Non Verbal Miscommunication
"A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat!"
Much comedy is based on having characters misunderstand other characters' words
, but this can only go so far: after all, words have generally accepted meanings, which limits the possibilities for misunderstanding.
With nonverbal communication, the sky's the limit
. A wink, a hand gesture, a significant look - could mean anything
. It's possible to have characters conduct entire conversations in which each completely misinterprets what the other is saying.
A common hazard of Miming the Cues
. Contrast Talking through Technique
and Hand Signals
, where gestures can get a very precise message across.
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Anime & Manga
- A variation is used in an old comic of The Moomins where the Moomins are being held by pirates. A pirate orders them to work "or else", and makes a cutting gesture across his throat. The Moomins are appropriately horrified: "We must do what he says or he'll commit suicide!"
- Examples in the Calvinverse:
- In the Pokémon fanfic Symbiosis, Ash misinterprets Pikachu's hand signals for leash as a noose.
- One Thor/Avengers fanfiction features hostile aliens gatecrashing a party on Asgard which Jane Foster and the Avengers are attending; Black Widow and Hogun the Grim begin communicating by Significant Looks, which Jane thinks is impressively badass. This silent conversation seems to be leading somewhere...until Hogun picks up a platter of chicken and points at it. Natasha blinks, then goes over to talk to Hogun with actual words, which Jane reflects might be less secret agent but also less likely to have significant portions of the conversation turn out to be "and then chicken."
Film - Animated
- In The Emperor's New Groove, Yzma's plan to poison Kuzco has failed, instead turning him into a llama. Kuzco hasn't noticed, and continues their dinner conversation. Yzma starts beating two pieces of broccoli together, trying to tell Kronk to knock him out. He thinks she's just asking for more broccoli. Yzma finally gets the message across by pounding her palm with her fist.
- In Ice Age, Scrat attempts to warn Manny and Sid of the ambush by Diego's pack. They understand "pack of..." but can't find out the last part, even when Scrat points directly at Diego.
Film - Live Action
- Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein features a scene where the monster grabs and chokes Frankenstein. Since he cannot talk, he frantically uses Charades to communicate to his assistants that they should sedate his monster. They take a long time about it before Igor finally guesses "Sedagive!". Frankenstein is not pleased.
- Partial example in the film Men In Black where the attractive female medical examiner attempts to signal to Agent J that there's a hostile alien in the room with them, and he thinks she's flirting with him, and while she is talking most of her indications of the alien are nonverbal.
- In Galaxy Quest, Jason Nesmith signals Gwen DeMarco with a throat-slashing gesture while talking to Sarris on a comm channel, then turns to the crew and explains his plan to trick Sarris— oblivious, despite gestures, to the fact that the channel is still wide open.
Jason: Okay, Gwen, put me back on with him.
Gwen: That's what I've been trying to tell you, Jason. You are back with him.
Sarris: Perhaps I am not as stupid as I am ugly, commander!
Jason: (to Gwen) I gave you the 'kill' gesture.
Gwen: No, you gave me the 'we're dead' sign. I was agreeing with you. Like I know where the 'hold' button is.
- The Gods Must Be Crazy. The natives shake their heads to say yes, so when one character asks them to back his story that rhinos stomp out fires they look like they're disagreeing with him.
- Happens from time to time in The Marx Brothers' movies, when Harpo tries to communicate something to Chico in pantomime. For example, as they try to buy a train ticket in Go West:
Chico: Where's your seventy dollars?
Harpo: (shrugs and holds up ten fingers)
Chico: You only got ten? What did you do with the other sixty?
Harpo: (outlines an hourglass figure in the air and whistles suggestively)
Chico: Ohhhh. You buy a snake, huh?
- In The Losers, when on top of a tall building, villain nods to his agent, who then throws a businessman down. Villain then "complains" that it wasn't that kind of nod and he just wanted the agent to beat the victim. It's one of the Big Bad's not so funny jokes.
- Gymnasia's life story in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. High-Class Call Girl, occasionally Cute Mute, known as Gymnasia the Silent. No one even bothered to make sense of what she tried to say... until Pseudolous started acting as her Love Interest and Translator Buddy.
- In Down Periscope, Kelsey Grammer's character is the captain of an old diesel submarine pitted in a training exercise against the nuclear navy. During one engagement, they hide on the bottom of the ocean, while a nuclear submarine is right above them. Trying to get the other sub to leave, he tries to get Sonar to make whale-like noises, like the ones he recorded on tapes. He tries, unsuccessfully, for about a minute with only gestures, which results in another crewmember making completely different gestures, completely confusing Sonar.
- In Rush Hour 2, Lee takes Carter to a massage parlor in Hong Kong because Lee wants to have a talk with the Triad boss Ricky Tan (also a friend of his late father's and his murderer). When Carter finds out, he takes his "LA cop" image a little too far and tries to strongarm Tan into going with them to the police station, not realizing that nearly every other client in the partlor is a Triad member. When Lee half-winks and nods to the side, he's trying to get Carter to leave before it's too late. Unfortunately, Carter assumes Lee wants him to grab Tan and drag him out of the parlor. Cue dozens of henchmen getting up to defend Tan.
- In Quick, Chun-shim attempts to signal the police that her helmet has a bomb in it by pointing at her head with both hands. The confused cop mouths back "I heart you, too?".
- Played for drama in Inglorious Basterds, where this trope, combined with Critical Research Failure, gets a lot of people killed. A British officer is inside Germany in World War II, impersonating a German officer. A real German officer gets suspicious and starts to quiz him. The Brit seems to have fended off the German's suspicions—until he orders drinks, signaling the waitress for three drinks by raising the index, middle, and ring fingers of his right hand. The German catches him out, noting that Germans signal "three" by raising their index finger, middle finger, and thumb. Cue a bloody shootout.
- The novel Good Omens contains a scene in which two conspirators exchange nonverbal signals and each, knowing something the other doesn't, receives a different message from what the other intended to send. A particularly extreme example, since a single wink manages to screw up the End of the World!
- In the X-Wing Series this trope is mentioned when it is explained to Dia that charm-signing, a body language/gestures thing, is, like flowers, another way people communicate.
Dia: It's a human custom. A new way to miscommunicate so you can find reason to kill each other.
Face: That's an interesting interpretation...
- In Specter of the Past, Wedge Antilles, two other Rogues, and Lando Calrissian all meet somewhere in a marketplace, and while the other two Rogues know the local language and customs, at least to some extent, Wedge and Lando do not. Wedge barely makes it past a very pushy melon seller to see Wes.
Wes: For a big bad X-wing warrior, you're sure rotten at saying no.
Wedge: I didn't buy it, did I? Where were you when I needed you?
Wes: Oh, I caught most of the show. I especially liked the part where you gave her that palms-outward sign.
Wedge: That doesn't mean 'no' here?
Wes: Not quite. It means you don't want it at that price but that she might want to try a better offer.
- Galaxy of Fear has a scene where Zak is floating in a bacta tank and can't hear a thing. His sister has discovered something terrible and suspicious about the facility he's in and tries mouthing it, but he can't read lips and her miming doesn't make much sense, though he can at least tell something's up. Finally she hits on something, but it takes a bit.
- Dune: At one point in the first book, the Duke makes an offer to a Fremen, one of the wild men of the desert. In response, the Fremen spits on the meeting table in front of the Duke. As most of the men in the room rise to defend the Duke's honor, Duncan Idaho, a ducal advisor who has been living among the Fremen to learn the Fremen's ways—stops them and thanks the ambassador for the gift of his body's moiture, then quietly informs the Duke that Fremen value water very highly, and he had basically just given the Duke a compliment. Also counts as a Cross Cultural Kerfuffle.
- In the David Lynch film, the Duke himself recognizes the gesture, stopping Gurney from stabbing Liet-Kynes. In the miniseries, Paul is the one who steps in (this showing he knows the ways of the desert), although it's Stilgar who's doing the spitting this time.
- Averted in On Wings of Eagles (set during the Ayatollah revolution in Iran) when an American reminds his companion not to flag a lift with a raised thumb, as it's an obscene gesture in Iran.
Live Action TV
- "The Unicorn and the Wasp", an episode of Doctor Who, has a similar situation of Charades under pressure. As the Doctor tries to flush cyanide out of his system, he has to silently ask for a list of seemingly random things to help detoxify himself. Donna has a great deal of trouble with this, interpreting "salt" (represented with a shaking fist, ie. sprinkling salt on food) as a cocktail shaker ("What do you want, a Harvey Wallbanger?") and "a shock" as a song (for which she suggests "Camptown Races?")
"How is 'Harvey Wallbanger' one word!?"
- Parodied in a sketch on The State where a choking restaurant customer putting his hands to his neck — the international signal for "I'm choking" — sets in motion a train of weird nonverbal gesticulations by his fellow diner, their waiter, the maitre d', and the busboy, while a Narrator explains the various misunderstandings caused by their failure to recognize each other's signals. The sketch ends with the choking victim recovering after having a year's supply of radishes dumped on him, and the audience realizing that the whole mess could have been averted if anyone had thought to speak.
- Other than the guy who was choking, of course.
- An entire episode of Seinfeld is built around this trope: George, with a piece of pulp in his eye, gets one of his co-workers fired and accidentally sells George Steinbrenner's birthday card to a sports memorabilia shop by way of some badly-timed winks.
- On Scrubs Carla tries to use pantomime to remind Turk of a deceased patient's name as he fumbles to recall it in front of the patient's grieving family. Her strange head gestures lead Turk to confess, "We used to call him Ol' Turkey Neck." Bob's family weren't thrilled by this response.
- A non-comedy example: In Babylon 5, the Earth-Minbari war started when a human commander misunderstood a Minbari gesture of respect as a signal that they were about to attack. Namely, they opened their ship's gunports while approaching, and as a bonus used scanners powerful enough to fry electrical systems from the human ships.
- In Angel, Spike is a ghost, and is mindlessly wandering around Wolfram and Hart in silence. Fred mistakes his movement through a desk and then a wall for a sign, and by luck there really is an important plot item in the desk.
- An episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer involved demons who stole everyone's ability to speak, forcing the heroes to communicate with each other through pantomime. While brainstorming on how they might slay the demons, Buffy shrugs and nonchalantly pumps her hand up and down in the air in front of her, drawing looks of startled disbelief from her friends. Embarrassed at their reactions, she pulls a wooden stake out of her bag and repeats the motion. Everyone gets it.
- Later, Buffy tries to signal to Riley that he needs to smash the box on a table that's holding all the voices inside it. Riley thinks she means the crystal next to it and hits that, then grins like a dope at her before an exasperated Buffy makes more specific gestures.
- In an episode of Mad About You, the two main characters are told by a counselor to only communicate non-verbally for a set period of time. Hilarity Ensues.
- The classic example being the scene in Fawlty Towers where Basil is attempting to tell Polly the name of a racehorse behind Sybil's back, for complicated reasons. Its name was Dragonfly.
- How I Met Your Mother: Averted with Lily and Marshall, who have perfect "couple telepathy". Played straight with Ted and his fiance Stella, after Stella's sister informs them that her fiance ran off and she can't get a refund. Ted thinks their conversation is about paying for lunch. Stella thinks it's about taking the wedding. It's also Fore Shadowing; Ted and Stella later break up.
- It's also played straight with Ted and Barney during a "conversation" about whether to close the bar they're watching. Ted seems to think they've come to an agreement and will close the bar, but then Barney announces "Good news, everyone! We're keeping the bar open all night!"
- Another episode included Robin desperately trying to communicate to Lily that she should not open the gift Robin brought to the Bachelorette party in front of all her family. Lily SEEMS to have completely understood the telepathic message and leans over to whisper something to her mother, who then discreetly passes Robin a tampon. Lily then looks over with a very self-pleased "you're welcome".
- Bones is given a signal to try and perk up an unconfident intern who had missed a small but important piece of evidence.
Director: Anyone could've missed that! I certainly couldn't have seen it! [nods at Bones to say something encouraging]
Bones: Yes, I can't believe you missed it either.
- Used in 30 Rock Liz Lemon tries to hide the fact that Tracy went to a strip club by telling his wife that he took his pet snake to the vet. When Tracy returns and his wife asks where he was (because "I'm back from doing whatever Liz Lemon said!" wasn't sufficient enough), Liz ALMOST saves the day.
Liz Lemon: (makes snake motion with hand and wiggles tongue)
Tracy: My cobra, Ramsey...
Liz: (mimes getting sick)
Tracy: Yeah, it got sick, so I took it to the vet.
Liz: (gives him a thumbs up and nods)
Tracy: And then my thumb got caught in my butt so I nodded my head until it came out.
- In Extras, a journalist is interviewing Maggie under the pretense that she is Andy's assistant. Andy sits behind the journalist and tries to mime answers to her that will make him look good. Maggie constantly misunderstands his mimes, giving bizarre and unflattering answers.
- In Chuck, Devon needs to lie to his wife about where he was when he was doing spy work with Chuck, who is trying in vain to guide the story using hand gestures. Astonishingly, she doesn't buy it.
Ellie: Oh my God! You were attacked by a bear!
(Chuck makes the "cut" motion on his neck)
Devon: Yeah, and I j... I... cut off its head!
Yeah, babe, I... I had to decapitate the bear. In self defense! In order to survive! I'm just glad you weren't there to see it. It was really grisly.
- The Middle: When Sue is at the meeting listing all the activities she tried (and failed) at in a speech, Frankie gives her a 'hurry up' gesture from the audience. Sue sees this and concludes "Oh, yes, and tumbling."
- In an episode of Psych, Shawn and Gus see a Bounty Hunter wink at them, and practically grow to Hero Worship him. It isn't until in their adult life, they find out said Bounty Hunter's wink was merely a facial tic.
- On Friends, Chandler is on the phone with a girl and Joey starts a really strange pantomime that he assumes is related to something Joey wants him to say to the girl. After he hangs up, he asks Joey what the hell he was signaling and Joey just explains he wanted to know if Chandler wanted to order a pizza.
- Danger 5, a spoof of 1960's TV spy series. Claire is being led away by enemy soldiers.
Claire: [winking] [subtitle: Stay on mission. We can handle ourselves.]
Tucker: [winking back] [subtitle: What?]
- In the Modern Family episode "Snip", Mitch has conspired with his and Cam's friend Longinus to have a conversation while at the latter's clothing boutique that will lead to Cam taking a job there, since Mitch wants him to but knows better than to suggest directly. It almost works, but as Cam is within earshot in the changing room trying on a shirt, another employee blabs about the whole scheme, completely oblivious to Longinus and Mitch's hand signals to shut up, and Cam storms out in a huff.
- Red Dwarf: In "Dear Dave", Cat attempts to convey his news to the rest of the crew through charades (because he is bored). His attempt to mime 'the mail-pod has arrived and crashed into my clothes' is construed by the others as everything from 'we're about to fly into a black hole' to 'we're being attacked by zombies'.
- Horrible Histories: In a segment on the sign language of Saxon monks, a monk's attempt to tell his brothers that the Vikings are attacking is first interpreted as "the gorillas are making clay pots" and then "the gorillas are ringing the bells".
- The Slammer: When the Governor loses his memory, Gimbert attempts to mime the name of the next act to him from offstage. The first attempt to convey the name of acrobat Alina Eskina is interpreted by the Governor as "a lean, mean laughing monkey".
- Neatly subverted in this Daily Show skit. Stephen Colbert proposes a reverse psychology advert campaign: Drugs are cool, kids! Jon Stewart asks if these ads will work better than the traditional ones.
Colbert: Oh no, Jon. They won't be effective at all. (Wink)
Stewart: All right. So they won't be... they won't be effective at all?
Colbert: Not at all, Jon! (Wink)
Stewart: ...Are you coming on to me in a sexual way?
Colbert: Not at all, Jon! (Wink)
- Cheers: In the very first episode, Diane picks up the phone when the caller is trying to reach Sam, who doesn't want the call, so first he makes his fingers walk to indicate "Tell her I left" which Diane understands, but when looking for an excuse, he makes scissors with his fingers and makes hair-cutting motions. Diane's interpretation: "He had to go to mime class!"
- In another episode, Coach is supposed to signal a corrupt card player that his opponent has a poor hand by scratching his cheek. Unfortunately, his cheek starts to itch...
- The Worst Year of My Life, Again: In "Maths Test", Simon attempts to mime to Alex that Mr Norris had announced that the art teacher was sick. Alex somehow interprets this as they are going to have a maths test.
- The classic old joke in which the Pope and a representative of the Jewish community debate each other in mime. (link)
- Here is a Buddhist take on the same concept.
- It's interesting that the former is a joke while the latter is a significant religious parallel, yet containing the same humour value as the former.
- In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Pseudolus pretends to be a soothsayer telling an old man's fortune, while Hysterium gestures frantically behind the old man's back.
"You have been ..." (waving) "away ..." (holds up all fingers twice, points to ears) "ten, twenty, ears ... twenty years!" (looking around) "You are ... searching ..." (rocking baby in arms, holding up two fingers) "for a child ... two children!" (flexes muscles) "A fine big boy ..." (bats eyelashes, swivels hips) "...and a strange little boy?"
- Quite prominent in Cross Channel. An example would be eye contact communication meaning "Please for the love of God get me out of this situation" (an awkward second meeting with Kiri) being mistaken for "Could you give us some privacy?"
- Kotaro from Sengoku Basara never speaks and keeps his face hidden, so when he invades the Tokugawa camp in 3 and starts beating everyone to a pulp, it's understandable that Ieyasu thought he was an enemy. As it turns out, he just wanted to deliver a message.
- Mass Effect 2 has a wonderful example from Mordin Solus. If you pursue a romantic relationship with a crew member he'll offer advice, which is quite helpful in the cross-racial routes. If you don't pursue a relationship, he turns you down. Apparently you blinked at him in a suggestive manner.
- In Jak II: Renegade Onin is a wise old soothsayer who gives Jak and Daxter advice many times during their quest. She's mute, and so normally communicates through hand motions which are translated by Pecker, her Moncaw companion. When Daxter tries to do this himself, he fails miserably.
- Not Always Working provides us this fine example of workplace communication. At least they figured out some of it.
- Drives the plot of a No Dialogue Episode of CatDog that parodied old, black-and-white silent works.
- On one episode of Ed, Edd n Eddy, Eddy is rendered speechless after swallowing a fly, and is given a bell to communicate with. Rolf claims to understand what the bell rings mean, but the things he does for (or rather, to) Eddy are clearly not what Eddy wants.
Rolf: The Unicycle of Doom is a very brave request for a coward.
- Happens in an episode of Storm Hawks when Aerrow is attempting to interpret Radarr's mime:
Aerrow: You were... Boxing? Dancing? Shucking corn?
- In Family Guy, the news had a Mime Weatherman. When he tried to communicate rain, Tom thought he was stating that "peoples' parents will throw fecal matter down on them from the rooftops." Until an angry glare from said mime set Tom straight.
- The Penguins of Madagascar: In "Antics On Ice" Skipper and Rico leave their seats during an ice-skating show in order to deal with a security guard backstage, when Private questions their disappearance Kowalski tells him that they went to get popcorn. When the two return a few minutes later Kowalski tries to convey the original excuse to Skipper:
Skipper: Well we were, uh, buh...
Kowalski: (makes sweeping gesture towards his beak)
Skipper: We were, uh, er, punching ourselves...?
Kowalski: (shakes head, brings his flipper up to his beak and imitates eating)
Skipper: Eating our flippers?
- This can happen pretty often when dealing with those with NLD and/or Asperger's Syndrome.
- Nonverbal communication in general is something of a craps shoot. That little nod that carried a simple message in your mind could be completely incomprehensible to someone else.
- Even simple things like Eye Contact and looking away can mean different things to different people and flat out confuse whoever you're contacting. Moral: talk it out!
- The meaning of gestures also differs from country to country and culture to culture, which can cause some problem, when you travel abroad.
- Study abroad offices at American colleges warn students that smiling at, and making eye contact with, total strangers, while generally considered polite in the US, can send the wrong sort of message in foreign countries.
- Don't give someone a "thumbs up" gesture in a Middle Eastern country, as it basically means "up yours!"
- In Bulgaria, a nod means "no".
- In Greece, holding out a hand, palm forward, in someone's direction, doesn't mean "stop." It means, roughly, "eat shit."
- This trope is the reason behind a lot of what people consider baffling behavior on the part of cats. For one example, cats generally avoid eye contact unless they're trying to be assertive/threatening. They get unnerved when unfamiliar people look directly at them. This is why cats have a reputation for sitting on the laps of people who dislike them: those people are the ones not staring at the cat!
- This is also why cats and dogs often do not get along, since many signals for one animal mean the opposite in the other. For instance, a dog waving its tail is happy, while a cat doing the same is showing aggression or fear. Similarly cats "bow" to say hello; dogs do it to signal playtime. So the dog sees the cat bow and assumes it's time to play, whereupon the cat's startled because all it was trying to do was offer a greeting.