You say it best when you say nothing at all

July 11, 2019

Paula and Eduardo met in Maritime College. She was 19, he was one year her senior. Both were majoring in Electrotechnical Engineering and Telecommunications. They spent most of their time together and did what college kids back then did: hanging out at the local student café and going to school dances. But after graduating, they each found jobs managing communications aboard different ships.

The years went by — first two, then three, then six — and the pair only saw each other whenever they were back on dry land. Paula collected small souvenirs from all the places she visited during her travels; Eduardo, an amateur bird-watcher, brought back blue parrots from Equatorial Guinea.

While at sea, the couple stayed in touch and wanted to hold conversations in private. Cell phones weren’t popular yet, and the phone on board could be overheard by any member of the crew. Paula and Eduardo had to come up with a creative solution. They resorted to what they had at hand: their knowledge of Morse Code and a radio signal.

And so for months, they exchanged love notes encoded in dots and dashes indecipherable to the untrained ear.

Samuel F. B. Morse himself developed his world famous code as a means to enable long-distance communication in a timely manner. His motivation, however, wasn’t love. It was something much darker.

Before becoming known as an inventor, Morse was a prominent artist responsible for painting portraits of American politicians including presidents John Adams and James Monroe. It was while he was in Washington, working on a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, that he got the news his wife had fallen gravely ill. Morse immediately set out to New Haven, but by the time he got back, his wife had passed away and had, in fact, been buried for several days.

Morse realized letters weren’t a viable way to deliver urgent messages requiring immediate action. He set out to solve this problem. In 1837, he developed and patented an electric telegraph, which in itself was a simple technology. On one end, there was a battery and a switch, and on the other, an electromagnet. By pressing the switch, an electric current rand down a wire and activated an electromagnetic switch, producing a click. But the clicks were useless if you couldn’t attribute any meaning to them. So for six years, Morse worked on a standardized code that attributed each letter of the alphabet a combination of shorter clicks, or dots, and longer clicks, or dashes.

In 1844, after the US Congress invested $30,000 in connecting Washington D.C. and Baltimore via wires, Morse sent the first message in his namesake code. The biblical sentence, What hath God wrought?, traveled from one city to the other in a matter of minutes, marking the first time a message was communicated at such a long distance almost instantly.

A few years later, with the advent of the radio, wireless telegraphy became possible. The dots and dashes turned into audible dits and dahs, eliminating the need for a wired connection between sender and receiver.

Others long before Morse tried to overcome distances in communication by taking words and turning them into nonverbal messages. Smoke signals, for example, are one of the oldest forms of visual communication. The earliest records of its application date back to 200 BC, when they were used to send messages along the Great Wall of China. Radio waves or electromagnets weren’t even imaginable at the time. So, much in the same way our nautical lovebirds realized they could use the material at hand to communicate with each other, the Chinese soldiers figured out that fire and smoke could be used to warn other soldiers of impending enemy attacks, even if they were stationed miles away.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Native Americans also resorted to fire and blankets to send messages in the form of smoke puffs to distanced tribe members. Despite visible to everyone in the surrounding area, there was no danger to the messages being intercepted by other tribes, as each tribe had its predetermined code of shapes and sizes to represent different words or sentences.

Drumming would also function as a means of nonverbal communication except its messages were delivered in audible signs as opposed to visual cues. Most popular in Africa, they served the same purpose as smoke signals of exchanging information between villages. The sound of drums could be heard from a distance of up to 5 miles away.

Both these forms of nonverbal communication have their obvious limitations. Smoke signs, for one, demand that point A and point B are within each other’s field of vision. As for sound, it is only intelligible in quiet surroundings and it is highly dependable on the wind, which can carry it in a completely different direction than the one originally intended.

These might sound like archaic methods in the present day, yet they are still used in a handful of traditional contexts. For instance, smoke signals are the go-to means to communicate whenever a new round of voting within the Papal Conclave is complete and what its results are. Black smoke comes out of the chimney atop of the Sistine Chapel if more voting is in order, or white smoke to announce the new Pope has been chosen.

In a village in the Turkish Pontic Mountains, farmers still communicate across distances in a whistled language appropriately named bird language. This whistled form of communication takes the complete Turkish vocabulary and fully converts it into different pitches and melodic lines. For centuries, it has allowed for the communities that inhabit the Giresun province to communicate over long distances that the human voice cannot cover.

Around 10,000 people remain in that region that speak bird language, but the increased use of cell phones has put it in risk of dying out. There have been initiatives to preserve it, like the annual Bird Language, Culture and Art Festival, which gathers people to practice the language and compete, while at the same time drawing visitors’ attention to it. In 2017, it was also included on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

This wide array of methods reflects the fact that 60-90% of human communication is nonverbal. In addition to morse code, smoke puffs, whistles, and beats of the drum, there are other forms of nonverbal communication that we use on a daily basis without even being aware of them. Think facial expressions, eye contact, posture, and hand gestures. Body language — folding your arms or looking down when you speak — may give things away or attribute a different meaning to your words regardless of what you choose to verbalize.

There’s also the way we say things beyond the words we use. Linguists call this paralanguages, that comprise of our tone of voice, how loud or quiet we speak, the shorter or longer pauses in our speech, and even the “ahhs” and “ooohs” and all other sounds we make that convey understanding for whoever we talking to. All of which can alter the content of your words to transmit confidence, joy, anger, sarcasm, or any other feeling.

Even when there is no distance to overcome, or message to keep a secret from enemies or prying ears, nonverbal elements are an undeniable part of human communication. Despite technology’s having made it possible to send words back and forth in no time through various devices and platforms, old-fashioned forms of nonverbal communication still come in handy in certain circumstances.

Who knows, they may even save a relationship from radio silence when one or both parties find themselves in the middle of the ocean, atop an isolated mountain, or anywhere else where there’s love but no cell reception.

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