When I was a manufacturing engineer, I spent my first six months working in the fab—fabrication plant—learning how the line worked, and how to operate the tools that processed semiconductor chips in the 24/7/365 factory.
Because even the smallest amount of contamination can ruin a batch of wafers in process—a very expensive proposition—everyone on the fab floor wears a clean room suit (a.k.a. “bunny suit”). Which means they’re covered from head to toe in white polyester jumpsuits, safety glasses, and latex gloves. And there’s no makeup allowed!
Imagine peering down a long bay of machines to find the person you’re looking for and seeing nothing but white blobs. Other than basic height and weight, and the color of their eyes, the only other cues you might get to who a person was would come from the—often outdated or poorly done—picture on their badge. Assuming it was right-side out so you could see it at all.
It was frustrating at first. If we had three tall (because to me, who isn’t?) guys operating tools in a certain bay on a particular shift—in addition to the tool techs and engineers walking around—I might have to go up to each one to find the person I was looking for. (It’s often too loud to yell. Not to mention, frowned upon.)
Not only did I not recognize people on the fab floor from far away, but often I would see people outside of the fab, like in the lunch room, and not know them up close. Hey, who knew that Juan had a beard, or that Becky’s hair was Clairol red?
But what I found interesting about working in the fab, is that over time you do start to recognize people without the usual cues we use when we can see them uncovered. Even when they have their back turned. You learn that Frederick always stands with his shoulders hunched and his head forward. Henry always has a loose, laid-back posture, and Georgia fidgets.
I don’t do it automatically yet, but when I write body language cues in my stories, I try to remember to mention some of the things I noticed back in the fab. The stance, gestures, and mannerisms that we might not notice when we can see the whole picture, but which make each person unique.
We notice more than we think we do, and I believe that incorporating those smaller, deeper details into your work can really bring a character to life for the reader.
Photo credit: By Intel Free Press [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons