Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"The knowing look" maneuver


In social settings; 'the knowing look' is a particular phenomena which can be considered as part of a range of practiced social skills. It can be a subtle and at times complex phenomena forming part of the 'dance' of social interaction. It may be a more positive or times negative activity, more knowingly or unknowingly practiced by a few or multiple individuals, who may have converging or diverging motivations. It is argued that there may be conceptualised a number of motivations and effects arising with this phenomena and any number of these may combine together as 'motivations' and result in 'effects'. It is argued that providing an indepth understanding of this particular phenomena can be of benefit to professionals and individuals in becoming aware, reflective and vigilant to social situations where this and other social cues are practiced.


The 'knowing look', commonly seen as a fleeting shared eye contact and associated facial gesture amongst two or more people, often plays a crucial role in friendship building as well as reflecting a continuing bond amongst close ties. It has been a social cue practiced by humans for generations. Manifesting as a brief gesture in the social 'dance', it is an art in itself, known by many but perhaps practiced by fewer. It's negotiation and timing are crucial in carrying it off as naturally and effortlessly as possible. It can be practiced as part of a conversation between two, or may be practiced in social settings amongst numerous individuals. It can seem an almost spontaneous occurrence arising out of a situation, or it may be more resolutely 'instigated' as an opportunity persists. It is an interesting yet under-analysed phenomena and this brings me to seek to provide a conceptual framework which can throw further light on its raison d'ĂȘtre, as well as to suggest some applied or normative uses from gaining a more indepth understanding. Bearing in mind 'the knowing look' arises as a specifically social phenomena, questions which have helped focus the enquiry include: What is the 'knowing look' activity? Why do people instigate the 'knowing look' activity? How did it arrise? Does it have a purpose? If so, what purpose does it serve? What are the motivations behind its 'instigation' and the effects of its practice?

Proposed conceptual framework

There appears several 'motivations' which may arise with 'the knowing look' and 'effects' which result from its practice. These can be broken down into:

1.Power and Leveraging power
2.Building friendships
3.Consolidating friendships
4.Subtle forms of bullying (ridiculing, isolating etc.)
5.Communicating an understanding, perspective or reality
6.Acknowledging shared understandings, perspective or realities
7.Solidifying understandings, perspectives or realities
8.Expressing concern

It may be the case that a combination of these concepts culminate as a complex cognitive-affective expression manifesting physically as a 'knowing look' which is then realised (either intended or unintended) as a singulation or combination of the above concepts. Importantly, it may be instigated as a more cognitive (thinking) or affective (feeling) expression, and this may be motivated at a more conscious or unconscious level. Also, it may be perscieved and reflected upon by the participants at varying degrees of consciousness. It's practice may be more learned and behavioural, or may be more consciously and contingently instigated.

Leveraging power relates to the idea that there are flows of power amongst social groupings or even perceived flows of power, where individuals consciously or otherwise seek to solidify or extend their power and related stature and influence; through participating in activities which can realise their goals. They may also seek to positively leverage the flow of power amongst a social grouping where they percieve an inbalance, or they may have whats considered negative or malicious underlying motivations. These activities can relate to physical mannerisms, as well as communicative utterances, which serve an instrumental purpose. Of course it must be recognised that there are also learned behaviours and traits as well as non-instrumental mannerisms, expressions and communication which takes place. The important point is that by participating in 'the knowing look' activity, individuals may be consciously or unconsciously seeking to leverage power within the social setting. For example, they may be looking to take (social) power away from the unknowing participant, or in tandem or otherwise, they may be seeking to relatively increase their stature and influence relative to the 'unknowing' participant. Furthermore, they may seek not necessarily to leverage power, but may seek to manifest power as a result of the social cue. The concept of power can be related closely to bullying but also to friendship formation and consolidation.

Building Friendships relates to how individuals use the particular social cue of the 'knowing look' to create or build friendships with the person participating in this activity. This can often closely relate to acknowledging shared realities, which can act as commonality on which to build friendship.

Consolidating Friendships relates to maintaining and strengthening relationships through participating in such social activities. For example, using 'the knowing look' may be an opportunity to solidify or strengthen friendship where there is a perceived weakness in the 'tie' that one wishes to address. Often the 'knowing look' activity may not be 'purposeful' or 'instrumental' as such, some times it may be more accurately envisaged as a reflection of a continuing friendship.

'The knowing look' practiced to the exclusion of others within the particular social setting may be a form of psychological bullying. In this instance, the 'activity' or 'practice' may be purposefully or unintentionally a form of bullying. In the case of purposeful bullying; the persons participating in the 'knowing look' (particularly the instigator) may be seeking to (1)ridicule, (2)exclude, (3)isolate or (4)a combination of the first three with a malicious intent in mind. To add to this, if the 'knowing look' was meant to be witnessed by the 'victim', it may be construed as a more explicit form of bullying whereby ridicule or embarrassment etc is sought to be inflicted, or a communication of power is sought to be delivered etc. Furthermore, if the 'unknowing' participant unintentionally witnesses the act, they may be the victim of unintentional bullying. It is useful at this time to reflect on the concepts of positive exclusion (harmless) and negative exclusion (malicious). There are of course many instances of 'the knowing look' which are forms of positive exclusion. The concept of bullying is closely tied to that of Power and leveraging power, and represents leveraging power and diminishing power in a purer form (moving towards an 'ideal type') and with more negative motivations and/or effects.

Communicating understandings, perspectives and realities
The knowing look may be instigated for the specific purpose of communicating with the recipient through subtle sensorimotor behaviour. In this instance the instigator wishes to communicate an understanding, perspective or reality. This can often be used in the act of courting whereby the activity is exclusive to 2 individuals and is not concerned with a third party, but may also be used in acts of consolidating friendships, expressing concern, leveraging power or even bullying etc.

Acknowledging shared perspectives or realities
'The knowing look' is often a social cue practiced in order to acknowledge a shared reality or perspective. It may to a lesser degree entail acknowledging an 'understanding'. For example individuals may capitalise on a shared perspective or understanding for use as a commonality from which to build or consolidate a friendship or relationship. It may be instigated by one individual seeking acknowledgement for an understanding, perspective or reality to which they believe they have, or have bore witness to, or it may be a spontaneous occurrence amongst two or more individuals.

Solidifying realities or perspectives
Similar to acknowledging shared realities or perspectives, the knowing look may be about solidifying or substantiating an understanding, reality or perspective. Individuals may look for confirmation that their understanding, perspective or reality is somehow 'more real' or not merely envisioned by themselves.

Expressing concern

Finally, the Knowing look may be concerned with expressing or communicating a concern for the unknowing individual in question. This may arise as individuals bear witness to communications and behaviourisms from an individual which they 'think' they understand, or which they 'think' they don't understand. This concept is closely tied and is a common motive and effect; in communicating, acknowledging and solidifying understandings, perspectives and realities. It may range from issuing a mere bemusement with the unknowing individual to an expression of deep concern.

Conclusion and discussion

'The knowing look' activity forms as part of a range of social skills which individuals develop and participate in, known cumulatively as social competence. It arises naturally as individuals develop socially through a range of social interaction. Often degrees of social interaction need to be 'maintained' in order for individuals to 'maintain' their ability to successfully initiate and participate in social cues and etiquette's. It is proposed that there may be motivations and effects related to the practice of 'the knowing look'. These may be broken down into 8 concepts, though it must be recognised that many of these concepts are in many instances closely bound to each other, with 'bullying' and 'expressing concern' often strong and common examples of 'power and leveraging power' and 'expressing communicating undestandings etc.' respectively. Significantly, these concepts often combine as motivations and result in planned and unplanned effects. 'The knowing look', may be instigated as a more cognitive (thinking) or affective (feeling) expression, and this may be motivated at a more conscious or unconscious level. Also, it may be perscieved and reflected upon by the participants at varying degrees of consciousness. It's practice may be more learned and behavioural, or may be more consciously and contingently instigated.

It is often the case that individuals who have suffered some form of repression at some point in their lives become 'cunning' as a result of inward development. This may be seen as a 'coping strategy' and an 'attempt' to overcome the oppression (see for example Nietzsche's conscience in Ridley, 1998, p.8). Following on from this last point, there is the hypothesis that some individuals are more attentive to their social abilities and are more active in utilising certain social cues to realise their goals. For example, a recent study argued that "individuals either fearing [social] rejection or suffering actual [social] rejection show increased attention to social cues" (Bernstein et al, 208, p981). Thus, percieved or substantied types of 'repression', or what Bernstein et al coined 'social rejection'; may result in individuals being more sensitive to social cues, and perhaps practicing 'the knowing look' and other subtle social cues in social situations more than others, as well as interpreting and using these for purposes (and in ways) which differ from others. Although it seems likely that as one gets older, such aptness of social cues are developed by anyone participating in social interaction, it may be useful to pay particular attention to children who have developed these abilities faster and are more attentive to this practice more than others. Why is this the case? Conversely, those who are viewed as lacking the ability to read social cues(kinestic) and participate in them; may lack the sufficent socialisation or may suffer from a learning difficulty or disability.

Having more indepth and resonant knowledge about social cues may help enamour professionals in more easily identifing individuals who require attention or even help. For example, having the necessary indepth knowledge and awareness of social cues may provide; school teachers, councilors and other professionals with the ability to be more reflective, aware and vigilant to the phenomena taking place in social settings. This may lead them to more easily identify bullying and forms of negative exclusion. Also, to identify individuals who more actively practice such social cues and do so in certain ways, as well as identifying those who lack the necessary competences.

In an everyday context, having more in depth knowledge of such social cues may allow individuals to be more vigilant to its negative use in social settings, and may allow individuals to reflect on their own use of social cues and whether they be positive or negative.

Overall, it is considered that empirical work ought to be done to further explore the practice of this particular phenomena in various social settings. For example, under the problem of identifying repressed children, it could be considered whether certain children who use social cues in certain ways have developed this social skill more extensively out of a need to do so? Furthermore, professionals who wish to understand and positively act upon a social environment may benefit from being more receptive and reflective to the subtle and nuanced social practices which take place. Understanding the use of practices such as 'the knowing look', may uncover previously unrecognised problems in a social settting.


Bernstein, M et al, (2008) Adaptive Responses to Social Exclusion: Social Rejection Improves Detection of Real and Fake Smiles Psychological Science 19(10): 981-984

Ridley, A (1998) Nietsche's Conscience USA: Cornell University Press

Copyright © 2006-2008 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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