by Carl Peterson ©2002

Human relationships are some of the most complex in the animal kingdom, and as I look back across my life, I am intrigued by what I remember from my own experiences. There was the football coach in High School. Now those of you who know me would wonder why he would stand out, because I didn’t play football and I thought little of him as a teacher. However, despite his many shortcomings in my eyes, he had a saying that has stayed with me since those days; “Opinions are like white socks, everybody has at least one.” I have since heard several variations of this statement, but it is always this version that I recall and find true (nearly every day in fact). Why do I recall this statement and use it regularly in my dealings with people when I never particularly liked (nor disliked) the speaker? I don’t’ know, but it recalls him whenever I think of the phrase. Were he still alive today and we were contemporaries, would we be friends as adults? I doubt it, yet there lingers the mystery of this binding phrase.

I never really thought about the use of our senses in relationships until recently. Do you recall the smell of fresh baked goods? Who does it bring to mind? For many of us, that person might be Mother or Grandmother. Still others, it might be the neighbor. For nearly all persons who have that recollection, the sense of smell strongly evokes thoughts of a loving and caring person who shared emotions, time, protection, and sustenance. Are there sounds that evoke memories for you? Some of the first persons identified to be suffering with Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome were (former) soldiers returned from Viet Nam (or Vietnamese expatriates) when cars backfiring recalled sniper fire or thunder conjured recollections of intense artillery barrages. It is hard to imagine, but there are definite relationships between the attackers and the victims, even if they have never encountered each other face to face. Sight, sound, and smell are the senses most commonly thought of when considering human relationships, but we use our other senses as well. Clearly, touch has a significant role in the expression of our relationships. It is downplayed in our workplaces (OK, make that almost taboo now), and in our youth programs (amazing to me is the influence pedophiles can have on the entire population), but touch remains a symbol of intimacy and fondness that goes beyond that expressed by first three senses. Though faint and probably not consciously noticed (until after reading this and thinking about it) the taste of a person is found in a kiss. I know when my children are sick when I kiss their foreheads at night (they taste of salt, but different than when sweaty from play). I know the taste of my wife’s kiss, and sometimes can discern her mood from the subtle changes (though most of the time I bumble past obliviously, in typical male fashion).

Active relationships use the five physical senses to establish, maintain, and describe the relationship. We communicate our feelings towards one another through various signals that are discerned by the attentive. Like other animals, we extend this signaling beyond our personal relationships to those of society. We tend to perceive one who is unkempt as a ne’er-do-well, a mendicant, or (kindly) a slob instead of recognizing the absent-minded genius who is dwelling on some intangible problem rather than being concerned with outward appearances. Our clothing, jewelry, perfumes and colognes (artificial scents designed to mask or accentuate our odors, from an earlier time when bathing was less in vogue), suggest a presumed status in society. Our perceptions of physical attractiveness have changed over time as well, as have the signals for temptation or availability.

In Victorian England, a “slightly plump” white-skinned woman was deemed attractive. Her weight suggested sufficient family income to be well fed and her fair complexion indicated that she did not have to work outdoors; in short, she came from a wealthy background. With her hair worn down in public, it meant that she was of low moral quality, however. Dancers, with hair flowing, would allure the audience because of the sexuality displayed by the loose hairstyle and flowing moves. Only a few years later, the suntan became popular as it indicated the bearer had sufficient leisure time to while away the hours reposing in the sun, and hair worn down meant an ability to express one’s own beauty without preconceptions of moral conduct. These signals helped us select an appropriate mate and establish personal relationships, but were foremost societal signals of position and prowess.

Our sense of smell has deteriorated from that of our ancestors, as evidenced by our need to use cologne, musk, and perfume to accentuate our odors, but we still have traits that suggest we used this sense for determining personal and societal relationships long ago. Many animals mark their territories with pungent (at least in some species) scents. I noticed, as I chaperoned a group of Boy Scouts on an adventure into the countryside, that despite having had the opportunity to use the restroom before leaving, half of the boys (and one adult leader) took the opportunity only 30 minutes into the trip to mark their passing along the route. I wonder at the primal requirement to do this. My son and I sat in amusement at this spectacle as this group sought the right shrubs and distances from the road and each other. The visual image was that like watching a documentary on the nature channel about a pack of animals.

We became aware again of body language in the late 1970’s, and we continue to discuss the meaning of various signals. I often catch myself and wonder what my body was saying while I was talking to someone or a group. As a public speaker, I am conscious (almost to the point of being self-conscious) of my movements and gestures while making a presentation. I frequently wish others were as attentive during their discussions with me. In my office, I exercise caution to ensure the gestures and postures I use demonstrate my intentions. My office and its appointment are designed to convey both my position and my openness to people’s needs. Yet I confess not all of my attention is given to these considerations (alas, I admit personal fallibility) and the wrong signals are sometimes conveyed. But I am amazed at the disregard paid to this area of communication by the vast majority (at least seemingly) of the population. The counter staff at the convenience store or Wal-Mart, who have barely a word of greeting and rarely make eye contact, are prime examples of ones who do not heed the importance of non-verbal communication (and if they don’t make eye contact, they are missing my side of the dialog). Do you recall when Mother’s (or Father’s, or Grandma’s) look could silence even the neighbor’s kids? How unfortunate that some in society have failed to train their offspring in that.

So out into the world we will go again, wrapped in a cloak of personal and societal relationships. I hope that you will exercise the senses when you next encounter an acquaintance, and cherish the ability to recollect all that you can. In our transient world, sometimes the recollections maintain the relationships well beyond the years of our physical interactions. Perhaps, one day when you are folding laundry, you’ll run across a stray white sock, and think of this article and my High School’s football coach, and realize you too had a relationship without ever having met.

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