Leaving the Atocha Station with Nonverbal Persuasion

You tend to think of persuasion as a business skill where sources try to change Other Guys for a large mission, product, service, event, anything larger than just yourself. And even when it’s just little old you, say a teacher employing Why? Because! to motivate students, it still feels exterior, external. But, sometimes, you persuade to leave an impression about yourself on Other Guys to accomplish social gains. Like this fictional account.

The streets in Chueca were so narrow and its plaza so full in those months that it was easy to mill around in such a manner that people on your right assumed you were with the people on your left and vice versa. This was also true in its various overflowing bars; I could order a drink and stand looking bored in the middle of the bar and people would suppose I pertained to one of the adjacent parties; indeed, people in one large group or another often began to speak to me, assuming I was one of their number whom they hadn’t had the chance to meet. Over the general din I could hear next to nothing, but I smiled and nodded and sometimes slightly raised my glass, and henceforth turned a little more toward the group whose member had addressed; slowly I would be absorbed. Which is how I met Arturo . . .

This from Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Adam Gordon is on a poetry fellowship in Spain where he discovers his Spanish skills are not as good as he thought they were and worse still his poetry skills may be lacking, too. Gordon wanders through Madrid feeling isolated from others and himself, hitting upon these nonverbal persuasion plays to connect with others. Hey, take a crowded scene in a sociable bar with lots of drinking and you’ve got Low WATT processing and people Cue-ing off of smiles, body lean, and proximity to make friend judgments. Even if your language skills are weak, just look like you’re in the game and esto, you are in the game.

Of course, such persuasion plays are shots in the dark and Adam Gordon misses as often as he hits. And his misses lead to getting punched in the face from angry, drunk, and high Spanish men who think Gordon’s language-impaired silence means mockery. Persuasion giveth and it taketh.

There is a marvelous art of social persuasion, sometimes studied as impression management, shy like a fox, Machiavellians, and on and on with the tactics of getting ahead in your social world. If you like this line of concept, you might enjoy reading Ben Lerner’s book, Leaving the Atocha Station, about the fellowship adventures of a young man, Adam Gordon. Lerner displays a deft and light touch with material that borders on cliché – the young American artist abroad. Leaving the Atocha Station floats through perspective taking, language, meaning, and translation all the while telling an interesting story. I found the book to be one of the better novels I’ve read in the past ten years, especially given that this is Lerner’s first attempt at a novel after success as a poet. The guy is a helluva good writer and I hope he produces more novels.