What humans have lost in body language could fill volumes. Most of us walk around deaf, dumb and blind in comparison to timber wolves, for example, who pick up the slightest alterations in intent and disposition.
A counter-argument might be made, of course, that what we’ve forgotten in body language, in comparison with any animals, we’ve gained ten-fold in human kindness and creature comforts. This argument would contend, perhaps, that we no longer rely upon intense awareness of one another’s moods, because we’re no longer at one another’s throats.
All of us freely pursue our own individual interests, absent the need to read the needs of anyone else. Yet we’re also often compassionate. If our respective, independent pursuits of happiness transgress the freedoms of others, or leave others behind, we sympathize with them — even lending them a helping hand.
Furthermore, it might be asserted, we haven’t lost all use of body language: Women, for the most part, still know how to flirt — the pulling and twist of the hair, the hand curled behind the ear, the secret smile — and at least a few of us guys still recognize this crude form of communication when we see it. Given the powerful dictates of evolution, should it surprise us that this sexual dialect of “body English” is the one most widely spoken?
We’re probably at least bilingual too: Most of us recognize a punch in the face before it happens. And almost everyone can spot laughter and tears too, and guess their meaning. So maybe we’re polyglots after all.
But there’s an important distinction to draw between following our own interests, discerning the moods of others only when forced to do so, expressing compassion then for those who warrant it — and actually expressing true empathy. Compassion, by the definition presented here, does not require of us a second-by-second awareness of others’ body language and a recognition of their underlying dispositions: compassion comes only after the fact — the fact of hurt feelings, spurned interest, and inadvertent disrespect.
Empathy, by contrast, necessitates an active, vigilant awareness of others’ dispositions via their body language: thus it is a form of kindness expressed by never transgressing in the first place. It demands conscientiousness. It obligates us to an attentive courteousness and to repeated acts of unselfishness.
Like the wolf, the empathetic person sees others’ vulnerabilities — and like a human being, he does not pounce upon them: He holds his tongue — or holds the door — or allows the car into his lane — or whatever the case may be. Empathy is plugged-in, still judgmental, but social — not selfish, ostensibly non-judgmental, and apologetic, i.e. “compassionate.”