When people tell you that you are a good communicator, they generally mean that you are a good speaker. You are a good negotiator who can influence people and make them act the way you want. The reference here is to what we call the auditory channel of communication. The other important channel of communication is visual. When we talk about reading and writing, we are alluding to the visual channel. The gestures that we use are often visual messages that accompany and enhance those that pass through the auditory channel.
Apart from the sense of hearing and the sense of sight, we have three other senses. They are smell, taste and touch. These channels too have their Latinate names: olfactory, gustatory and tactile. The audio-visual component often eclipses the role of these three channels.
In what is known as fragrance marketing, scent stimuli are used to influence the buyer’s behaviour. In 2005, an ice skating rink was installed on the first level of the Eiffel Tower. A Swiss fragrance supplier developed a special scent to create “flavoured” ice for the rink. Vanilla fragrance was chosen to impart a sense of the warmth of home and holidaying.
There have been attempts to use the gustatory channel in advertisements, especially for food products. In February 2008, People magazine carried an advertisement for orange juice. There were lickable peel-and-taste strips attached to the ad and readers could get a foretaste of the product.
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That leaves us with the tactile mode, or communication by touch. I began to think of these three less noticed channels after reading a news report about Michelle Obama’s visit to England. The report carried the headline, “First Lady Michelle Obama’s Queen Elizabeth Hug sets tongues wagging in England.” Another headline said, “Protocol is abandoned as Michelle Obama cosies up to the queen.” It threatened to grow into a controversy, but the atmosphere in Buckingham Palace was relaxed, and the hug was followed by an exchange of gifts too.
The event brought back memories of protocol violation in 1992 when premier (of Australia) Paul Keating was caught on camera giving the Queen a helping hand on a visit to the Parliament House of Canberra. Keating was then nicknamed “Lizard of Oz”. Again in 2000, John Howard was the centre of a controversy when he was reported to have touched the Queen’s back during a reception. The PM’s office asserted that there was no contact whatsoever.
The discipline that studies the behaviour of two persons in conversation in relation to the distance between them is called proxemics. This name was coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1966 to describe how people use the space that separates them during any interaction. Of relevance here is intimate space, which constitutes a bubble of space around us and is our own private territory. Anyone who pushes into this space is a trespasser, and we feel uncomfortable in such company. Among the offenders in this category are people who stand very close to us and even nudge us on our shoulder as they speak to us. Outside this private space is what Hall calls the primary territory, one’s personal area. Then we have the secondary territory and public territory. The distances vary for different types of communication and for different cultures.
Civilized communities permit touch even in formal interaction, as when people shake hands when they are introduced. The handshake can give different messages depending on whether it is strong or weak, long or short, fast-moving or slow, or palm up or palm down.
Touching the British Queen involved a matter of protocol. But there are other forms of “untouchability” in our society. When I was in school, I had a Namboodiri as my friend. We were together most of the time. We did class work together and often went to school riding “doubles” on his bicycle. The Namboodiri’s family were hereditary priests. In the evening sometimes my friend was on duty at the temple. At such moments he became untouchable.
When he came out of the sanctum and walked to the temple kitchen, someone walked in front of him clapping hands, or sprinkling water along his path. At such times, I was expected to step aside and make way for him. People respected and observed this tradition, seeing in it a symbolic gesture in the worship of God. Next morning, we were again together, enjoying each other’s company.
Nothing that has been said above relates to the untouchability based on caste, which has been banned by Article 17 under Fundamental Rights in the Indian Constitution.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org