31 July 2009

Impersonators as masterful analysts of non-verbal communication

The recent debate on various blogs about some of the myths about body language and non-verbal communication (on which see HERE and HERE) has reminded me of a minor frustration from my days as a full-time academic.

When I worked in Oxford during the 1970s-80s, there were quite a few social psychologists doing research into body language and non-verbal communication.

Although they were always good company and interesting to talk to over lunch, they knew and I knew that there were some quite important methodological differences between their approach and that of conversation analysts like me.

Put briefly, and from my point of view, they didn't seem to let empirical data constrain their claims to the same extent as we did.

Invite an impersonator to give a seminar?
Some of the people I knew used to arrange for visiting academics to speak at their regular seminars, and I was continually trying to persuade them to invite Mike Yarwood. He wasn’t an academic, but was the top showbiz impersonator at the time (and, if I were still there today, I’d no doubt be trying to get them to invite Rory Bremner, for the same reason).

As for why I thought Yarwood would have some interesting things to say, it was because, for his impersonations to convince the mass television audience so successfully, he must have developed some very effective techniques for observing the way celebrities speak and behave – and for analyzing at such fine levels of detail that he was then able to reproduce instantly recognisable versions of them in his own performances.

In fact, as far as I could see, he must have been better at it than those of us who were supposed to be ‘experts’, and should therefore be able to teach us a thing or two that would help us to improve our own observational skills.

What's the point?
My conversations with the psychologists about this always ended in failure, so we never did get to hear Mr Yarwood revealing any of his secrets.

In retrospect, I suspect my argument may have too threatening, or perhaps too undiplomatic, for them to agree to invite him to a seminar.

When they asked “Why?”, “What would the point of that be?”, etc., my reply went along the following lines:

“Because his observations and analyses have to be accurate enough not just to describe their behaviour in detail, but to be able to reproduce it so effectively that anyone can recognize who it is. If Yarwood gets it wrong, his shows will fail and he’ll be out of a job, whereas academics can be wrong for the next 30+ years and still get paid.”

Such were the luxuries of the academic life.

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