Body Language & Conversation Escapes

We’ve all been there before. You’re at a party or social gathering and you find yourself cornered by someone who can’t stop talking. Escape seems impossible. You don’t want to be rude but it’s obvious that the person thinks what they’re saying is much more interesting than it actually is so you start to scheme an exit plan. The easiest excuses are usually the bathroom or the need to get a drink or food but sometimes it’s not quite so easy. At this point, whether conscious or not, your body language starts to indicate your immediate desire for an end to the conversation.

Maybe your eyes wander around the room, desperately seeking the welcoming face of a friend, or you start to lean or move away from the person, or your hands and body give some other cues that you’re simply not engaged in the conversation. One way or another, you finally make your way out and are grateful for the social freedom that seemed unobtainable just moments ago.

While scenarios like this are difficult enough, navigating them is even more challenging if you’re a wheelchair user.

I’ve written previously about the challenges of moving through the world two feet shorter than most others and how it impacts my mentality, but I’m long overdue to share a few thoughts on the differences of body language cues that I’ve encountered. I share these not only to express my perspective (and yes, to vent a little bit…) but hopefully to educate and raise awareness for others for when they’re talking to someone using a wheelchair or who simply can’t walk or move “normally”, particularly in crowds.

1) Just because I’m sitting and facing you doesn’t mean I’m interested in what you’re saying.

I know it’s blunt but I have to be 100% honest. This is my number one pet peeve and my most common body language struggle when it comes to social interactions.

Countless times, I’ve been stuck talking to someone (or, I should say, listening impatiently to them) and they’re clueless that for whatever reason, I’m not interested anymore. My theory is that because I’m sitting down and facing them and, yes, looking up at them, they think that I’m a captive audience. And I can understand some of the reasoning for that. I think it’s natural that if you’re standing above and talking down (literally, not figuratively) to people, you’re inclined to think that they are interested in listening to you. Think of a teacher in a classroom or a performer onstage or a speaker talking to a roomful of seated people.

But there have been too many times where I’ve tried to subtly express my disinterest in the conversation and only been met by the person continuing to talk at me. And because they’re standing right in front of me and blocking me from seeing most of the room, it’s hard for me to find an obvious excuse to cut the conversation short.

Like it or not, our respective physical presence has a huge impact on the way we interact. If a seven foot tall person is towering over you and talking, you’re more likely to listen than if it’s someone who’s much shorter than you. But if you’re the person with a larger physical presence, that presence can feel intimidating and cornering.

And that brings me to point number two…

2) Body language is muted when you’re not using your whole body

I’ve been in too many situations where I’ve needed to quickly leave a conversation (i.e. urgently need to use the restroom, wanting to catch someone before they leave, or just simply being in a rush to leave) and my body language cues are not being picked up by the person(s) I’m talking to. I can’t step back or lean to a side or fidget the way an able-bodied person could that would likely convey the need to let me out! On top of that, because I can’t see above people’s shoulders, it’s nearly impossible for me to look around the room and make eye contact with someone else to call out for a conversation rescue.

3) Being cornered or trapped in any way is very limiting and unpleasant

I think everyone can relate…. This situation has occurred to me the most frequently in restaurants or large mealtime gatherings. I’ll find myself at a table that’s difficult to get in and out of. Therefore, not only do I feel awkward having to ask people to move or bump into purses hanging off the back of a chair, I’m less inclined to want to use the restroom or simply get up and leave the table for any reason. And so I unwittingly accept that I’m stuck, and it’s not very fun.

I used to love parties and concerts, crowds and gatherings, and being in a big group of people. But often times now, these situations make me anxious and uncomfortable and so I avoid them. But I will say that I’ve become EXTREMELY grateful and appreciative of people when they DO recognize these physical challenges and go out of their way to pick up my cues or simply ask me what I need. It makes all the difference in the world.

So let’s all try to be more mindful of how we move through the world, how we converse with others, and the social and body language cues that we encounter. And if you see someone in a wheelchair or physically limited, be extra nice and considerate of them. You may think your story is super interesting, and there’s a chance that it is, but they may just be dying to have a bite of food or use the bathroom.  🙂

Dimming the muscle switch

With the arrival of 2016, and with it the continued realization that time passes faster and faster every year, it makes me reflect back on the goals and objectives that I set for my recovery last year, to the unfinished goals that I will carry over into the new year and to new objectives I will set for my continued path of spinal cord injury recovery.

I can confidently say that my body has changed significantly in the past year. In the last couple of weeks especially, I’ve been doing a lot more work in standing positions and my trainer has challenged me and in turn pushed the limits of the Pilates equipment (which have probably never been used for some of the exercises we do…) by coming up with novel ways of strengthening my current abilities and building off of those to challenge my body to find the next steps of function.

As a result, my endurance to stay standing – while much less than I would like – is noticeably better than it was even a month or so ago. I’ll share a video below to show one of the recent exercises I’ve been working on and one that went from needing a lot of assistance a couple of months ago, to now being able to control everything relatively smoothly on my own.

So where do I go from here?

One of my main goals for 2016 will be what I’m calling “dimming the switch.” I use the analogy of a light switch because it applies quite well to what I’m referring to.

Right now, the engagement that I get to the muscles of my lower body generally works like a light switch, meaning when I turn a certain set of muscles on or perform a particular movement, those muscles are on 100%, working hard, contracting strongly. When I decide to change positions or turn off, everything just kinda releases all at once. So I’m stuck with a light switch; on or off; 0 or 100%, with not much control of the in between.

For example, in the video above, if I were to try to bend my knees or do that same exercise in a light squat (which I must admit would be rather challenging for anyone), I would crumple to the ground, unable to dim that switch and maintain control of my stance. I either have to stay with legs locked straight or I get nothing at all.

You see where I’m going with this right?

The dimmer switch is essential to any kind of functional movement that I’m working to regain. I have to be able to control some muscles at 50 or 70% and not just 100%. Not only that, but I also have to relearn and retrain myself on how to differentiate one side of the body from the other. In other words, if I’m going to be able to successfully take steps, my left leg must be able to bear weight and be at 80 or 90 or 100% contraction while the right leg is lifted in the air and taking a step. It utterly blows my mind to think about how a healthy body and spinal cord can so naturally manage a movement pattern like walking that may seem simple, but is actually startlingly complex as it’s a consistent dimming up and down of different muscles at all times.

Like so much of what I have understood since my injury, our bodies and our movements are incredible and should not be taken for granted. It’s easy to underestimate just how much is involved with a seemingly simple set of movements, until you’re faced with an entirely different body that doesn’t react the same way.

So I will dedicate 2016 to finding that dimmer switch and being able to control my lower body movements more fluidly and effortlessly.