Friday, 25 April 2008

'Leaving' ensures that we are forever in the company of strangers ...

The Mythology of Leaving

I am currently examining the makeup and characteristics of departure or leaving a conversation or meeting in the street. So far in this project I have begun to explore philosophical (some may say ‘real’) theories dealing with notions of ‘becoming’ and change (H. Bergson, B. Massumi and L. Lye) and latterly, ways in which our meetings with people may be governed by the inexorability of departures underpinning our lives. Perhaps I am promulgating a myth here. The mythology of ‘Leaving’ as an event in itself, which continually draws us away through a changing field from one apparently settled point of fixture to the next. Meetings with others, I see as points of purchase in the torrent of change in which we are immersed.

To develop a clearer understanding of the phase of ‘leaving’ it seems to me important to investigate what makes up the other phases of the process of connecting with someone: Arrival and maintenance of the meeting. To do this we can consider the modes of speech employed in the meeting, with content covered in books like the one mentioned in my last post, The ART OF SPEAKING Made Simple, Gondin, R. Ph D and Mammen, W. Ph D. W.H. Allen London 1967 or more contemporary publications on how to converse and ‘hold a conversation. However there are more subtle forces at work here than cultural codes of politeness, good manners, when and how to use inflection and appropriate, clear, well enunciated speech in public places.


‘Rudimentary engagements, communication at its most basic, the prototype of all human interaction …’ such are the descriptors for the term, ‘Protoconversation’ in Daniel Goleman`s, Social Intelligence, The New Science of Human Relationships, Bantam Books 2007 (p.36).

The term relates to the early neural signals which expand into methods for establishing a rapport that we experienced as babies, making our first communicative forays into the outside world through the medium of our mothers. In fact, the term goes further back than this, describing those aspects of the mother and foetus relationship which concern their shared, internal conversations – micro dialogues managed osmotically in response to everything from the mother rolling over at night (who disturbed whom?) to the growing baby`s response to external sounds like human voices or laughter.

These intimate interactions between mother and child, whether pre or post birth are largely non-verbal, usually resorting to words for their sound values, rather than literal meanings. The greater part of the communication is carried out through touch, gaze and tone of voice. According to Goleman, the sounds emitted by the mother (usually quite high in pitch, technically, around 300hertz) deploy prosody, melodic overtones of speech that transcend culture, making it irrelevant whether the sounds are made from a Spanish or Mandarin, English or Urdu basis.

Often a synchrony of rhythmic motion, touch, gaze, sound and breath, a coordination of hand movements and facial expressions will establish a mutual rapport between mother and child. Such conversations are more often than not very short in duration – even only seconds in length and they end when both parties arrive at matched states, typically, affectionate ones. So we have a synchronized duet culminating in a mutually-agreed place of temporary departure. Goleman cites the developmental psychologist and the world`s leading specialist in protoconversation at the University of Edinburgh, Colwyn Trevarthen. Trevarthen describes the findings from his scientific studies (made painstakingly through the analysis of many hours of videotaped footage) as duets where both performers, “seek harmony and counterpoint on one beat to create a melody”.

Protoconversations have a certain elasticity in meaning and application. Not only does it refer to the very earliest development of our powers of communication (mostly non-verbal), where it could be said that the baby is undergoing a kind of tutorial in successful interaction, but we can also extend this to a more mature development occuring in the daily interactions we experience as adults (the tutorial goes on).

In adulthood, protoconversations remain as our most fundamental template for mapping, matching or missing in meetings with others. The template is tacit, a subtle awareness through feeling and the senses which allows us when we meet to quietly proceed, in step, with a stranger or acquaintance, friend or family member. Protoconversation is a silent dialogue – Goleman uses the term, ‘substrate’ (p.37) upon which all encounters or engagements are built. Goleman assures us that it is, ‘… the hidden agenda in every interaction’. (p.37). I would tend to say rather than ‘agenda’, that protoconversations are the underlying adhesive which allows us to empathize or literally in the case of CI dance, to come together in ways which are meaningful – without a word being said.

So protoconversation is for all of us, a support system. A silent go-between if you will, which underpins and as a mode of communicating, often outlasts (those comfortable – or uncomfortable silences) the manifestation of speech.

Clearly, for those of us who are Contact Improvisation (CI) dancers, there are some alignments to be pursued here. Without being glib, one could say that the earliest engagements through protoconversations are examples of contact improvisation. In CI dance, speech is seldom used (but can be), music is not employed as a score to be followed or ‘danced to’ although sound is used as a collaborative medium, group ‘discussions’ are frequently explored in CI dance but more often than not as a kinesthetically based dialogue, the CI dance is realised as a duet between two people. One could extend this to say that the duet is a neurokinetic conversation supported by mutual empathy - and curiosity about the path ahead. Attention, albeit one that fluctuates, is paid to the task of listening to one`s partner, in the moment, using protoconversation tools: When ‘conversing’ in the duet, listening - paying attention through touch to the tone or tenor of the connection with the other person, the unspoken, fleetingly glimpsed under-dialogue of the-moment-in-change is not only paramount if the duet is to last, but it also allows us to gather information about what is occuring in front of us on Goleman`s ‘substrate’ level.

So what occurs when the duet finishes? Why do people walk away? What cues are there to warn of impending closure? In CI, as in a spoken conversation between two people, sometimes one person leaves; sometimes there is a tacit, unspoken moment when both parties recogize that a point of stasis has been reached and closure is imminent. This may be the result of a mismatch in listening, a change in mood, a point when there is a mutual recognition that both bodies have ‘had enough’. Sometimes the narrative which has been self-sustaining, evolving, fluctuating through pauses (which are not in themselves necessariliy inert) and bursts of intense movement, simply runs out of momentum and finds its own place to rest. The dancers are not only instigators of this but simultaneously, witnesses to it.

However the pathway unfolds, dancers tend to adopt a philosophical attitude toward the process of leaving the duet. For myself, there is rarely a sense of failure or of having done something ‘wrong’ when I close with a partner. The experience tends to be governed by the moments shared. The leaving is as much a part of the dance as the arrival and the ‘body’ of the dance itself.

In the wider context of the street, leaving frees us up for the next event in our lives. In a circle or ‘round robin’ (where everyone is free at any time, to select a partner of their choice from the circle) of CI dancers, after several dances you become adept at leaving, as you do at arriving in the next duet. For me, the first minutes of a duet are always redolent with that feeling of encountering something new – mapping hitherto uncharted territory. An open stance in body and mind is helpful, as is this stance when leaving which enables one to move away unscathed from past moments.

Is it possible that protoconversation tools and processes equip us also to leave a given connection they have so assiduously wrought? Or do we simply assume the mantle of autonomy without company? That there are other skillsets and strategies for this is beyond the scope of this project. Suffice it to say, I believe that ‘Leaving’ requires practice. My over-riding feeling is that we are swept on regardless, in a stream of change that we cannot prevent and only rarely, delay.

‘Leaving’ is a descriptor of this state which accompanies us so that departure itself becomes our companion. ‘Leaving’ ensures that we are forever in the company of strangers.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008


Indeterminacy and the roaming body; Leaving – ‘a non-present potential to vary’ - moving away from points of purchase.

‘The best of conversations must end. Start to go before the other fellow takes out his watch, don`t dawdle over the coats and avoid starting conversations at the door. Pay your respects briefly and go. Ending a conversation is also a way of keeping one going … ' The ART OF SPEAKING Made Simple, William R. Gondin, Ph.D and Edward W. Mammen, Ph.D. Made Simple Books, W.H. Allen London, 1967

The above extract hails from a text introducing the art of making conversation in the 1960s. Has the art changed? The notion of ‘leaving’ I believe, is timeless.

The forward by James Dodding for this book informs us that, ‘Speech is the most important means of communication people have with one another and it is essential to be able to use it fluently, effectively and with confidence. It is equally essential, both professionally and socially, to know what is appropriate to the occasion – what to say, when to say it and how to say it.’

Undeniably, speech is central to the fluidity of our existence in the human world in everyday life. Not only does speech aid our functioning effectively in social situations and locates us in time and given space, but more candidly, the ability to converse and to be heard affirms, empowers and expands the map of the human heart. Speech comprises much of the articulation of this and that of our wider socio-contextual map - much, but not all. The unwritten text in the above quotation; the hidden message which is about when and how to leave an engagement is articulated through speech-prompts but also through body language, fluctuating heart rate and eye blinking - an underlying empathetic cue to move on with this decision coming from a somatic place ‘of ‘ and in the body – a place contextualized by a proxemic* imperative and a place from which, in a manner of speaking (no pun intended) we have already departed.

In Tricks of the Mind, Channel 4 Books 2007, by Derren Brown, under the section on ‘Targeted Rapport’ p.186 Brown writes, ‘ Most people when they are getting on well, will be in a state of unconscious ‘rapport’. They will tend to mirror each other`s body language and so on without realizing it …’ At the same time, ‘… there is the odd sensation we have all experienced (though we never think to mention it) of knowing when the other person is about to get up and leave. Suddenly there is something in the air, a moment or a shift and then you know the other person is about to say they should ‘make a move’. And if they don`t you have that feeling that they are outstaying their welcome’. The level of unconscious rapport experienced up to that moment, particularly if the conversation has lasted for some time, is responsible for the sharing of mutual thought and body patterns so that together you can sense when the time to leave has arrived.

Brown maintains that studies carried out on rapport have shown an array of mirrored behaviours that are not merely body positioning but something far more subtle.

It has been established that people in rapport with one another tend to breathe at the same rate, adopt similar facial expressions, blink at the same rate and use one another`s language. I would tend to describe these responses as somatically based. In other words they are products of a non-spoken, internal discourse that the body carries out continually (using one another`s language is still instigated by a bodily response to a stimulus). A hidden dialogue with the externally projected speech and vision through which we are more overtly governed.

In Social Intelligence, Bantam Dell 2007 under a Recipe for Rapport p.30, Daniel Goleman insists that we coordinate with one another most strongly through subtle, non-verbal channels like the ‘pace’ and ‘timing’ of a conversation and through the use of our body movements. People in rapport Goleman tells us, are animated, freely expressing their emotions, ‘… their spontaneous, immediate responsiveness has the look of a closely choreographed dance, as though the call-and-response of the interaction has been purposefully planned. Their eyes meet and their bodies get close … they are comfortable with silences.’ Equally, Goleman points out that, ‘Lacking coordination, a conversation will feel uncomfortable, with mistimed responses or awkward pauses. People fidget or freeze. Such mismatches torpedo rapport.’

Goleman asserts that social psychologists have found repeatedly that the more two people make ‘coupled moves’ that is, unorchestrated, simultaneous movements through empathy governed by natural tempo, the more positive their experience of the meeting will be: ‘If you watch two friends talking from a distance where you can`t hear what they`re saying, you can better observe this non-verbal flow: an elegant orchestration of their movements, smooth turn-taking, even coordination of gazes …’ A silent dance.

Below, in the short video clip, ‘Leaving – ‘a non-present potential to vary’ 3, (Sunday, April 20, 08) the couple under the spotlight conduct an animated and pleasant conversation in the street. Without being privy to their dialogue, we have no way of knowing what it is they are talking about. We could speculate, but this holds no interest for me. I am interested in their body language, their proximity to one another, the signals they unconsciously transmit about the way they are feeling with regard to their engagement with one another and how this evolves through the duration of the meeting. We cannot measure as their conversation unfolds, matures and gradually ends, either their heart rates, their blink reflexes or their breathing to identify changes in the body. These as we know, are responses to changes in the tenor of their connection, prompting in this case an impending movement away from one another, but perhaps while we can understand the theory of what may create this dynamic, without knowing the details we can witness the small drama from afar.

Without being at all judgemental of the behaviour of these two people (coincidentally I have met one of them) if I apply an objective appraisal (arrived at very subjectively) to their situation, it seems to me that if I look carefully at the last minute prior to their separating, although the woman eventually says goodbye, physically walks away and leaves the engagement, the man appears to have already departed from the conversation. He shuffles, he checks his cell phone, he hides behind his hands, he waves his arms uncertainly and looks around. He checks his watch. Eye contact decreases. No longer is he fully present. When she does finally leave, his reaction is one of marginal interest – because he is already no longer fully engaged. His ‘Leaving’ has crept into and hijacked the meeting while they were still talking.

Now, there is nothing unusual in this meeting. It is friendly, a range of communication (both verbal and physical) has occurred and it seems that a mutually agreeable outcome has resulted. The tenor of the conversation as a whole I would describe as quite neutral. Neither party invested too much emotion in the exchange, (this is a guess because I could not hear their conversation – sometimes physical actions can be kept in check in public places therefore belieing the true nature or substance of a meeting) neither was the exchange what I would call intimate; a scenario simply involving two people chatting on the pavement in their lunch-break. So one could also say that, without knowing what was said, there appears to be an absence of poignancy or pathos in the engagement. There is no consuming sense of sadness evident in their parting. It is quite business-like, although I am left with a sense that the woman was more engaged than the man.

Nevertheless, I am interested in what I see as the drama inherent within the meeting. The initial mutual focus on one another which existed, which then developed and altered as time passed. (I filmed this meeting for 15 minutes). I am interested in the quiet drama in the dynamic of leaving which took place, in two different forms. Both people left - movement away occurred in different ways, even though one of them stayed behind.

Indeterminacy and the roaming body – we have no way of knowing how things will go when we meet someone in the street. Somehow though, without always acknowledging it, in some form or another we are always leaving. The only non-variable is our non-present potential to vary – always moving away from meetings which themselves constitute places of temporary purchase within change.

To remind myself I quote Henri Bergson again: ‘… rather than there being things which change’ more accurately speaking, there is, ‘… change provisionally grasped as a thing’. Bergson, H. Visualizing Experience, Henri Bergson on memory in Middleton, D and Brown, S. D. 2005 p.62

*Proxemics: def - Anthropologist Edward T Hall 1959. See Wikipedia and other refs.