Subconscious Emotions Reflected in Gait

CJ Blair, Columnist

The single most difficult task for people is trying to figure out what someone else is thinking. If, in our everyday lives, we vocalized every thought we had, society wouldn’t be able to function. So much of what we say is implicit, and for that reason, we have to look at subtext and non-verbal cues to understand what people are actually feeling. There are far too many of these signs to discuss at one time, but one of the most obvious ones is something that is often overlooked yet immensely telling of a person’s mindset: the way they walk.

They way that people carry themselves is one of the few instances where internal emotions are physically expressed in a way that is often completely unintentional. In the majority of cases, a person walks in order to get from point A to point B, with little consideration of how their gait reflects their mental state. But think about what you see when people around you are walking: A person overwhelmed with stress and anxiety will walk at a frenetic pace. When I am dealing with an episode of depression, I may walk like I’m bearing a cumbersome weight on my back — with slouched shoulders and a lowered head. Whether it’s elation or morbidity, the unbreakable connection between a person’s mind and body is best illustrated when they are forced to put their physical being on display.

Walking also precipitates its own odd set of social principles, distinctly different from the perceived norm. Any college student should know that people walking in a group get to their destination significantly slower than a single person covering the same distance. The per capita politeness of a group of pedestrians also seems to decrease, as if sidewalk etiquette is rationed between them, and each person is a little less considerate of the convenience of passage for those around them. Then there’s the vexing situation of what to do when you walk by someone else. Do you greet them? Do you look away? From what I’ve seen, most people here pick the latter, which I find to be its own small tragedy, but maybe that’s because of a common clique mentality on campus.

Even in these group settings, though, the principle remains the same. It’s incredibly hard to keep your mental state from being reflected in your physical actions, and those who try to combat this are bound to find walking much more of a chore than they had previously. By no means am I a kinesiologist, but I know that whenever I experience an episode of depression, my friends and family can immediately tell from my walk that something is wrong. When they’re in a similar state, I’m able to tell the same thing from their movement.

This isn’t to say that everyone is going to internalize everything they feel without any verbal confirmation of how happy or sad they are. There are, however, plenty of people who will. I couldn’t be more happy to go to Oberlin, but it is incredibly sad to see so many people on this campus walking around with obvious emotional turmoil that they keep to themselves, maybe because lackluster mental health services leave them feeling like there’s no alternative. By the same token, it affirms the vibrancy of the campus when someone dressed in the Oberlin uniform of a flannel and Birkenstocks strolls along the quad with their head held high and feet lifting off the ground instead of dragging.

Writing about the blues, Ralph Ellison called this musical genre “a near-comic, near tragic lyricism” derived from a person’s life experiences. Blues is traditionally seen as a form of catharsis for the musicians who sing it, and maybe this logic can be applied to walking. Though seldom approached as a way to purge emotions, a crowd of people on a sidewalk will demonstrate that such is what it becomes, even if it’s subliminal. Though singing the blues is more easily understood as a means of expression than walking, both are effective means to display complex human emotions. Walking is just one of many cues that reveal how a person feels, but maybe the knowledge that it is a sign at all is enough to promote awareness and sensibility of concealed emotions, and keep people on the lookout not only for the attitudes reflected in the strides of others but in their own as well.