Mornings with Mateo: Body language reconsidered

As we shared our plans to move in across the hall from Kate and Marton and the kids, one of the frequent reactions went like this: Uh-oh, lots of baby-sitting in your future!

Fair enough. Mention grandparents living nearby and baby-sitting is a blessing or curse that comes naturally to mind.

But in the six months we’ve been living across the hall so far, I can count the instances of what I’d consider baby-sitting — supervising the kids while the parents head off for other pursuits — on a single hand.

Our alone time with the kids seems less like baby-sitting and more like hanging out. Mateo tends to hang out in the mornings, Leila after dinner.

Mornings work like this: As the early riser on our side of the hall, I decide when Apartment #4 is open for business with Apartment #3. When the time comes, I hang the OPEN side outside our door. If Mateo has also awakened early, Marton or Kate take occasional peeks across the hall to see if the sign is up.

If it is, Mateo makes his entrance. Coming up on ten months and 31 pounds, he’s a big guy whose mobility has not yet progressed to the stage of crawling that involves his belly leaving the floor.

He’s a contented kid, usually as comfortable playing with toys on a blanket in the middle of the living room as he is twirling around in his exersaucer. But we like to start the mornings in my lap.

Maybe like most people, I’ve always been a little lost when it comes to communicating with babies. Baby talk feels too cute; normal talk seems inappropriate in its own way.

With Mateo, I let him take the lead. His lack of words doesn’t appear to concern him one bit. He’s got his moves: gaze, grab and bite, all supplemented with his repertoire of grunts, squeals and raspberries.

My conversations with Mateo, such as they are, got me thinking about conversations I have with people closer to my age. We rely mostly on words, but body language certainly adds a layer of understanding.

Mateo turns that on its head, with body language his only language, at least for now. You can almost imagine his sentence structure. He makes clear his subject or object with his gaze, and moves into verb forms when he grabs hold of whatever he’s been gazing at. It might be my glasses or his Hungarian-speaking stuffed animal — his vocabulary of grab is pretty extensive. Punctuation marks? His favorite is the exclamation point, a message he enjoys delivering with his raspberries and sometimes with those sharp little teeth of his.

It’s not so much that Mateo can’t talk yet. It’s more a matter of his grandfather just beginning to learn his language. His body language.

Mornings with Mateo sometimes feel like reporting situations I’ve encountered now and then. The person I’m interviewing might be chattering away in, say, Arabic or Polish. Left to my own devices, I have no clue what’s being said. The difference, in those settings, was an interpreter who was being paid to make sense of it all.

Since Mateo invariably shows up with no interpreter, we do the best we can on our own. The women in our family would probably describe it as good training: A couple of guys just sitting there listening to each other, with no basis whatsoever to offer even a single word of advice.

How do you communicate with babies?

10 thoughts on “Mornings with Mateo: Body language reconsidered

    • Thanks, Julie. I never thought that much about it with our own kids — too busy scrambling too many things, I guess — but it sure is interesting now that I have some time. Looking forward to hearing how your next chapter is going.

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  1. hi Bill, what a lovely piece!! i just finished my Master’s thesis on bodily expressiveness — when interacting with animals, though 😉 sending my regards to the whole family, Patricia


  2. hi Bill, what an interesting piece! i just finished my Master’s thesis on bodily expressiveness — when interacting with animals, though 😉 regards to all of you, Patricia

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  3. Did you explore the bodily expressiveness of people or animals, Patricia? Or both? I bet there are lessons there for Mateo and me. Any particular examples of bodily expression that you find especially interesting? Feel free to paste in a graph or so from your thesis auf Deutsch, and we’ll enlist Herr Google as needed!


    • well, it was more a philosophical than an empirical exploration of human-animal interaction 🙂 generally, I argue that for any interaction with any living being who is able to move around 2 principles can be applied: the principle of appetite/fear and the principle of reinforcement, meaning that for instance an animal which likes to be stroked will stay with you as long as you stroke it (or for as long as it has had enough) — and it will eventually come back for more stroking.
      I’ve pasted the preliminary abstract of the thesis (pending approbation) below. had to write it in English, anyway. am now also thinking about trying to publish it as a popular science book 🙂

      Why is it that we regard a dog wagging its tail as being excitedly happy – and why do we take this assumption for granted? When trying to understand animals’ states, we run the risk of either patronizing or disregarding – and, thereby, overprotecting, suppressing, etc. – them. This paper explores a way to balance this polarity by developing a responsive approach as an alternative to the hierarchic one in which the human subject determines the animal object. In doing so, it contributes to multi-species ethnography.
      The method deployed is an innovative and interdisciplinary one: an anthropological theory of intercultural understanding is applied to interspecies understanding. At first, restrictive determinants, which humans are constrained to by language and the sciences, are identified. It is analysed how these prerequisites limit and bias humans’ perception and expression of the world. From this basis, two universal principles of understanding within the kingdom Animalia are identified: the principle of appetite/fear and the reinforcement principle.
      Embracing the phenomenological concept of the lived body (which represents a dissolution of the body-mind dualism and, furthermore, integrates the observer into any observation), an ethical approach considering phenomenon-based reasons like vulnerability crucial for granting moral salience is developed. This approach, finally, suspends any hierarchy between the parties involved: the animal is a phenomenon for the human as much as the human is a phenomenon for the animal. It furthermore provides a base for talking with and about the animal on its own terms: by the process of (1) a human bothering about an animal in order to be able to (2) integrate it into a common level of understanding which – ideally – results in (3) the animal’s cooperation (benefit for the human) as well as in (4) a larger scope for emancipation (benefit for the animal). The thesis also illustrates how this model is already and could be further applied in current animal research (cf. Qualitative Behavioural Assessment), philosophy and everyday life.


  4. Thanks so much for posting this, Patricia. In addition to getting to learn more about your project, I appreciate viewing my interactions with Mateo from this helpful perspective. He’s just been sitting on my lap for 15 minutes or so this morning as Kate gets ready for a meeting. But it was enough time to ponder the nature of our interactions.

    I’m struck by the concept you describe as “interspecies understanding.” Although Mateo and I share the same species, we’re at such different stages that mornings with Mateo can feel a bit like my interactions with Fielder, our beloved and departed Golden Retriever (you might have met him in St. Pete). And if you end up reading this at some point in the future, Mateo, I mean that last sentence as a definite compliment.

    But your research is also intriguing to me in its own right. Partly as a result of conversations with our son, Matt, about his veganism, I find myself trying to put myself in the shoes (OK, bad metaphor) of members of Kingdom Animalia apart from humans. Anxious to learn more.


  5. The key to “interspecies understanding” is a responsible application of positive conditioning – which also works with humans, though 😉 You can even “ask” a frog to jump onto a scale (if it has learned that it will be rewarded for that). Dutch animal trainer Sabrina Brando argues to give animals in our care more “choice and control” in the situations we deal with them. She gives the following example from a zoo: “If handlers do not have the opportunity to train animals to enter a crate on a voluntary basis and have to resort to catching the animal on a regular basis, handlers may want to consider having a distinct signal for catching versus non catching events. For example, an orange jumpsuit could signal a capture will take place; it might not fully reduce the anxiety during the capture events, but in the absence of the orange suit animals know that capture will not happen. This can help reduce anxiety toward caregivers outside the capture situations.” (, p. 395) Isn’t that fascinating!

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