Word Maven Patricia T. O'Conner on Nonverbal Communication

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner talks about non-verbal language—from the nod to the shrug to ruder gestures. She’ll also tackle listener questions about the English language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is now out in paperback, along with Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [39]

shashi from NYC

Jeff, I too marvel at Ms. O'Connor's pedestrian abilities. She relies often on rephrasing questions to sound like answers or supplying obvious information or simply laughing. I suspect Pat's books rely on solid research abilities. But a language expert? Uh, no. Which is a shame because there are mavens with bone fides who could enliven this monthly segment.

Apr. 18 2012 09:08 PM
Priya Sarkar from Noida, India

About the "uh-huh" & "huh-uh"... this is highly prevalent here, in India.

Out here, if you say "uh-huh" it is interpreted that you want me to repeat what I said because you probably didn't quite get it. To add on, the expression "huh-uh" means "no" here as well. However, if you've got to say yes, you might just have to say exactly that... "yes".

Nov. 22 2011 09:13 AM

@Robert Carling from Yonkers - I think you're missing the humor in this discussion.

Many seem to be enjoying Patricia and Andy immensely.

Sep. 21 2011 05:25 PM
Robert Carling from Yonkers

I listened to the discussion on non-verbal language with rising irritation. For Patricia T. O'Connor, discussing that subject is the equivalent of holding forth on brain surgery. It is clear that she has never read any of the seminal works in the field, such as Edward T. Hall's "The Silent Language," which offers us basic information on the complexity of cross-cultural communication as well as a healthy dose of humility. As for the Indian head nod, three points: (1) It is absurd to suggest that Indians should have adopted the negative head-nod of British colonials, since it is safe to say that over the centuries of colonial rule most Indians never saw a British person; (2) the Indian affirmative nod is not the movement of the face from side to side, as we do to say no, but the movement of the top of the head from side to side, a kind of "bobble" that alert visitors soon learn to read accurately, especially if they know that (3) it is generally impolite in India to say no, so a nod either means yes or offers a polite and ambiguous way of "not saying no." Ms. O'Connor, please stay safely within your small area of linguistic knowledge and don't guess about those you know nothing about.

Sep. 21 2011 02:43 PM
Ro from Manhattan

Regarding Dr. O'Connor's query about colonial India & the Brits' inability to indicate or instruct Indians' on the head gestures of nodding up & down for 'Yes' and shaking side to side for 'No': my very British upbringing at the very edge of Indian Independence instructed me that 'one' speaks with words - not with hands or gestures. (My 'Mama' had such denigrating things to say about cultures that gesticulated while speaking! She called it 'common'. Dame Maggie could play her to a T!) So when one spoke to anyone - no matter their relationship to you - perfect communication & control are instilled & transferred in perfect speech. That was over 50 years ago. The Brits now gesticulate & indicate freely to express feelings - but hopefully thoughts are still too complex to bend to fingers, nods, shrugs, nudging, winking. They seem to me to be the 'body adjectives' of language & thought. Clearly the colonial servants of the British Crown like my parents considered it ill-mannered & uneducated to use body language as a communication tool so never passed it on. They built the railway system though! ;-)

Sep. 21 2011 02:42 PM
Maria from Bklyn

For the East Village guy who asked the French question... A French person could explain this better, but I have also noticed with French people the neutral-sounding grunt (kind of sounds like "mmmh")... I think it means to show that they are listening, but not necessarily that they agree. This sound used to make me feel insecure because I am used to our more obviously positive-inflected "uh-huUH." So I think the French sound comes across to us as negative or judgmental, but I don't think that is how the French see it. The non-verbal examples I can think of for obvious disagreement sound pretty dramatic, like a big sigh or flapping of the lips, but there is probably something more subtle that I'm not thinking of. Sacre bleu! :)

Sep. 21 2011 02:09 PM
Steve from Dobbs Ferry

From extensive reading of Dick Francis mysteries, I think "On the Nod" means a horse coming across the finish line with its head down and neck stretched out. That gets a couple of inches extra distance.

Sep. 21 2011 01:58 PM
betsy from manhattan

The Patricia T. O'Connor segment is the funniest best I've heard. I am dizzy trying out the head-shakes. Thanks a million Andy and Patricia. (pardon my grammar).

Sep. 21 2011 01:57 PM
Mike from Scotch Plains, NJ

Have you noticed that certain PBS anchors - among them Brian Williams, Kate Snow and Judy Woodruff - say "Tsk" (snapping their tongues from the roof of their mouths) after a particulary sad news segment. As if to shake their heads back-and-forth in expressing, "How sad ...."

Sep. 21 2011 01:56 PM
Lauren from brooklyn

I always assumed the phrase "tapping someone" for a job or position was more along the lines of "tapping a keg", because you are using their skill set as a resource...

Sep. 21 2011 01:56 PM
William from Manhattan

BTW - Patricia and Andy are great together!

Sep. 21 2011 01:55 PM
Lina Alexov from NYC

If you ask any Bulgarian about "yes" and "no"
You will hear the answer - It started as protest against Turkish acupation back in their history to say "yes' and "no" the apposite way. That's what I was told when I asked people when I visited Bulgaria.

Lina Alexov.

Sep. 21 2011 01:54 PM
Trey from Manhattan

I write prose fiction and screenplays. One can write the former without paying much attention to non-verbal communication, but writing for the visual medium of film requires screenwriters to include plenty of non-verbal bits.

To see some great examples of writing for non-verbal communication read the screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success, which is chock full of references to facial expressions and body language.

Sep. 21 2011 01:54 PM

It is disappointing to me that Ms. O'Conner, whom I have always found to be knowledgeable and wordly, described the hand chopping into the crook of the elbow gesture as some kind of unusual and exotic European gesture. Come on! I knew that gesture as a little middle class born-and-bred 10 year old Queens girl. And the bewilderment about why the middle finger is the one to express profane anger-- isn't it obvious what part of the male anatomy the rest of the hand looks like in the middle finger raised position?

Sep. 21 2011 01:54 PM
Liam from west of Manhattan

In the Irish language, they use the exclamation:

A dhiabhal (oh devil)
pronounced "uh yow-el"

this could be the origin of "yow!" which is in the dictionary as "origin unknown"

Sep. 21 2011 01:54 PM
William from Manhattan

In Turkey, I believe a nod means no and a shake means yes. And "yum yum" is a slang word for "cannibal". Led to a hilarious series of misunderstandings at a dinner party.

Sep. 21 2011 01:53 PM
Steve Brennan from Do

I think (from extensive Dick Francis horse mystery reading) that "on the nod" means that in a tight finish, the horses neck and head extends foreward on the nod. Thus a few inches toward the finish.

Sep. 21 2011 01:53 PM

I've been listening to the show for years. Is it me, or Patricia T. O'Connor seem to know just BARELY more about language than the average person. She never seems to know the answer to any question, and just spitballs. In what way is she a maven?

Sep. 21 2011 01:52 PM
Tom Reingold from Maplewood, NJ

The middle finger resembles the erect penis and the scrotum. I thought everyone knew this. Perhaps only a few of us have noticed this.

I've met many people from India who have a gesture with their head where they make a figure 8. It's a friendly greeting. I don't know anything about this.

Sep. 21 2011 01:52 PM
Kat S from Newton

Hello! I'm a writing instructor and can't explain to students why we should write "different from" as opposed to "different than". Do you have any advice for me other than for me to tell them "that's the right way?"

Sep. 21 2011 01:49 PM
Orla from Manhattan

There's a big link between India and Bulgaria that might explain common gestures: the gypsies originated in India and migrated to the Balkans.

Sep. 21 2011 01:48 PM
Anne Mendelson from North Bergen, NJ

I fondly remember a long-ago New Yorker cartoon with two scientists portentously describing a research breakthrough to a reporter. Caption: something like "The crucial point is not simply that Daisy has learned to master simple concepts but that she's able to shape them into coherent communication." Most prominent part of image: chimpanzee with abanana in one hand, using the other to thumb her nose at the researchers.

Sep. 21 2011 01:48 PM
Dan K from WNYC

The middle finger did not originate at Agincourt. According to what I've read, while the gesture might have been used there, it did not start there. The gesture goes back at least to Roman times.

Sep. 21 2011 01:47 PM
Smokey from LES

Why is "W" pronounced "double U?" It looks like it should be "double V."

Imagine, "This is double V NYC, FM and AM."

Sep. 21 2011 01:47 PM
Blanche DuBois from Northern NJ

I recently returned from an extended stay in Italy visiting family. I noticed that the hand gesture that would indicate "come here" or "come with me" which in the USA is typically a wave of the hand vertically with the palm facing up, was reversed there--hand waving up and down, but with the palm facing down (in the manner that we might tell someone to stop or slow down here).
When I would see this--frequently, as we were dealing with a spoken language barrier--it would result in another non-verbal signal I call "deer in the headlights", on my own part, as the hand gestures didn't match the other body language that the Italians were displaying (walking away, looking over their shoulder to see if I'm following). Sadly, I picked up on this difference in hand gestures and was only able to incorporate it just before I got on my plane home.

As an aside, the Neapolitans are just as famous for their non-verbal as their verbal language. A friend their said that if you hold his hands still, he can't speak.

Sep. 21 2011 01:46 PM
Dan K from WNYC

The middle finger did not originate at Agincourt. According to what I've read, while the gesture might have been used there, it did not start there. The gesture goes back at least to Roman times.

Sep. 21 2011 01:46 PM
Garry from Manhattan

On the middle finger gesture, (how to put this in a way that will pass the censors?) I always thought it was used because, when raised, the middle finger and the surrounding fingers are curled up into, er... "rounded shapes" the hand resembles a certain part of the male anatomy (in a particularly excited state).

Sep. 21 2011 01:46 PM
Dan K from WNYC

The middle finger did not originate at Agincourt. According to what I've read, while the gesture might have been used there, it did not start there. The gesture goes back at least to Roman times.

Sep. 21 2011 01:45 PM
Mike from Inwood

The first linguist who studied non-verbal communication was the late Ray Birdwhistle who taught was a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication (East) at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation in the early 50's was an analysis of gestures based on the then dominant American school Structural Linguistic methods. His great antagonist was the psychologist, Paul Ekman who's perspective seems to have prevailed.

Sep. 21 2011 01:45 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

It's two fingers in England and I read that was because the French king had vowed to cut of the fingers of the longbowmen (the English were known for this) and the sign came about because it was a defiant gesture to show that they still had their fingers least that is what I read

Sep. 21 2011 01:44 PM
Simon from NJ

Alex's comment on the finger-sign is true for the famous English 2-finger gesture.

Sep. 21 2011 01:43 PM
Nora from Brooklyn

In Sri Lanka, people do this bobble-headed thing. Not yes, not no... Mild displeasure, perhaps? It's hard for an adult American to do, and also to understand when it's appropriate... I'd live to know more about it and what to call it!

Sep. 21 2011 01:42 PM
Phoebe from Bushwick

It isn't quite a shake of the head that means "yes" in Bulgaria. Its actually more of a rocking from side to side. It is very confusing, but not exactly the same as a shake.

Sep. 21 2011 01:42 PM
cynthia from office

As a gesture that has different meaning in a different culture - In America showing the number 5 with the palm means just that "5", however in Greece that same gesture is "go to hell" found that out the hard way when I inadvertently insulted my poor aunt at age 11 when all I meant was to show her "5"

We chuckled about it later

Sep. 21 2011 01:41 PM
Kate from Queens

One example of a cultural difference in non-verbal communication: My husband's family is from India, and in that country, people shake their head in a way that looks as if they're saying "no." However, it's an affirmative shake that indicates the person is acknowledging what you're saying. It took me a long to figure this out. At first I thought my mother-in-law was disagreeing with everything I said!

Sep. 21 2011 01:39 PM
Sarah from Bklyn

In Greece, they lift their chins in a semi-nod to say "NO." They shake their head once to say "YES." Very confusing to a visitor!

Sep. 21 2011 01:38 PM
melanie from Branford, CT

In England, and South Africa where I grew up, we still NOD our heads in agreement. Shaking is limited to a negative response.

Sep. 21 2011 01:37 PM
Michael Kaplan from South Orange, NJ


I saw a headline on page one of USA Today (9-12-2011) stating "1 in 7 drivers are not insured." I would use the singular because to me the verb should agree with 1. The first sentence of the story changes the verb to singular; it states "Despite laws in nearly every state requiring auto insurance, one in seven drivers in the USA goes uncovered."

Someone at USA Today should be more careful.

Michael Kaplan

Sep. 21 2011 12:58 PM
Joan from Rye

"I forgot my umbrella at the restaurant" should be "I forgot my umbrella; I left it at the restaurant." Correct? These days I notice people using "forgot" as an active verb. It sounds wrong.

Sep. 21 2011 12:49 PM

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