NEW YORK — “People feel weird when they meet me," 27-year-old Blake Eastman said. He’s perched on a coffee table eating gummy bears.
Sitting across from him on the couch in an expansive, hardwood-floored rental space in Chelsea getting ready to watch him teach “The Dating Workshop," I admit that I feel, if not “weird," a bit self-conscious. It’s hard to meet a master of body language (or, to quote Eastman, “nonverbal communication") and not worry about what you’re doing with your hands, how solid your eye contact is and whether he’s reading your mind. Hint: He sort of is.
For eight months, Eastman has been teaching singles on the dating scene to read minds, too, and to use their bodies to send clear signals. For example, you can send the message, “If you touch me, I will gag," by slowly moving away each time your date invades your personal space. Or you can communicate, “Kiss me! Now!" by playing with the buttons on his shirt, looking at his lips or softening the tone of your voice just so.
Those moves might sound primitive, but on a first or second date, it’s difficult to say exactly what you’re thinking. Most people opt not to.
Eastman’s theory is that if you’re not fluent in body language, you’re likely to give your date the wrong idea, to inadvertently act uninterested when you’re interested or vice versa, to be left mystified by someone’s vanishing act, even though he was telling you the whole time — wordlessly, of course — that he couldn’t wait to get away. Modern dating is one big (quoting Led Zeppelin here) communication breakdown. But The Dating Workshop and Eastman’s other classes, including Body Language Explained and Deception Detected, are designed to help.
“I promise you," said Eastman, who has a blue-eyed baby face but speaks with the quick cadence of an Aaron Sorkin character, “in about a year and a half, my name will be synonymous with body language."
Arguably, the writer Neil Strauss has a corner on that market. His 2005 runaway best-seller, “The Game," told the story of the years he spent with professional pickup artists learning how to seduce women. Much of Strauss’ strategy entailed nonverbally conveying self-confidence. Eastman, however, didn’t come to the study of body language to get laid. He says he developed his proficiency in nonverbal communication during childhood as an adaptive response to his anxiety. In social situations, he often found himself paralyzed, imagining worst-case scenarios about what would happen if he made the wrong move or said the wrong thing. So he learned to read people to discern what they wanted from him. Years later, he obtained a master’s degree in forensics from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, started teaching psychology classes at LaGuardia Community College, and became a professional poker player. He uses his winnings to fund his own research in nonverbal communication, conducting countless hands-on hours in the field.
Some of his lab settings are cocktail parties; he sets them up, films them, and then studies the footage. In the summertime, he stands between two mailboxes across from the outdoor tables of Blue Water Grill, a seafood restaurant in Manhattan’s Union Square, observes people on dates, and collects data. He shares his findings through The Nonverbal Group, the research and teaching company he founded and runs. In his rental space, he maintains an office — a desk and computer, shelves full of body language and pop-psychology texts including “The Brain In Love, Who’s In Charge?," and a couple of books by Malcolm Gladwell — as well as a seminar room where he’s taught more than 2,600 students in the past year.
‘The orientation reflex’
Eastman tells me that The Dating Workshop usually draws more women than men. But when the room fills up, the crowd is about 50/50, the majority in their 20s and 30s. The women have nervous eyes and adjust their tights; the men look like computer programmers with their straight backs, solemn expressions and wire-rimmed glasses. To begin, Eastman asks his students to shout out questions and writes them on a white board.
“I can feel people making assumptions about me," said a guy in the back row who wears a blazer over a plaid shirt. He asks Eastman for advice on changing that. “Like, I tell people I went to Harvard, and I can tell they’re thinking I’m a douche bag."
Eastman nods, watching him for a moment. He tips his head and squints. “Well, you do have a little douche baggery to you," he said. The room, including the Harvard graduate, erupts into laughter. “We’ll work on that," he added. (Later, he tells me that the “douche baggery" he picked up on stemmed from a disconnect between the arrogance in the Harvard graduate’s words and the insecurity apparent in his body language.)
“What about the nice guy theorem?" asked another man. “Nice guys finish last."
“Not true," Eastman said. “Those are just nice guys who don’t know how to market themselves."
He continues to take questions until he runs out of space on the white board. Then he sets about answering them.
“What’s cool in the world of dating," he told the group, “is that no one’s ever telling you how they feel. They’re showing you." He introduced “the orientation reflex." That’s the move a person makes to orient toward what interests him — turning his head, for example. He insisted that people orient toward us all the time, and we should learn to notice it. He talked about “pacifying gestures" we use to defuse the anxiety of dating, how men rub their palms on their pants and women play with their fingers. He explained that many people do poorly on dates because they’re “emotionally incongruent": What comes out of their mouths doesn’t match what shows on their faces.
He used President Obama as an example: “During the debates, he’d say, ‘Mitt, I disagree with you,’ " Eastman says, making a placid face. “Not, ‘Mitt! I disagree with you!’" Eastman said, changing his expression to an angry one. In that case, he explained, Obama came off as weaker than he meant to. But emotionally incongruent people can also come off as odd, and that can hurt them on dates.
‘I don’t know where I’d be without him’
So if they’re doing so many things wrong, how can discouraged daters improve their skills? “Video," Eastman said. “You watch yourself on tape. Then you can change." It might be a creepy move to set up a video camera on a first date, but Eastman will approximate the experience for you in his workshop by filming you talking to your classmates.
After the first hour, Eastman told his students to get up and mingle. Everyone stood and started moving around the room, wearing I-can’t-believe-we’re-all-sober smiles. I spoke with one woman, an actress in her early 30s who grew up in Virginia and felt mystified by New York men. “Southern men are so different," she said. “Here, I’m confused. I’m always horrible on the first couple of dates." She’s taken two of Eastman’s classes with a LivingSocial coupon, and she believes they’ve made her more aware. She feels more comfortable and less compelled than she used to be to fill every moment of silence on a date.
I spoke with a computer programmer (I knew it!) attending for the first time. “I don’t agree with everything Blake said. But he’s good."
I spoke with another woman who says that meeting Eastman and his girlfriend has changed her whole life. She has new friends, a new job and a new outlook. She wore the dreamy gaze of a cult member. I met another man who has taken a few of Eastman’s classes and seemed similarly enamored. “He’s just so amazing," he said.
After living in New York City for six years, I’ve met (sometimes as a seeker, more often as a journalist) my share of self-help gurus: diet experts, sex coaches, life coaches, career coaches, a man who believes he can make anyone a millionaire, an older woman who wants to fill up Madison Square Garden with young women and preach against premarital sex, an angry meditation teacher who demands $2,500 for meditation classes. And all of them, even the angry meditation teacher, have disciples — people who think this guru must be the path to happiness; on the guru’s website, they’ll write testimonials: I don’t know where I’d be without him.
But Eastman seems far more sweet than parasitic: While we waited for his students to arrive, he gushed about his girlfriend, whom he met in one of his classes. “Most people don’t communicate," he said. “My girlfriend and I are completely transparent. We have the best relationship I’ve ever seen." He talked about how great his friends are, how supportive his parents are. When I asked him what learning nonverbal communication has done for him, he answered, “I don’t know where I’d be without it." Eastman doesn’t give the impression that he aims to gather admirers but rather that he yearns to help people feel as comfortable as he’s learned to feel. “Communication is the most important part of relationships," he said. “I want people to learn to communicate."
Later in the night, the group engaged in a second mingle. This time, they seemed more relaxed. Still, Eastman has tips: “You were playing with your fingers behind your back," he told someone.
“And you," he told another student, “have a low blink rate. Guess who else has that? Me. And you know what happens if you stare at people without blinking? They’re gonna think you’re creepy."
And then, some advice we could all use: “You look upset," he told one of the computer-programmer types. “Come on!" he said with a smile. “Relax."