Do we fidget only for ourselves or also for others? I think fidgeting is primarily regarded as something that we do for ourselves. Erving Goffman and Adam Kendon, two fine researchers of social interactions, discuss fidgeting as something that is generally disattended (not noticed). So why would anyone bother to fidget for someone else? Yet, from what I observed the last two years I get a hunch we do fidget for others now and then.
Why do we fidget when it is for ourselves? The two important motives are comfort and habit. Rubbing or stroking parts of ourselves can be pleasant. A gentle pull of an earlobe, or a small caress of the neck (disguised as a muscle massage), or a stroke of the lips can feel nice. Under stress this may comfort us. Being creatures of habit we stop to even think about these little ‘creature comfort releases’. Habit can also inforce certain coinciding behaviours. For example, I started rubbing my nose when lost in deep thought when I was about 22 (I think) and now I probably always will.
I believe humans are actors. We put on a display of being very busy for our bosses and wives (or husbands). We put on an air of striding purposefully to our destinies, however unknown these may be. We wish to hide our idleness or lack of purpose from onlookers. In a society that favours productive and ambitious individuals it pays to do so.
Could it be that fidgeting is part of our armory of theatrical displays? I can find no reason to believe the opposite. It may require social sensitivity and experience to master the art of fidgeting but I think many people learn to use it to their advantage. How does it work? It is quite simple really. We assume others interpret our behaviour in a certain way. We then choose to display the behaviour that will be interpreted in such a way that others will respond the way we want them to. If we do not want to be interfered with we may choose to look busy and briskly hurry along our way.
Is Kiefer Sutherland nervous? Or does he want to look excited but in control of himself?
The human actor may safely assume two things regarding fidgeting: Others will disattend it if they can (it would be impolite of them to notice or comment on my earlobe pulling), and others will think you are nervous, restless or excited. Armed with these insights the actor can fake being nervous or excited, a useful display to gain the trust of others. A more risky assumption is that others will think that you are at least not afraid to comfort yourself. Apparently you are not scared stiff but well enough at ease to do something about your distress. This may be a useful display in situations where you wish to hide your fear. It even cuts both ways because besides the display function the fidgeting can also really comfort you, thereby relieving the fear. So next time you meet a brute in a dark alley, think about rubbing your ear rather than moving away, or stiffening up.
A final assumption can perhaps only be made with regard to people who know you well. If you always scratch your beard when you are thinking hard, you can start to fake thinking hard by scratching your beard. Now tell me honestly, did you ever try to fool people with your fidgeting?