My Husband is a Winker
Yesterday, I joined Geoff Hutchison at ABC Radio Perth, to talk about winking. Bernard Tomic’s notorious wink was the trigger for an afternoon which revolved around the wink. Starting with a discussion with Lucie Bell, the show’s Producer and ending with a myriad of winking emojis bombarding my phone messages. 😉😜
I don’t usually talk about the wink gesture, because it’s not a universal gesture–it isn’t innate within everyone. Instead, it’s a cultural gesture, a manmade gesture, with different meanings around the world. In the Western world alone it has several meanings, often causing confusion in people who observe it as to the intention of the sender’s message.
One thing I realised is, my husband is a winker 😜. In hindsight, I’ve observed this many times in him, however, it doesn't usually consciously register as an expression, because it isn’t universal–it doesn’t stem from a basic emotion. If I observe a universal expression in him (anger, sadness, happiness, surprise, fear, disgust or contempt), I pay more attention, because I may need to alter my behaviour to respond more appropriately to his emotional state.
Before you assume it must be hell living with me, I should let you know that he also observes and understands emotional expression. He consciously uses this skill to navigate his day-to-day interactions. It’s not something to fear, it actually enhances interactions and relationships.
The Meaning of a Wink
The Joking Wink
My husband winks for two reasons. Firstly, he’s inherently funny–to me anyway–constantly making me laugh with sarcastic comments, self-deprecating humour and comments directed to me, which, if I didn’t find funny, I’m sure I’d be deeply offended by. I’m not offended, because I share his humour, doing the same to him, in fact sometimes we laugh about what people would think if they overheard us. Another reason I’m not offended is he mitigates his offensive comments with a wink, overtly signalling, “I’m joking”.
Often, his wink is accompanied with a tongue jut 😜, a nonverbal behaviour which, when overtly used, signals “I got away with that.” 😛😝😜🤪 I wrote about the tongue jut in this post. With these gestures he overtly signals he’s joking and with his kind, caring, compassionate general behaviours, I wholeheartedly know that he doesn’t mean any harm.
The Wink of Solidarity and Connection
The second reason he winks a lot, and he did so twice while we were waiting to go on air at ABC Radio’s studio reception, is to show solidarity and connection. Its purpose, to put me at ease. He nonverbally told me, “You’ve got this, you’ll be great, I’m here with you”. There was no need for words. We laughed as he did this, because Geoff Hutchison was in the background, on air, saying, “Wink at someone and see how they react”.
This type of wink can also show agreement and affiliation, sometimes used covertly from one person to another, within a larger group of people. Signalling, “We’re in this together”, a meaningful psychological affiliation between two people, hidden from others. Often, in this context, the wider social environment they are part of is somewhat perceived by them as a them-and-us situation.
Similarly, this type of wink between two parties can signal a shared knowledge of a hidden intention or a private joke.
The Wink as a Flirting Gesture
The wink has another meaning, entirely different to the joking wink. When one person likes another, they may overtly signal their feelings in the form of a flirtatious wink.
I don’t recall seeing my husband do this type of wink. That said, our romantic relationship started with text messages, across the vast Australian continent. I’d met him previously, through work, but it was months later that we began to message, hitting it off romantically. I’m guessing, if I still had those messages, I would see one or two emoji winks 😉 Now I’m curious.
When the Wink Goes Wrong
Because the wink is so ambiguous in its meaning, there’s a risk in using it because it can so easily be misinterpreted by those who receive or observe it. In the case of the wink of solidarity and connection, what if the receiver doesn’t feel the same affiliation to the sender and instead misinterprets it as a flirting signal? This could be potentially damaging to both parties. The receiver believing they are being sexually harassed and the sender being perceived as a perpetrator of, and possibly accused of, sexual harassment.
Imagine a workplace scenario in which an innocent wink of affiliation is observed by the wider social group. This could potentially trigger a plethora of gossip and accusations.
A flirtatious wink is viewed by many as inappropriate within today’s Western society, in a similar way to touch. Some people don’t like being touched, even just a touch on the arm. When they are touched, they are left with a negative experience. A wink from a stranger or someone we don’t like can feel equally disconcerting and very creepy.
On top of that, some people don’t like attention. Would you want a stranger or acquaintance to feel disconcerted or creeped out as a result of your behaviour? If your intentions are for romance, you could have the opposite effect, turning your potential love interest away from you. Is it worth the risk?
And then there’s context. In my twenties, I was running an errand related to my studies at university. I felt really sick and just wanted to get home to bed. It was a migraine. On my way home, I received a wolf whistle. Not liking attention at the best of times, you can imagine my annoyance–and pain–in receiving the sender’s message. I must have grimaced, because the wolf whistler then shouted, “Fat arse!”, probably on the defensive for my nonverbal response. While I find this funny now, I didn’t appreciate any of the attention or the noise at the time.
What I’m getting at is, often we have no idea of a person’s emotional state within the moment. We’re not aware of the life situations or events that have happened to them in the past or recently, and how they could have impacted their emotional state or perceptions. What is intended as a positive and innocent signal, could be received negatively, filtered through experience, emotion and perception.
Let’s not forget culture. We’ve been talking about the wink in the context of Western culture, but differences in the meaning of the wink also exist around the world. What means one thing to one culture could mean something completely inappropriate for another.
While there is no right or wrong in nonverbal communication, it’s all about what signals and messages you want to send to others, I teach nonverbal communication, from the perspective of cultivating feelings of positivity and comfort within others. It’s in this environment that interactions and relationships flourish and people become more caring, compassionate, empathic, generous and agreeable. So, my advice would be to be aware of the risk and use caution. The wink, with its varied and ambiguous meaning, poses a significant risk in facilitating feelings of negativity and discomfort. Unless you are close to the person you’re winking at, and you’re certain they will perceive its meaning as you intended, it’s perhaps best to avoid it.