A vocabulary of smiles

26 07 2020

Like many people this week, I have struggled to get my head around wearing a mask when I go out shopping. For a start, there are so many small considerations, such as when to actually pull the mask up to the mouth and when to lower it. A whole new social etiquette is emerging which I’m finding in some ways amusing and in other ways confusing.

Yesterday, an encounter in a coffee shop amused when the manager offered a plastic visor to an elderly couple, who had forgotten their masks, to try on for size. Even though I was masked, I was also offered a turn so that I could agree that the plastic shield bearing the breath droplets of strangers was far superior to my own cloth model.

The confusing part involves how to speak to people when they can’t see your mouth. Rather than offer a muffled ‘morning’ which seems superfluous now that my accompanying smile cannot be read is it perhaps better to offer a nod instead?

In Born to be Good, a fascinating study on human behaviour, social psychologist Dacher Keltner, devotes an entire chapter to the significance of the smile His research dissects the different types of smile human animals offer to each other. One classic example is the ‘service industry smile’ ‘the one that signals the customer is always right’ and masks the frustration of workers who must never show their feelings no matter how unreasonable the demands made by the one being served. This smile creates such strain Keltner observes as to ‘produce a form of schizophrenia.’

“We may experience feelings of emptiness and quiet frustration, or a deep ennui, but we display to the world the smile of satisfaction.”

Dacher Keltner Born to be Good (2009)

 

There are many different occasions when people smile and Keltner’s research has shown that people smile while exposed to the most unlikely situations, for example, after losing and when watching a film of an amputation. But the emotion behind the smile differs according to which muscles are activated. Smiles which activate the delightfully named ‘happiness muscle’ or the orbicularis oculi tend to last longer and communicate genuinely positive states. These smiles have been named Duchenne or D smiles after the French neuroanatomist Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne (1806-1875). If the happiness muscle does not fire, smiling still happens, but does not last as long and often masks a negative state. These non-Duchenne or non-D smiles might be anxious or nervous smiles or smiles to cover up the true emotion.

This research shows that it really is true that we smile most fully with our eyes, which is good news for those who feel that the full range of emotions has been muted by the necessity of wearing a mask. Interestingly, because only the eyes can be seen it might make it easier to read the genuineness of a smile.

Here’s Keltner on how you tell if it’s D or non-D: when contracted, the muscle around the eyes, raises the cheek, pouches the lower eyelid and wrinkles the skin into crow’s feet – the most visible sign of happiness. ‘People may think they look prettier following Botox injections, but their partners will receive fewer clues to their joy, love and devotion.’

So, the next time I’m shopping along with my fellow mask wearers and we’re all eyeing each other as we try to navigate this strange new social landscape, I must remember to look for the crow’s feet.

In the example above, taken from Born to be Good, which is probably one of the funniest works of psychology I’ve ever read, the D smile for the first gentleman, is on the right; for the second, it is on the left. Of course, you all got that, didn’t you?

 





Losing Control

19 07 2020

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One of the things I love about the woodland where I walk most weekends, is the lack of management. When trees fall, they are allowed to regenerate and sprout new saplings as they wish. No foresters come in with trucks and ropes or chainsaws to tidy things up. There is a large tree lying across the main track, with just enough space to allow people to pass thoughtfully on their way. I’m sure it annoys many people that the track is no longer completely clear, but this compromise pleases me deeply. So much of modern life is controlled, micro-managed and ordered to the point where the natural flow of life feels tightly squeezed.

Emerging from a pandemic, inevitably there are control issues everywhere. Questions of controlling the disease dominate our headlines still. We are no closer to controlling Corona Virus, and possibly we will have to learn to live with it and cope with local outbreaks as they emerge. Some of us will adapt, and take a different path, and some of us will find it hard to live with a virus that continues to control our daily lives. Many people have already had enough of its tight grip on our social lives. All over the country, illegal music raves are flaring up in defiance of lockdown, like wild fires out of control, and instead of ordering the noise to be cooled off, police are allowing the raves to burn on through the night. This is sensible – I mean, how do you get 3,000 people out of a muddy field in complete darkness – yet utterly annoying for the people of Bath, for example, who have had to endure thumping music for the past 24 hours.

As someone who is regularly woken by a noisy neighbour, the residents of Bath have my sympathy. Despite a letter signed by 13 residents, requesting that my neighbour respect the need for peace in our close community, he still ramps up the volume. We cannot control his need to play loud music at antisocial hours. We want to do something and we often joke about all the antisocial measures we would like to take against our asbo neighbour. Nevertheless, we don’t throw bricks though his window. When we remember, we write down the times our sleep is disturbed and then we get on with our days.

I’m able to be relaxed about the noise intrusion now. In the past it has made me very uptight indeed and I reached the point where I considered moving. Working from home means there are distractions enough to tempt me away from my laptop – I mean just how many times is it really necessary to go and stand in my kitchen and stare out of the window to see if the tide is coming in or going out? – dealing with loud music while trying to have a zoom meeting with messages announcing unstable internet connection, was almost guaranteed to send me to the kitchen for another long look out of the window.

This strange new life I have been living since March with all its uncontrollable unknowns has curiously helped me to become less uptight about stuff that used to really bug me. I think it was because I thought I could properly manage the various elements of my life. I could structure my days and prune out anything that felt like an obstruction. Six months ago, I was powering through a diary that had no space in it at all, and I must admit I enjoyed it, although not being able to sleep because my mind was still working on some of the problems I hadn’t managed to solve in the day was not conducive to working creatively.

Since the pandemic, I’m less interested in control and much more interested in elegant solutions. The saplings growing from the fallen tree are such a perfect example of nature’s way of sorting out a collapse. One thing falls and dies, another thing regenerates. Many of my ideas and plans have crash landed, fallen to the forest floor. After getting over my shock, I see that there is more air and space around those toppled ideas, and they have started to make their own way into the light, seeking space of their own. I’m less in control, now, and more open to watching the new growth take on a life of its own. Nature never makes a mistake. I’m grateful to be in a place to take notice.





Swipe, Harrow and Roll

5 07 2020

We choose not to use chemicals on our fields and manage the land as naturally as possible. Most of the time, it’s pretty low maintenance: we simply let the horses and ponies roam all over the five acres or so. We don’t section off areas with tape. We don’t have stables. We keep the hedges high on purpose. We want our small herd to have as much browsing and meandering space as possible.

Arabian horses and Dartmoor ponies are very compatible field companions. Both breeds evolved in harsh conditions; both travel long distances in search of food and water and both breeds have neat, tough feet that do well barefoot. As a herd, our group are, like their home, pretty low maintenance compared to many horses kept at traditional livery.

Dartmoor ponies are known as useful conservation grazers. They will eat bracken, gorse and scrubby dry grass. They will eat thistle heads, nettles and brambles. They will eat cars if you carelessly leave them in the field. The one thing – two things actually- our ponies will not eat are docks and burdock. The resident goats – who were taken in as live-in weeders – do not earn their keep. They do not want to eat docks or burdock; why should they when they have perfectly good goat muesli delivered to their bowls every morning.

So every year the docks and burdock have a wild coming out party in our fields and no one stops them. We watch them grow loud and unruly. Sometimes we chop their heads off when they get too big for their roots. Sometimes we dig them up (well, Jo does the digging with a ragwort fork and a lot of effort – I mean a lot) and the docks don’t care. They grow, they change colour and they create their own little ecosystem. They form a cunning camouflage corridor for our resident fox which uses them like a convenient alley.

The docks have gone! The fox’s cover has been exposed! These were my thoughts when I arrived at the fields this afternoon to see the whole space swiped clean. The rolling and harrowing added the finishing polish. It looked like less like a hunting hangout for wildlife with business to attend to and more like a empty village hall with a nice sign outside inviting people in for tea. ‘Recreational,’ was Lindsey’s word.

It sounds as if I miss the docks. I don’t. I know they will be back next year – probably sooner if we get more rain – I really like having them swiped, though. It is such a thrill to see the fields so clear and empty and filled with possibility. It feels like a fresh start. A new beginning.

The ponies came back to a new nude landscape. Tinker looked around and scanned the length of the field searching for something new to investigate. Eventually she settled on the tyre, which had been moved by the tractors and put her nose into it, knowing in that way that animals built for survival know, that the hole in the centre would be untouched. She glanced round for her companion who was already eyeing the haynet, knowing that the swiping meant not only less cover, but less to eat.

I watched them scan, settle and simply adapt to the new surroundings. I noticed how quickly they adjusted to change. How easy it is for them to know what to do in every moment.

As our landscape changes, how easy is it for us to adapt? How will we return to the new open space? With trepidation or with the knowledge that we will know what to do when we get there?








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