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    Do you read me?

    When it comes to nonverbal communication, I could use some subtitles.

    Illustration by Kim Rosen

    Most people are aware that good communication is the key to a healthy relationship. However, communication does not have to be verbal. In fact, I believe that in most relationships, a nonverbal language, known only to the partners, develops over time. Sometimes this silent language is discussed and devised in private, where both participants agree. But sometimes nonverbal cues are sent without the benefit of pre-agreed-upon meanings. And then it is up to the recipient of this “language” to discern a partner’s unspoken message.

    Allow me to elaborate. Early in our marriage, my wife and I were attending a dinner party. After a few hours of less-than-stimulating conversation among the guests, I felt my wife gently squeeze my knee under the table. She must have assumed her meaning would be clear to me because she had great confidence in my uncanny intuitive sense. I read the squeeze as my wife’s way of letting me know she was looking forward to some intimate time alone with me. As my testosterone level rose, I gently squeezed her knee in response. She looked at me quizzically, as if to say, “What the heck are you doing?”

    This latter nonverbal communication was clear. It meant I had misinterpreted her cue. After the party, she explained the squeeze meant she wanted to escape the boring dinner. (How are a guy and his testosterone to know?)


    To confuse things even further, over the years my wife has used this same under-the-table knee squeeze to transmit other messages. To her, each squeeze has its own meaning, based upon the amount of pressure she applies. She might be conveying that I’ve been talking too loudly, or too fast, or saying something she deems inappropriate (such as telling the host that the crust on her homemade pizza would function well as roofing shingles). But since I have no means of calibrating the different squeezes, I’ve simply learned it’s best just to stop talking.

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    Nonverbal language most often comes into play when we’re dining in the company of others. While at a restaurant with friends, my wife once turned to me and gave me a big, exaggerated smile. I was flattered by what I could only read as a flirtatious look. Once again, my testosterone level and I were sure we were being called upon to bring joy and happiness into my wife’s life. I later learned it was her way of asking me if she had any lettuce stuck in her teeth.

    Even when we are alone, my wife will sometimes send me a nonverbal signal. The setting is early Saturday morning. We’re in bed and my wife leans over and gives me a warm, passionate, slow kiss on the cheek. But by this time, I have learned. I can almost hear my testosterone saying, “Don’t bother waking me.” The kiss is my wife’s way of telling me, “I’m getting up now because I want to get to the yard sales early.”

    Over the years, I’ve come to understand that nonverbal cues are dynamic and not static. New cues can be invented or old ones revamped, subject to my wife’s whim. I know that at any time, my wife might send me a nonverbal cue. It’s my responsibility to observe, interpret, and respond.

    Recently, while we were out with friends, she made eye contact with me and scratched her nose. Here was a signal I didn’t understand. What to do? Tell our friends we have to leave? Stop talking? Check my zipper? I was at a loss. I responded by raising my shoulders slightly while extending my palms upward. Couples everywhere recognize that gesture as the universal sign for “I don’t understand what you want.” She mimicked my signal, which means, I don’t know what you are “talking’’ about.


    Later on, when we were alone, I asked what the nose scratching meant. She looked at me, puzzled, and said it meant her nose was itchy.

    I guess I don’t have this nonverbal communication down to a finely tuned science, but I’m trying. As the adage goes, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” and there are lots of ways of saying the same thing. I just have to train my body to be a better listener.

    Gary A. Kaplan is a retired social worker who lives in Peabody. Send comments to IDEAS Send yours to Please note: We do not respond to ideas we will not pursue.