left alone.

She was one of the first adults in my life that never invaded my space.

Ever. 💞

I wanted to react as swiftly as her, if for no other reason, than to protect myself from being bullied and manipulated; to be a better friend to those I loved. I’d long had enough with my poor social skills, and if I could intellectualize my way through the bog, then by all means—equip me with these miraculous skills.

I’m still not a champion at reading people. But I do believe I am far better at it than most, despite my autism; I think of it like a Dungeons & Dragons character with a poor Charisma score…

Even if my Cha 6 gives me a -2 to all my rolls, I can invest skill points into nonverbal behavior, (probably the sense motive skill, if we’re keeping with the 3.5 D&D metaphor,) and with enough practice—lots and lots of patience, and plenty of forgiveness allotted to errors—and a little creativity, of course, to get around my neurological roadblocks, and instead lean into my sensory sensitivity…

I’ve become decent at watching movements, motions, and eyes. 😵

Facial expressions are still a whirlwind. 😫

But my ability to read people nonverbally is fantastic for writing fiction characters. And I’m still trying to refine and tune my knowledge.

These days, cats are how I practice my nonverbal prowess.

😳 Cats Don’t Mind if You Stare

You can tell a cat, “Hey dude, I’m going to spend the next twenty minutes figuring out what your body’s saying,” and they will not think twice. The right cat will even enjoy all the attention:

You can also watch the movement of other animals, and even plants, to practice reading the body languages of the world:

You’d be surprised how many nonverbal behaviors we share with our animal and plant friends. Our nonverbal behavior betrays our DNA. Tension, for example, is a universal sign of stress; and my cats tense in their leg muscles when something spooks them. Their backs twitch when something irks them.

I like to read about nonverbal behavior in humans and animals as well, and try to piece together the similarities between different texts…

Cats are especially interesting because they’re independent. While they like to please their human companions, it’s not the first bullet point on today’s agenda. So they’re honest with you, expecting you to cohabitate with them… expecting you to read their nonverbal cues.

They’re also sensitive to sound. Aural over-stimulation is the quickest way to send me into overload (followed by visual over-stimulation); it took a long, long time for me to feel comfortable with students talking all at once in groups. Even today, during group work, I will sometimes need to close my eyes to block out visual stimulation, because I’m trying to take so much aural stimulation in.

Cats react differently to the pressure you apply when petting them. Some cats like firm pressure more than others; but interestingly enough, all cats like different pressures for different situations…

Even DeeJAY prefers soft pets on his wolf pelt when he’s nervous, or when he’s kneading; but he wants you to nearly pet-shove him into the bed, couch, or bean bag when he’s feisty (yes, he wants you to pet him and play with him simultaneously; and people think I’m the weirdo).

So what do you think? What do your pet’s body language tell you?—and how’s it the same as human nonverbal behavior?


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Author:

Kourtnie McKenzie holds an MFA (Fiction) from Fresno State and a BA in English (Literature Studies) from Cal State Fullerton. When she isn't writing novellas, she's moonlighting as a professor at Fresno City College and College of the Sequoias. To read more of her writing, visit Kourtnie.net.

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