Dr. Desmond Morris Memoirs

The following extract is taken from the book Watching: Encounters with Humans and Other Animals. It provides a fascinating insight into how Dr Desmond Morris' human body language studies began.

Many thanks to Dr. Morris for allowing us to present it here.

After writing The Naked Ape I had come to the conclusion that there was something missing from the traditional studies of human behaviour. There were plenty of reports on abnormal behaviour, on tribal rites and rituals, on kinship structures and social institutions, on intelligence tests and learning processes, but there was very little indeed on the central subject of ordinary, everyday, human actions. The way we interact with one another in our homes and streets, in shops and restaurants, on beaches and buses, was rarely honoured with serious, observational analysis. Perhaps, for scientists, it was all too commonplace, too familiar. But by the same token it was at the very heart of what it was to be human, and I decided to make a stab at investigating it in a systematic way.

In my library there were dozens of dictionaries of words, but no dictionaries of human actions. To a zoologist this was a major omission. The first step one takes when starting to study a new species is to draw up an ‘ethogram’ — a complete, classified list of every type of action that the animal makes. In each case, the movement is carefully described, along with what causes it and what effect it has. In a moment of boldness bordering on arrogance, I decided to do this for the human species, treating it as though it were a new animal species, encountered for the very first time.

In attempting this I would employ a technique that was the precise opposite of the one employed by Sigmund Freud. When the great man had a patient lying on his famous couch in Vienna, he himself sat facing away, so that he could only hear his patient’s voice, but could not set eyes him. I, by contrast, would only watch my subjects and would not listen to a word they said. I would confine myself entirely to non-verbal ‘body language’. As a zoologist, I could not speak to an antelope or ask questions of a lion, so, treating humans in the same way, I would only observe and record.

One spring day [in 1969] I was sitting at a table in the main square of Malta’s capital city, Valletta, sipping coffee and chatting to my publisher, Tom Maschler, who had flown out to discuss my next book. I explained what I was proposing to do, and he was slightly alarmed. An encyclopaedia of human actions seemed like a massive project, taking years and ending up almost unpublishable. But he encouraged me to make a start and see where it went.

We were watching an old man shrugging his shoulders. I pointed out to Tom that, unlike the English, the Maltese use a directional shrug. When an Englishman shrugs he directs himself forwards, at his companion, regardless of the subject being discussed. A Maltese, however, aims his hands in the general direction of the subject. If, for instance, he is complaining about something political, he will shrug his hands in the direction of the seat of government. If he is complaining about the lack of work in the docks, he will shrug towards the harbour, and so on. It was a tiny difference, but it made the body language of the Maltese subtly different from that of the English visitors to the island.

We continued to watch. The old man to whom the shrugger was addressing himself suddenly tossed his head backwards, closing his eyes and pursing his lips as he did so. If an Englishman did this, it would be a sign of irritation or scorn. But if this action is done by a Maltese it simply means ‘No!’. Again, a subtle difference. By spending hours observing the Maltese population, I had already come to understand a whole range of gestures and small communication actions that differ in some slight way from those of the country where I myself grew up. Strangely, though, I did not use these Maltese actions when I was talking to my Maltese friends. It would seem strange to perform a head toss instead of a head shake. But I understood the actions even though I did not personally employ them. This was rather like the condition a human toddler finds itself — understanding its parents words before it uses them itself.

As I kept up a running commentary on the body language around us, Tom remarked:

You look at people like a birdwatcher looks at birds.’

Yes’ I replied, ‘You could call me a manwatcher.

That’s it,’ said Tom, ‘That’s the title of your next book. We’ll call it ‘Manwatching’’. 

I was none to happy about this, still having in mind my big ‘Encyclopaedia of Human Actions’. But I made a mental note of it, all the same.

After Tom left I decided to set up a special office where I could start assembling my checklist of human body language. The Villa was big, but throughout the summer months it was always full of house-guests — friends taking holidays in the sun — and the atmosphere was wrong. I found a spacious office right on the Sliema sea-front, rented it and set to work. I took on an assistant, Trisha Pike, the lively, intelligent daughter of an Army officer who was stationed in Malta. We ordered a dozen huge boards, 8 feet tall by 3 feet wide, and stood them all around the walls. On these we planned to pin up hundreds of slips of paper. On each slip would be written one human action. We would then be able to juggle these slips around as we improved our classification system.

At first, it seemed a daunting task, but as the days passed, something was beginning to emerge. It turned out that human beings do not make as many different types of action as might be imagined. Because we could combine them in many ways and because we could vary their intensity, this gave a false impression that there were countless ways of using the human body. But if you simply took the basic elements involved, and classified those, the picture did not look so confusing.

To give three random examples: We only move our eyebrows in five ways — we raise, lower, knit, flash or cock them. We only cross our legs in four different ways — ankle-on-ankle, ankle-on-knee, knee-on-knee, or tight-twine. And we only fold our arms in four different ways — both-hands-showing; left-hand-showing + right-tucked in; right- hand- showing + left-tucked-in; both hands tucked in.

And so Trisha and I toiled on, pursuing our eccentric task of mapping the human ethogram. It took weeks, then months. The boards were now covered in hundreds of slips. At the same time, we were compiling files of photographs of all the actions. I was out recording actions on the streets, and every newspaper and magazine we could lay our hands on was being hacked to pieces. Slowly the repertoire of human actions was taking shape. It was amazing the way in which, once you had identified a particular action, it started coming up again and again, in the same sort of context. Nobody had ever named these actions before, so we had to do it ourselves. And the names had to be purely descriptive and could never imply a particular function or message.

After several more months it was clear that we were reaching saturation point. It would take a professional contortionist now to perform an action we had not identified and classified. And it looked as though there were about 3000 different actions that the human body performed in ordinary everyday life. I now started to write up my results, describing and discussing each action in detail.

At this point, Tom Maschler contacted me to find out how the new book is coming along. I announced proudly that I had reached the eyebrows. There was a pause. Then he asked: ‘Are you going up or down?’ When I reply ‘Down’ I sensed that he was not a happy publisher. After much debate it was decided that I should use my encyclopaedic records as the information base for some less ambitious books, and this was what I did.

The first book to emerge from this study was Intimate Behaviour. I then started work on the larger volume Manwatching, but it soon became clear that I needed to make field observations on a much wider range of cultures. In 1974 Ramona and I returned to England, where I took up a research post at Oxford, my old university. From there I began a new series of travels, with a team of 29 research workers and interpreters, exploring the body language of 25 different countries, right across Scandinavia, Europe, and the Mediterranean, an enterprise that proved to be highly rewarding, if at times slightly hazardous.

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