Episodes
Artwork from Radiotopia Presents: Blind Guy Travels.
The Be My Eyes Podcast, Jun 08, 2021, Do Blind People Use Body Language?

Do Blind People Use Body Language?

This week on the podcast, we're collaborating with Radiotopia and PRX to share the first episode of the new podcast, Blind Guy Travels. Follow along with host Matthew Shifrin as he shares his perspective on everything from LEGOs to online dating. In this first episode: Matthew explains how he studied the art of body language to become a better communicator.

Episode Transcript

Will Butler:

Today, we're doing something really special on the Be My Eyes Podcast. We're teaming up with our friends at Radiotopia and PRX to present a new miniseries all about blindness. This is the voice of Matthew Shifrin, and I'm going to let him introduce the show.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Let me tell you about a sound that you'll be hearing a lot during this show. As I'm speaking, you'll hear a little click. Usually, in the middle of the sentence, or between thoughts like this. That's because I'm reading this narration off of a braille computer. It's an amazing little device that can browse the web, send emails and even read books. But the catch is that the braille display on it can only show 32 letters at a time. That won't even cover the average tweet, let alone a whole paragraph. For example, the sentence I'm reading right now has 204 characters in it. So to read you the rest of it, I have to push a button that moves the braille display forward. And that's what you're hearing. That clicking sound is just one tiny peek into what it's like to be blind. It's something that most sighted people have probably never heard or considered before. And that's what this show's about. From Radiotopia, this is Blind Guy Travels.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

My name is Matthew Shifrin. I'm a 23-year-old composer, accordionist, rock climber, entrepreneur, and comic book fan; and I created this show to share what the world is like from my perspective, to take experiences that you think you know, like going to the movies, using a dating app, or building a Lego set, and to make you say, "Huh, I never thought of it that way before."

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

The series spans six episodes, and you can hear the first one right now. In it, I'll tell you how I learned to use body language, without ever having seen a single hand gesture or facial expression. So strap in and enjoy the ride. Here comes Blind Guy Travels.

Will Butler:

You're still listening to the Be My Eyes podcast. I'm Will Butler, and this week, we're bringing you the first episode of the new Radiotopia miniseries, Blind Guy Travels.

Will Butler:

Blind Guy Travels just launched last week. You can get it by searching for "Radiotopia Presents" anywhere where you listen to podcasts, and check out the first couple of episodes.

Will Butler:

Over the course of the next several weeks, Matthew is taking us through his life and his perspective on blindness. It's going to include everything from what it's like to go to the movies, to what it's like using a dating app as a blind person. He has an incredible perspective, and there's no voice quite like his. So we're thrilled to be able to team up with PRX, to help get the word out about this amazing new show.

Will Butler:

In particular, you'll want to look out for Matthew's episode about how he made Lego instructions accessible. That's premiering as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. You bet you didn't know they did podcasts, but it's an incredible story, and we feel a deep connection to it with our own roots in Denmark.

Will Butler:

Finally, if you want to get a little bit behind the scenes and hear our own interview with Matthew, head over to the Say My Meme podcast. We had Matthew on as a guest this past week. He was an incredible joy to talk to, and we talked about memes related to some of his favorite musicals, which is a great passion of his. So, check out Say My Meme anywhere you get your podcasts, and find all the episodes I'm talking about here, at bemyeyes.com/podcasts.

Will Butler:

Now, here's episode one of Blind Guy Travels, wherein Matthew learns how to use body language.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

I can't knit my eyebrows. Seriously, no matter how hard I focus on the muscles in my forehead and try to squeeze them together, my eyebrows just don't move. Something so simple, so natural, is impossible for me. I guess that muscle right between the eyebrows, the one that makes them come together into a look of concern, that muscle just never developed.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

I was born blind, so the only facial expressions I can make are the instinctive ones. The ones we are biologically programmed to make, like smiling, pouting, yawning, crying. I never learned the rest. I probably have the smoothest forehead ever, since I never actually wrinkle it. And I can only smile for about 10 seconds before my facial muscles start spasming, since they're not used to working so hard. I don't know how people can keep a polite smile on all day. It sounds incredibly painful.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

As a kid, my parents did their best to teach me how to blend in with the sighted world. They would constantly remind me to smile when talking to people, since talking with a blank expression was kind of creepy. They also taught me to turn my head to face people when I talked to them. Inevitably, I'd ask why I had to learn all this. And I can still remember my dad's answer: "Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they can't see you."

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

When I was in third grade, my parents were helping me rehearse for a school play. The story was called the Little Red Hen, and it involved something being stolen on a farm. As the farmer in the play, I had to go around and interrogate the animals one by one. And what my parents realized during these rehearsals was that I didn't know how to point. The pointing motion, with the clenched hand and straightened index finger, had no significance for me. It was something I'd only read about in books. And so I ran my lines diligently, over and over. But as far as I can remember, when I delivered those lines on stage, I stood rooted to the spot with my arms at my side.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

My name is Matthew Shifrin, and this is Blind Guy Travels, from Radiotopia. I'm a composer, accordionist, rock climber, entrepreneur, and comic book fan; and I created this show to share what the world is like from my perspective, to take experiences that you think you know, like going to the movies, using a dating app, or building a Lego set, and hopefully make you say, "Huh, I'd never thought of it that way before."

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

For this first episode, I want to tell you about my first real attempt at learning body language. It began when I met a woman named Rachel Cossar.

Rachel Cossar:

Okay. So, let's do what we usually do and start with a little bit of physicality exercise. Just to get you [crosstalk 00:07:24]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Two years ago, I was asked to do a TED Talk about a nerdy project of mine. This would not be my first time getting up in front of a crowd, but all of my previous stage experiences had been more or less tailored to my blindness. For example, I played a mischievous troll who the villain captured and physically dragged to center stage. Once, I even played FDR, which meant I could be pushed onstage in a wheelchair, rather than walking around with a cane. If I was singing in a recital, I'd just stand up straight and sing. No one cared whether I moved my arms or not.

Rachel Cossar:

Make sure you're shaking out your legs, too. Just one at a time. [crosstalk 00:08:01]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

But this was different. It was a talk, and people expect much more from a talk than just talking. I had to figure out how to deliver the information in a visually engaging way. So, a friend introduced me to Rachel.

Rachel Cossar:

And then I watched your rehearsal, and I was like, "This guy has such a cool story, and he just gave a whole 10 minute talk and did not move a muscle."

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

It's true. I stood there still as a statue.

Rachel Cossar:

And I was like, "If you're interested, I do non-verbal communication body language training."

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Needless to say, I was interested. I knew that gesture was something I needed to learn, but I just wasn't sure how to learn it.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Was there a moment for you when you realized the power of gesture?

Rachel Cossar:

Probably when I was three years old, and I went to the ballet the first time, and turned to my mom and was like, "When are they going to start talking their characters?" And my mom said, "There are going to be no words for the duration of this two-hour performance."

Rachel Cossar:

And then when I left the theater, I knew the characters, I knew what they thought, I knew how they felt about one another; and I understood the whole story, and nobody had said any words.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

So, Rachel started ballet classes, and eventually became a professional dancer.

Rachel Cossar:

So, I danced with the Boston Ballet for 10 years, and I retired almost four years ago now, and started working at Harvard, actually, in their fundraising offices.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

What Rachel realized is that business people didn't know how to use body language to help get their message across. So, she started Choreography for Business, a company that teaches non-verbal communication to entrepreneurs.

Rachel Cossar:

So then, I started working with people in fundraising, business, finance, consulting.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

I've been working with Rachel for over a year now, and we recently got together for a refresher course.

Rachel Cossar:

...up to the sky, deep breath in.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Back when we started working together for my TED Talk, our first task was to alleviate what I call "noodle arms".

Rachel Cossar:

Yes, yes. It was so good, because you had this term "noodle arms" for the way you- [crosstalk 00:10:17].

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Basically, since my arms had no purpose and no idea what to do with themselves, they would just hang loosely by my sides, like noodles.

Rachel Cossar:

Noodle arms no more.

Matthew Shifrin:

Noodle arms! Ahh.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

We needed to give the arms purpose, so Rachel created a base posture, with both hands crossed in front of the belly button, so that my arms would always have somewhere to come back to when they weren't gesturing.

Rachel Cossar:

You were like, "Oh, this has never made sense to me until this moment."

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Now, my arms always had a place they could be.

Rachel Cossar:

So, let's get into our anchor posture. Right? Perfect. Great, so you have your feet firmly planted in the ground, right? [crosstalk 00:10:56]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Once we had a base posture down, Rachel would find moments in the talk where a gesture would be helpful to visually emphasize my point.

Rachel Cossar:

You're embodying your own experience. You know what I mean? It's like you've done this all before, and now you get to relive it for the audience. That's why we do these gestures.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

So, the talk itself was about a project of mine: to make Lego sets accessible to blind people. You're actually going to hear the whole story in a later episode, but it begins with my friend Leila coming over to my house,

Rachel Cossar:

Friend Leila came by, and brought that big box with that big binder. Right?

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

So Rachel suggested a large circular gesture to show the size of the box, which contained an 823-piece Lego castle, along with a complete set of braille instructions.

Rachel Cossar:

It anchored Matthew, it anchored you in that moment.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

We kept going like this, line by line.

Rachel Cossar:

Let's play around with that, so we get it a little less mechanical.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

I would give Rachel the text of the talk, and she would craft the gestures and teach them to me.

Rachel Cossar:

Yeah. And when you shift, so, I want you to take your whole weight to shift over to- [crosstalk 00:12:07]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

No one had ever really explained why I should use one gesture over another. [crosstalk 00:12:11].

Matthew Shifrin:

Does the body bend?

Rachel Cossar:

The body doesn't bend, it just moves.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Why holding your hands palms-up, for example, gives a sense of openness, or positivity. [crosstalk 00:12:19]

Rachel Cossar:

But if you want to tell someone something negative, we're going to use palms down because it's more forceful and authoritative.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Or, why bending one's wrist a little more, or not straightening your fingers enough-

Matthew Shifrin:

Finger... Should it be eye-level?

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

...would give the gesture a completely different connotation.

Rachel Cossar:

Yeah. And don't bring the hands together between.

Matthew Shifrin:

Oh, no?

Rachel Cossar:

They can just keep open.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

She even taught me how to point. Finally!

Rachel Cossar:

If you're like, "Aha, I have an idea!"

Matthew Shifrin:

Where would you point, though?

Rachel Cossar:

Up.

Matthew Shifrin:

Up?

Rachel Cossar:

Yes.

Matthew Shifrin:

At the ceiling?

Rachel Cossar:

Yes.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

These gestures might seem simple to sighted people, but they were completely alien to me. And if you stop and think about it, a lot of them are pretty arbitrary.

Matthew Shifrin:

"I have an idea!" he said, and pointed at the ceiling.

Rachel Cossar:

You think it's funny, but that is very accurate.

Matthew Shifrin:

Okay. I've never-

Rachel Cossar:

That's a very accurate expression.

Matthew Shifrin:

I've never thought about... No one has ever told me. Fascinating.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

And because these motions meant nothing to me, I had to write out where to put my arms and hands during each and every phrase of the talk.

Matthew Shifrin:

From base, take the hands. Hands go out equal distance. [crosstalk 00:13:33]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

For example, when I say what parts I needed, I should lift the right arm at a 90 degree angle, keeping the elbow away from my rib cage, and make a fist, thumb out.

Matthew Shifrin:

Hand pumps up, out- [crosstalk 00:13:47]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Then, move this fist back-and-forth deliberately, as I list the three options, with one enthusiastic punching motion per option. This motion should be slight, not wide, small and controlled.

Matthew Shifrin:

And then swivel, go back to center on "or the", and shift it left for [inaudible 00:14:10]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Once we established a gesture vocabulary for my talk, I had to practice those gestures. I knew what they meant conceptually. For example, that moving my arms in a big circle was meant to show size. But that motion still didn't mean anything to me, personally. It was like opera singers who learned songs in a foreign language, but have no idea what they're singing about. I had to create an association between the phrases and the gestures.

Matthew Shifrin:

Put the hands in front of the upper body, as if orbs of light are in your hands. Then- [crosstalk 00:14:48]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

I spent hours in my dorm room, going phrase by phrase, to ensure that each gesture felt smooth.

Matthew Shifrin:

On "I had to give it to others", bring them out, palms up. [crosstalk 00:14:57]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Then, I ran the talk by anyone I could find, to make sure that everything looked natural.

Matthew Shifrin:

On "I couldn't keep this to myself", cross just the hands on the chest.

Matthew Shifrin:

On that phrase, put your palms up, with imaginary fabric in hand, the thumb rubbing against the other stationary fingers.

Matthew Shifrin:

On "build that same statue..."

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Soon enough, the big day arrived. I took the train with a friend to Suffolk University where the talk was taking place. It was so incredibly nerve-wracking that I could barely think straight.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

When they announced me, I could tell by the sound of the applause that there were about 100 people in the audience. Someone handed me a clicker to switch slides, and led me out to center stage. I found my base posture, with my feet shoulder-width apart, and my hands crossed at the waist. I breathed deeply a couple of times. Then, off I went.

Matthew Shifrin:

Do I look like the kind of person that builds Lego sets in his spare time? Probably not. But on my 13th birthday, my friend Leila came over, and with her, she brought this big cardboard box, and this big fat binder as thick as a textbook. [crosstalk 00:16:13]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

As a blind person, you can't see your audience. So, you just do your thing, and hope that they laugh, clap, or make some other sort of noise to let you know that they're still listening.

Matthew Shifrin:

Sounds like a really relaxing way to spend your afternoon. Doesn't it?

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

That chuckle was all I needed.

Matthew Shifrin:

So, when we made these text-based instructions, Leila made them because she wanted me to have- [crosstalk 00:16:34]

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

And 10 minutes later, the talk was coming to a close.

Matthew Shifrin:

If there's something that you're passionate about, and you want to spread that passion, then give it to those who would otherwise be unable to access it. Those people will thank you. And you'll have to be the most creative you've ever been, because you'll have no choice. The creativity that I use every day, to help these people do what they never thought they'd be able to do, and the joy that it brings these people, is what drives me and what will drive you to make the most impact. Thank you.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

The last gesture of all performances, of course, is a bow. Bend the torso slightly forward, then back up. Not too low. I've been practicing that one for a while now.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

To this day, I don't move much when I talk. Turning to face people has become second nature, but I still sometimes catch myself with what some have described as a bad case of resting bitch face. Got to remember to smile.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

I still marvel at how people can express themselves using their faces and hands, how their words are instantly and effortlessly translated into motions. It will never be that way for me.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Some blind people can improvise their own gestures, based on their instincts, and still be understood. But for me, I want to know that sighted people understand what I mean when I use my hands. So, Rachel's technique of memorizing sighted gestures has always worked better for me.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

During that TED Talk, there was a kind of freedom to the performance that I hadn't felt before. I wasn't just standing on stage and delivering my lines, I was talking and moving, and understanding what each motion meant as I made it. As a blind person, I stand out no matter where I go, so it felt great to be able to act just a little more sighted by using these gestures.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

When people came up to me after the talk, they complimented me on my speaking, and asked me questions about the story itself. But no one mentioned the gestures. Not one person. I guess that's the best compliment of all. To a sighted person, it would only seem natural that the blind guy on stage would gesture too, because everyone gestures, right?

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Still to come, on Blind Guy Travels, we'll write a musical, interview some skeptical elderly Russian ladies, and maybe even find love. I have no idea what lies ahead, so let's do this.

Matthew Shifrin (narration):

Blind Guy Travels from PRX's Radiotopia is written and performed by me, Matthew Shifrin. I wrote and performed the music in this episode as well. Ian Coss is our producer and sound designer, and Audrey Mardavich and Julie Shapiro are our executive producers. If you'd like to learn how to communicate more effectively, visit Rachel Cossar at choreographyforbusiness.com.

Will Butler:

Thank you for listening to the Be My Eyes podcasts, and thank you to Matthew Shifrin for contributing this amazing episode. We're closing out season three, but we'll be back sooner than later, probably. In the meantime, look for Radiotopia Presents: Blind Guy Travels, and stay tuned for more in the coming months. Just because we're on vacation doesn't mean we're not checking email. Podcast@bmyeyes.com. We'll check in with an occasional episode, and enjoy your summer, everyone.