Everyone has a tell. There is a tick or a jump or a wiggle associated with certain endorphins coursing through the human body, and when you’re observant enough to catch them, you can tell a lot about what people are thinking, and trying hard not to say. A huge part of nursing is mastering non-verbal communication skills. People in general have a very difficult time telling the truth when they’re sick or in pain, and when you’re dealing with dementia patients you can’t count on anything they say to make sense or be within the realm of real. You have to base your decisions on what they don’t say, or say very plainly if you’re trained to read body/speech cues for veracity.
I happen to like watching people and I’m a nurse, so I’m good at tells. People you’re around a lot are easy to tell — George has a vein in his neck that bulges when he’s getting stressed out. My Dad would grit his teeth so hard the muscles in his face would flutter like gills when he was mad. “Gill-face” was the childhood equivalent to “ass-whipping” — it was as unpleasant as it sounds. My left eyebrow climbs as my level of anxiety does. It has been known to disappear completely in Houston rush-hour traffic.
Life is decidedly easier when you can read people. I tell my kids all the time, “It’s all in the approach.” Any situational outcome is pretty much decided in the first five seconds of the transaction. If you know what you’re dealing with and how to approach it, things will go much smoother and usually to your advantage. In other words, don’t poke the snake unless you know it’s not poisonous.
I’m always amazed at people who completely ignore the tells.
We were at a Pilot in North Tennessee, I had gone inside to get coffee and go to the bathroom. George was fueling. When I got in line to pay, I was behind the only jerk in the whole joint, as is usually the case. (Why God, why?) He was brandishing a flashlight and screaming.
“I bought this two weeks ago and it won’t work!! It’s a thirty-dollar flashlight, it should work! I want my money back!”
It bears to be noted here the girl he was yelling at behind the counter was not a small woman. She was a big redheaded girl working the night shift at a Pilot in Bumtruck, Tenn., and she was clearly not to be trifled with. She immediately flexed her right (and very dominant) hand into a fist and politely asked the guy if he had a receipt.
“I ain’t got a receipt. There’s one on the shelf just like it, I can show ya!”
The clerk remained even-tempered in voice but continued to flex her right fist as she told the man he could not have a cash refund without a receipt and to please stop waving the flashlight around. The flex was quickly moving up her notably large bicep, which had begun to ripple. My left eyebrow had long ago disappeared into the stratosphere, as I was certain she was going to snatch the flashlight from him at any given moment and beat him to death with it, right before my very eyes.
Mr. Flashlight turned to me, and jumped back slightly — it’s frightening to witness a woman with only one eyebrow up close.
“What the hell you think about that? Spend all kinds of money in this place, they won’t give it back for somethin’ broke? Whatchoo think about that?”
I have never in my life wished for a cloak of invisibility more fervently. I seriously considered acting like I was deaf, but I noticed the large, angry, flexed, redheaded woman staring at me, like she was waiting to know which side I was on before she snatched the flashlight and went to beating people to death.
“I thinks she’s gonna take that flashlight away from you and whack you with it if you wave it at her one more time.”
He stepped back and looked at her, then the flashlight in his hand, like he didn’t even realize he was brandishing it.
“Well I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t mean a thing by it. It don’t work, I just want my money back.”
By this time a manager had come over to intervene, and I was regaining double-eyebrow status. I paid for my stuff and gratefully noticed a very relaxed posture in the dominant right hand of the clerk as she handed me change. I passed George on the way out.
“Approach with caution.”
“Duly noted. And I don’t want to know why.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“I’d like to believe that, so I will.”
“You’re making my eyebrow disappear.”
“It always comes back. That’s how we know it’s safe.”
“You don’t mean it, I can still see two eyebrows.”