143 and Other Nonverbal Communication

I had never heard of “143” until I saw it written in a good-bye book for a colleague. Upon searching it, I learned that it became nonverbal shorthand in 1894, long before friends ever texted BFF or LOL. As described in this post, the digits represent lighthouse code for “I Love You” or “I Miss You,” with the numerals indicating a sequence of flashes.

That’s made me think how often we convey meaning with no words at all –a stern glance, a wink, a roll of the eyes, a tapping foot. The translation is easy: “don’t you dare,” “yeh, sure,” “you’ve gotta be kidding,” and “is this ever going to end?”


From the first days of infancy, a child learns to communicate without speaking. A baby quickly discovers that a smile begets a smile, a touch begets a touch. I found it interesting to learn in talking with a new mom that she was using American Sign Language http://www.handspeak.com/ in tandem with voice to communicate with her eight month old baby. It makes perfect sense. Just because the baby can’t articulate doesn’t mean he can’t express his needs.

So it is with writing – we don’t always have to be blunt. As writers, our words are a touch… they can be a gentle caress, an accidental brush, or a suggestion of something more.

Mimes, of course, are masters at nonverbal conversation. “Help, I can’t get out of this box,” is a message that comes across loud and clear… or rather, silently and clear. Dance conveys emotion with nary a word. A symphony raises the spirits and conjures up images of victory just as easily as it instills a sense of fear and chase. Graphics that dissolve slowly or pound and pulsate create very different messages without language.

Those of us who use words could learn from our nonverbal counterparts. Perhaps comics do it best – with that intentional, prolonged pause… what professionals call “timing” in order to maximize the punch line.

How does this apply to writing? We might think of it as restraint.

Some of the most effective writers craft their messages as one would fishing… letting out the line, reeling it in. Letting it out, getting a bite, reeling it in – but not before a little play.

I happen to be reading The Magus by John Fowles.  Not sure how it escaped me all these years, but somehow it landed in my hands and sucked me in like quicksand. I see this technique at work and am enjoying the nonverbal tease. The main character meets a mysterious millionaire and finds himself at the fellow’s estate. There are hints at unusual activities, but nothing is certain. There’s the vague scent of a woman’s perfume and footsteps on gravel, but no immediate reveal. There’s talk of war, philosophy and classics but without hard edges. What a joy for the imagination. All so subtle.

While this technique would fail in online writing where we have to convey information fast, we could use it in a long form fundraising letter or in an image ad. For example, “every day 1 in 4 children” etc… “once a month, 3 out of 5 employees.”   Here we set the stage and then stretch it out:  this is the situation… this is how the situation feels … can’t you just empathize with the victims in the situation?… and then we bring it on home: “And that’s where we come in.”

Sometimes it’s hard to give a nonverbal cue in writing. A nod or a nudge doesn’t translate well in e-mail. But behold the parentheses! Give your recipient an “aside.” For example: “Here are the facts, Joe. (I’ll tell you how I got them, later)”or “Let me tell you what happened today. (You know I’m smiling, right?)”

And then of course, let’s not forget the ellipsis: … (dot, dot, dot)… As writers, we can create time to pause, to ponder, to leave room for thought. So rather than impose our definitive conclusion, we can give readers a gentle hug that says, “go on… you can do it … take a moment and read between the lines.”

Descriptive phrases can fill in where words fall short. A narrator or interpreter can carry the plot when a character is silent. In press releases, authors used to signal the conclusion with a simple number:  -30- (two digits that in old newspaper days meant “end of story.”)

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