I work for a publishing company which deals largely in ELT courses and resources. As such, I find myself nigh constantly submerged in discussions about words, language and nuances of meaning. Once the structure of the language is understood, breadth of vocabulary is what enables a good English speaker to become fluent, and as the word count of any language is in a state of constant flux, keeping on top of this change is almost impossible. As the weekly submissions to the Open Dictionary attest.
But we’re all well aware that language is about so much more than “words”. In some languages, it is not necessarily the sound that gives a word it’s meaning, but the pitch in which it is spoken. In others it is all down to where you place the accent on the word or sentence. Beyond this are gestures and signals, deliberate or accidental, that give away more about us that we’d sometimes like, or even realise. Body language is increasingly used in business situations, particularly in retail, where empathy with customers is seen as key in recognising a customer’s needs.
Going one step further, we all have our own personal ways of expressing ourselves in which we indulge every day. Facial expressions we cultivate to warn people off or invite them into our confidence, defensive stances we take when feeling insecure in our surroundings (at the pub recently there was a conversation about the application of “Coventry face” (also known in my previous existence as “Byker face”), a defensive sneer worn when walking through some of the scarier suburbs or past some of the scarier accumulated teenagers of our fair cities), little flutters and flickers and touches we apply to show someone we like them. These are pretty universally understood signals, even if some people will remain blissfully ignorant of the message you’re trying to convey!
And then there are your own personal little signals which show the observant amongst your acquaintance exactly how you’re feeling. These are the subtle changes in your facial expression, in the tone of your voice, in the way you’re standing, in the manner of your dress, that mean nothing to the outside world but scream deafeningly at those in your inner circle. I’m not talking about pre-arranged signals, “I have to feed my cat” or “Something bad happened?!” but about the tiniest flicker in one eyelid that tells you someone is actually really tired, the fleeting glances around the room for an escape route that show apparent discomfort, or the slightest alteration in pitch that signals someone has had one glass of wine too many. Little quirks and mannerisms that we may not even recognise in ourselves yet tell those who care that we’re ill or struggling, that we’re feeling lazy or beligerant. In my case, my outward appearance is a great signifier of my state of mind.
On a daily basis my outfit won’t tell you much about how I feel. Getting dressed in the morning is not an obstacle to my day: no matter how appalling I feel or tired I am, I have plenty of tried and tested outfits that I can pull from the wardrobe and throw on in 3 minutes flat. The only time I will change the way I am actually dressing is if I feel I need comfort over style. If I turn up anywhere in public aside from out dog-walking/exercising in jeans or joggers and a hoody, for example, you can assume I am in a pretty bad way.
But the most obvious way in which I signify my wellbeing is through my hair. Because I am proud of my hair. It is my favourite part of me. I take great pleasure in washing and drying it, in plaiting it to create waves or rag-tying it to create curls, and in brushing it throughout the day. I wash my hair every other day, unless I’m in too bad a way to face it, or I want to wash it for an occasion or event. In this case it might go a third day without being washed, and will end up being worn in a neat bun or pull-through-pony like today. Or possibly in an Alice band, if the ends are behaving but the roots are showing signs of grease.
For the last four weeks I wore my hair consistently loose, no matter its state or greasiness. I left it three or four days running without washing, being unable to face getting up those 15 minutes earlier or the feeling of its weight pulling against my scalp. I brushed it… maybe before I left for work. Maybe not. My hair doesn’t really do “birds nest” but if it did it would have been!
Most people are oblivious to those around them. Most people won’t notice the difference in my grooming habits – except perhaps to comment when my hair is looking particularly neat and tidy. But those who speak my language always notice the difference. There are so few of you, it really does make you quite elite!