Talking Heads

What Our Heads Says About Us – World Magazine 00-11-1987

Most of us are now quite used to the idea that animals reveal their most fascinating secrets to those who closely observe their behaviour. Equally fascinating secrets can be revealed by humans too – quite publicly. Written by Christopher Long.

If you and I passed each other in the street the chances are that you'd never notice me. And if by chance you did, any observations you might make would be very speculative indeed.

You might notice my height, my clothes and my manner of walking and that I'm blessed with an air of scintillating intelligence!

In other words, you might draw many subjective conclusions about my personality from an enormous range of small indicators but you wouldn't know who I am, what I am, nor how we should react to each other. A statement would be missing.

The most powerful statement I could make, in common with many species in the world, is so simple and so ordinary that most of us never consciously notice it. In common with most living creatures, humans make the most potent statements about themselves by displaying a signal on the highest or most visible part of their bodies.

They don't do it all the time but when they do it's not intended to reveal their personalities. It's generally done to achieve the exact reverse. The signal tells you what they would like you to believe about them, to obscure their individual characteristics and give you vital information: a warning or even an invitation.

For example, if I put on a policeman's helmet you would spot me a long way off and probably have complete confidence in approaching me. I would be telling you that I am a figure of authority, somebody you should trust to be strong and capable of dealing with a dangerous situation.

PC Trevor Lock probably saved his own life and the lives of many others at the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980 when he sat for six stifling days with other hostages, never removing his uniform nor parting with his helmet. That uniform, and the helmet in particular, represented a calming, authoritative presence in what might otherwise have been a blood-bath. PC Lock's fear was obscured by the 'display' just as his hand-gun remained hidden down the front of his trousers throughout the week-long crisis.

The helmet was more potent than the gun.

It's strange to think that we do very much the same thing as dogs, peacocks, stickle-backs or moths. We say we can feel the hairs stand up along the back of our necks when we're alarmed and millions of years ago, as hairy quadrupeds, there's little doubt that our hair did indeed rise along our necks, sending 'shivers' down our spines as a warning to our friends and making us look bigger and more dangerous to our enemies, just as dogs do when their hackles rise.

But this, like many other vestiges of our past, is an instinctive reaction. Peacocks sport a crest on their heads which they supplement instinctively to dazzling effect in the mating season with a fanned tail. But while most birds, insects, reptiles, mammals, fish and plants are programmed to signal to each other, we make creative, personal choices about the signals we display – even if the original motivation is as instinctive as a chameleon's. Our signals actually perform almost identical functions, after all. They serve to denote sexual availability, social status, physical superiority, proprietorship, as well as our function in society.

There is probably no society in the world that doesn't use hair arrangement or headress as a social signal. It's importance can be seen throughout recorded history. There are Morris dancers in England today who wear stags' horns on their heads in a ritual that may have originated thousands of years ago. In Britain the stag was probably the most powerful and dominant of all all animals, quite capable of killing or out-running wolves or any other predator – just as the bull dominated the the lives and imaginations of European cave-painters and the civilisations of Greece, Egypt and Rome. Small wonder then that warriors wore bulls' horns on their helmets from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia and that the Vikings even transposed their 'head-dress' to the prows of their ships as a 'corporate identity' warning to their enemies of the potency of the 'body' of Viking men on board.

This sort of symbolism had practical as well as psychological value. Warfare, until at least the C15th, was not conducted as Hollywood fondly imagines. Knights in Europe, like the Samurai in Japan, saw warfare as a number of simultaneous duals between individuals. Dressed in armour amid the chaos of a battlefield, it was difficult for a Turk, an Englishman or a Norman to spot his opponent unless he was instantly recognisable. This led to the lavish, very individual and decorated armour which covered the rider, the horse, the squires (equerries) and the retinue. But most visible and potent was the crest that surmounted the knight's helmet.

In peacetime knights practised this one-to-one mastery of arms by jousting in tilt-yards. But, when not in use, the armour would be ceremoniously displayed in the hall. In the centre would be the shield. On either side would hang the weapons. Above would sit the helmet and, surmounting that, the all-important crest. This represented a knight's individual totem – the identity he wished to display along with a bannered slogan or motto.

This ritual identification we now call a coat-of-arms and to this day there are those who wear a mediaeval knight's crest, transposed from the head to a signet ring. The symbolic 'right to bear arms' probably originated in the Orient and the Levant of the Crusades, but it lives on in the cap-badges of our forces today and in the logos of banks and institutions around the world. Just as the lion motif of Richard 1 told his opponent nothing personal about the man beneath the armour, the black horse of Lloyd's Bank tells you nothing personal about the bank. It does, however, tell you how the bank would like to appear.

Displays on the highest, most visible parts of most animals are generally associated with attracting mates, establishing social dominance in a group, warning off predators, communicating alarm to their 'friends' or establishing territorial pre-eminance. It's unlikely our signals are really any more significant than these – with one notable exception. Many of our most obvious head-dress displays are actually intended to depersonalise ourselves, serving rather to describe our function or position in society, real or imagined.

Judges wore wigs because in the C18th only the affluent and educated minority could afford them – thus marking their social status. Today judges continue to wear them and in this way their personal identity is concealed. No matter that they're still human: that they too drink-and-drive, suffer hangovers or are unfaithful to their wives. Such 'human' characteristics are lost beneath the authoritarian and impersonal horse-hair confection. We are at the mercy of a representative of justice, not an imperfect man like the prisoner in the dock. When the death sentence is passed a judge places a black cap on his head as a symbolic gesture of a decision made not by himself but by the persona of the wig.

In a society where what you do for a living automatically imparts status, head-dress again denotes rank. Traditionally, fishmongers wear boaters and an apron – not to be confused with public school boys who wear boaters and blazers. Traffic wardens wear peaked caps very similar to commissionaires, army officers, naval officers, senior police officers and prison officers. Yet, remarkably, we can distinguish between these very subtly different caps in a fraction of a second, instinctively reacting to each wearer in a different and appropriate manner.

Just a line or two on paper can indicate volumes: a collapsing souffle becomes a chef; a board with a tassel becomes an academic; a cap reversed with a long leather peak down the back is (or was) a coal merchant; while just a stroke of the pen creates a nun, a nurse, site-hatted labourer or bee-keeper.

Many of these British job identifiers arose during the C19th when class stratification was job-dependent and when the diversification of skills required instant recognition. And along with them went elaborate interpretations.

At the East India & Sports Club in London, one ancient member eventually lost his temper when certain members complained that he was wearing his hat in the smoking-room.

"In my day it was bad manners to remove one's hat in the company of gentlemen and good manners to do so in the company of ladies. What do this lot think they are ? A bunch of schoolgirls?"

Today, in certain regiments, an officer who wears his cap at breakfast does not wish to be spoken to.

Indeed, to ask a man not to wear a hat, at least until relatively recent times, was to rob him of his public identity and status. Until the 1950s minute social stratifications could be observed among otherwise identical looking males. Silk hats, boaters, homburgs, panamas, Anthony Edens, bowlers and countless others each had a time a place and a message to bear.

What is interesting is why the wearing of hats in Western society should generally have ceased so suddenly in the early Fifties. It seems likely that men were reacting against the universal use of rank-identifying hats during the Second World War. So bare-headed males set out to break down the socially divisive headgear system in what was then seen as a new, equal, meritocratic, Elizabethan age. To this day companies, local authorities and the Post Office find it difficult to persuade their staff to wear uniforms or official hats either willingly or with pride. This may be because men simply don't want to make 'categorical' statements about themselves.

If so, future anthropologists might find the hatless male of post-War Britain very interesting. For forty years men have rejected the hat/wig convention which had existed for hundreds of years. Instead we saw hairstyles like the Fifties crew-cut, the rebellious mop-headed and long-haired styles of the Sixties and Seventies, followed by those of today which simulate the respectable Twenties and Thirties.

Anthropologists will find all this quite as significant as the animal behaviourists now find the social behaviour of the great apes. Interestingly too, they will note major differences between the ways the two sexes signal to society.

Most women know that the way they use, adorn or adapt their hair is deeply significant of the way they wish to project their feelings or image. It may be more of a personal statement than men normally allow. Certainly women generally regard their hairstyle and any hat they put on top as the most potent statement that fashion can project. Female guards in Nazi concentration camps knew with devastating accuracy just how humiliating and depersonalising it was to shave the heads of their female victims. Such had been the traditional fate of prisoners around the world. For a man to held down and head-shaved could be unpleasant: for a woman it could be deeply distressing – suggesting that women place special and personal store by the appearance of their hair.

This can be seen everyday, not only in the amount of time and money women may devote to hair adornment but by the attention women pay to each other's hair colour, style and texture.

Women too use 'uniform' styles either to identify with an image, a particular celebrity, a quirk of fashion or simply to state that they aren't at all concerned with current trends and fashions. Nevertheless, the short-haired styles of the Eighties will tell future anthropologists a lot about how women felt, or would like to have felt, about themselves, compared with the fluffy blondes of the Fifties.

The crop-haired female of the emancipated Eighties may have a lot in common with the crop-haired first-time voters of the Twenties who had ploughed fields and filled factories while their men were fighting in France.

So, male or female, regardless of our position or role in society, we all make statements about ourselves either positively by adorning our heads, or negatively by choosing not to. In this we are following an instinctive impulse with the human ability to choose what we wish to 'say'.

Sometimes our statements are symbolic, like the bishop's mitre which recalls the flames which appeared on the heads of the Apostles who witnessed the vision of Christ at Whitsun, while at other times it's practical like the hard-hatted and lamp-lit head of a miner.

What is most fascinating however is the universal ability we share to recognise instantly, with unerring accuracy, what it is our fellow creatures are telling us – whether it be with horns or halos on their heads.

© (1987) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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