Smoke Signals

Culture | 19 September 2017
Keith Walkerby Keith Walker

If you get the chance, take a moment and play the anthropologist. Watch a smoker. It won’t take you long to see that, whether you understand or not, they’re speaking to you.

A lot of the time we are all acting a part. We have to be in very familiar company to be completely ourselves. Around strangers, in public, we modify our behaviour to try and project who we want to be seen as. Body language is a powerful part of this act, especially for smokers. A cigarette is our most valued, trusted prop.

This isn’t the unconscious body language studied by psychologists. What we’re looking at here is what smokers are trying to say. What they’re actually saying, and how we interpret it, is a bigger, subtler subject best left for another day.

So what are these smokers saying to you? Shaking one from the packet and pulling it into their lips without looking – ‘Been there, seen that, got the tee-shirt.’ Leaving a smouldering stub dangling from their top lip – ‘I’m a bad boy/girl.’ Taping the filter end down a couple of times before lighting or flicking the match away before giving a third light – ‘I’m old school.’ Holding the cigarette between the very tip of their index and middle fingers – ‘I’m a lady.’ Holding it with thumb and index finger, tip toward their palm – ‘I’m a geezer.’

Less specifically, but just as importantly, that small baton in our fingers emphasises our hand gestures. Circling in frustration or impatience, waving airily in casual dismissal or stabbing angrily, we all speak with our hands and smokers even more so.

It’s not just how we hold or wield our cigarettes. Smoking itself is an even richer way of speaking without words. A long, slow drag of skepticism or detachment. A sharp puff of smoke snorted in derision or slowly let go in satisfied contentment. Blow a stream directly at someone and that’s serious fighting talk. Let a thick curl barely escape parted lips and you’re saying just the opposite.

Perhaps the reason people look so awkward vaping today is that there’s no recognised body language. Apart from the very basic ‘I have the sense not to smoke’, we can’t see what vapers want to say. It seems all but impossible to look bad, sophisticated, bored, cool or anything but uncomfortable holding a stick, pen or mod. I’d bet even Samuel L. Jackson struggles to make it work and if he can’t pull it off what hope it there for the rest of us.

Given the variety of current vaping kit, most of it clumsy and ugly, it doesn’t seem likely a widely recognised language of vaping will develop any time soon. Sticks and mods shout about themselves, drowning out anything their users may want to say. A smoker wants to speak for themselves in their own language.

But now vaping kit has evolved to meet these needs and in the simplest possible way. Turn AYR to discreet mode and it’s back to our familiar prop, the cigarette. From more than a few yards away, unless they’re specifically watching, most people wouldn’t notice you’re a vaper not a smoker.

AYR says what I want to say, the gestures and signs we already know work just as well with this elegant bit of kit. With AYR we can vape and be ourselves, staying in our practiced roles.

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