A couple of surprises this week, all contained in a flurry of articles reporting on the findings of a US university study
on nonverbal communication.
Apparently women are better at it than men, at least when it comes to picking up sexual clues. Now there’s a surprise, eh? Actually it sounds less like scientific research than stating the obvious — or what some people wish was obvious.
Like one of those 1940s studio flicks where the guy is an amiable lug and the girl is a scheming seducer who gently motors him toward the marriage he doesn’t know he wants, it presents a comfortingly familiar vision of the differences between the sexes.
Frankly I think it’s just one big fairy tale and not just because my admittedly limited experience with the opposite sex suggests that women give off very different, and more muted, clues than men and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that straight guys find them hard to read.
Also the study’s methodology seems a little wonky. They gave the participants pictures and asked them to read the faces, which is kind of like asking the average gallery goer to guess what the Mona Lisa is thinking. It’s both unfair and arbitrary. Faces reveal a lot but not in isolation. The same face can look quite different depending on whether it’s facing you across a cocktail table or looking back over its shoulder, repeatedly, late at night on a deserted street.
I don’t know about you but
I need a lot more than a single glance to guess a person’s intentions. Multiple glances maybe plus a few accidental touches.
Of course the other big surprise to come out of this study was just the idea (implicit if not explicit) that straights cruise. Who knew?
The witty English writer Nancy Mitford once remarked that “all nations secretly regard each other as dirty… irreligious and morally lax… the French and English
cherish a specially dotty set
of ideas about each other.”
The same holds true of gays and straights. Each group thinks the other more depraved. Gays think straights have bad taste and messy divorces and straights think gays are promiscuous sluts. (One of the top 10 commandments for women, says Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren, is don’t fuck him on the first date — like that would ever work for gay men.)
True or not the stereotype has the advantage of endowing us with extrasensual powers. Desperate for sex and struggling against minority status we developed reserves of sexual cunning unavailable to complacent straights. As a minority we had to work harder to find compatible partners and so, it seems, we became adept at spotting clues
in strangers’ eyes. (“The lizard-quick glance of a veteran addict,” said Christopher Isherwood of one fictional cruiser, although I think he was being a bit harsh.) We were good at this stuff, good at finding sex in odd places.
Some people never were, of course, and while it’s always tempting to say, “Oh, just open your eyes,” it’s also true that it was never as easy as it looked.
The old grab-the-crotch routine was always a reliable indicator of interest but other signs could
be super subtle. One gay guide advised novice cruisers to follow their prey’s gaze. If he looked down it meant that he was shy but interested; if he looked to the side uninterested. Or maybe it was the reverse. I never could remember. Cruising tips are kind of like hankie codes, weirdly complex and impossible to remember.
Which is probably why cruising seems to have fallen on hard times of late and why, in some bars about town, the lone gay male on the prowl has become a bit of a museum piece. Socializing groups, yes. Cruising individuals, no.
Like almost everything in modern life we can probably blame this on the internet. The web, after all, is a boon to anyone who doesn’t enjoy subtle social interactions. Why bother trying to decode your partner’s degree of interest when he can tell you in bold-face clichés?
Still, I hope cruising recovers and thrives. What coy flirtation
is to straights, cruising is to us —
an essential cultural experience — but steamier and more mysterious because, essentially, it’s nonverbal. As someone who’s overly caught up in the busy business of words I’ve always found cruising’s silent signals a pleasant relief. For many gay men it’s as close to foreplay as we’ll ever get. Plus it’s mysterious and intense and oddly complex. You can be having the most boring conversation on one level and still be going deeper on another.
Not that it always works. Even the most seemingly failsafe clues can be misleading. I still remember the guy who rubbed up against me all night long and then looked affronted when I asked him home.
You just never know. That’s the fun of it.