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When Simon Raised an Eyebrow



I never thought raising an eyebrow could get you into trouble. Not so. Simon Cowell, the vitriolic judge of American Idol known for skewering less talented contestants, got into a flap over just such an offense. After a competitor finished a song, he made an expression of tenderness to the families of Virginia Tech shooting victims. It seems that, while this was happening, Simon tapped the desk in impatience, rolled his eyes, and raised an eyebrow.

Cowell explained that he never meant to disrespect victims' families. He was, as video bears out, commenting to Paula Abdul on that contestant's use of a nasal tone while singing 'Mayberry.' That shuts that case.

Is anyone else disturbed by this? Even if Simon had been raising the eyebrow in question (It would probably be to sneer at the contestant's motivation behind the comment, such as to win sympathy votes), is it anyone's business on what we do with our eyebrows? He was not vocalizing disdain for this man, or throwing up his arms in displeasure.

In this age of surveillance we don't even have the right to our expressions any more. Everything is now up for public scrutiny. We live without privacy when we are in public. By that I mean what was once the private realm, such as our expressions, gestures, and movements have become public rights.

I read an article that seems to turn something called facial coding into something like a science. The piece describes the trustworthiness of various C.E.O.'s, such as Warren Buffet, based on their smirks, pursed lips, fixed gazes, and the dreaded "wandering eye."

Facial coding is used at a few airports with the idea that terrorists are angry people, and study of their faces would reveal minute but tell-tale signs of that anger. I know many other people who are angry at the airport. Guess why. But, if the practice is working, let it be.

The above investigation into our facial ticks, scrunched eyes, and crinkled noses has spilled over into aspects of life completely unconnected with the Pakistan/Afghan border. Simon is a prime case.

There are now books instructing us how to decode body language.

The book The Definitive Book of Body Language by Barbara and Allan Pease (Bantam Books, 2006) claims that "It is a scientific fact that people's gestures give away their true intentions." Maybe it is true, but I don't think we can connect every gesticulation or expression of the face to what is happening at that moment. What do we do about the "bad day"? You know the bad day, those days when we wake up as if we're ready for trench warfare. That mood will come out in a person's face and body, but it may have nothing to do with the conversation in the copy room. Facial coding and body language decoding can detect feelings but not reasons. People have internal motivations. I knew a woman who often entered a room with daggers in her eyes. When you asked her simple questions, she looked contemptuous, as if she wanted to kill you. It turns out she was molested as a child and carried this anger with her all the time. Using the science of facial or body language, I might hypothesize that she was lying to me when she answered questions with a snarl. I know better, however.
I've known fractious, jumpy people who actually have hearts of gold. You can't judge a book by its cover (unless it's the one to the above right). We had a relative who was all smiles all the time, until there was money involved. Then she stabbed us in the backs. You couldn't tell her true nature from her face.
Michelangelo was given to fits of rage and lunacy. Should we have deduced, if we were living in his day, that he was a malefactor? No, because he also created art for the benefit of humanity.
Look at Bob Dylan's kisser. It looks moody, sarcastic, and disrespectful. That's part of his charm. His music is ironic to expose the corruption and duplicity in the world. If we judged Dylan by his face and body language, we wouldn't see the underpinnings of love in his heart.
If we want to define people by every non-verbal cue, we might be shutting off the full dimensions of those people.
And what of the quote they always throw at you in interviewing seminars: "First impressions are last impressions." I have not found it in my experience that that is the case. I've talked to people who were cold at first who then softened over the conversations. I've known people who showed all the facial expressions and body language of being congenial and fully engaged with me but who never called me back to honor favors.
This transparency is not about greater freedom to interpret eachother. It's about limiting freedom so that we don't see the true nature of people, their full dimensions.
Simon can raise his eyebrow any time he wants in my estimation.
Stuart Kurtz
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