Everyday social situations: where’s our body?

In preparing for a workshop we had to come up with an everyday situation that we could use for an acting-out exercise. We wanted the situation to be social, that is, multiple people in face-to-face contact. We also wanted the situation to involve explicit bodily movements, so, let’s say, some work activity, or something else in which people would be moving about the space.

To our annoyance, it actually proved quite difficult to come up with a suitable scenario. In everyday work situations, for instance, people in our developed Western world work quite individually when it comes to using the body. We sit and type on a computer, we construct, build or repair something, as a craftsman does, but this is all rather individual work, even if it is done together with others in the same space. The social interaction, in contrast, involves all kinds of nonverbal communication, but is not often directly connected to actual physical activity. So we stop what we are doing, and then talk to each other for a while, and then carry on again. Two painters would each work individually, and then at some point stop to negotiate who does what for the remainder of the job. And much of that talk is done sitting. We sit in meetings, at lunch-tables, in our home environment. When do we socially engage with one another while using our complete body in interaction with each other and the environment? As long it is not sex, there’s not much to consider.

Yes, the coctail-party. But here there is no active task, nothing ‘has to be done’ other than be there, and ‘socialise’. In that sense the coctail-party is an artificial construct, designed to be about socialising, just as is the conference, the exhibition, and so on. Interestingly the more fun situations I could think of all would involve kids, not adults. Kids build huts together in the wood, which is a very social event, and also very physical. It is an activity where the participants have to negotiate social relations as well as the mechanical properties involved (e.g the working of gravity), both at the same time, in one integrated fashion. For the adult activities that may do, we could only think of traditional socially situated crafts, like hunting together, and then skinning the bear and processing the meat.

There were some exceptions, like surgeons in the operating theatre, or dancers or actors rehearsing, or police officers investigating a crime scene. In such cases some goal-directed activity is driven both by social demands and by the more ‘physical’ properties of the task at hand. But the problem is with these kinds of activities is that one cannot sensibly act them out if one does not in fact possess the actual skills involved. If one is not a surgeon, or a dancer, or a police-man, improvising theatre would very quickly become very difficult. While everyone can enact an office meeting, once the body and the social are truly coupled in action, it seems that very specific skills and experience are needed, the kind of stuff you cannot ‘fake’ as an actor. Anybody got some alternative ideas for situations?