• Andy Murphy

The Importance of Nonverbal Cues in Bill Withers’ Who Is He (And What Is He To You)


Dadgummit. Who is he, and what is he to you?


Nonverbal communication is essential to human interaction. We use it to express ourselves without words and without thinking. How we feel and what we think can be broadcast from our heads to our toes without a sound. It is the culmination of haptics, kinesics, proxemics, and a lot of other fancy words.

In reality, nonverbal communication is a whole host of cues that show the emotional state that complements or contradicts our verbal messages.

A great example of nonverbal cues in music can be found in Bill Withers’ song, Who is He (And What Is He To You). In the song, a couple walks down the street and passes a single man.


As they pass, the boyfriend notices nonverbal cues between the man, himself, and the girlfriend. In the course of a few steps, the boyfriend begins to question his relationship based on what he’s observed. Then it gets spicy.


Listen for yourself:

Long accepted as one of the best singers in America, Bill Withers co-wrote the song with Stanley Wayne McKenney who penned the lyrics and mailed them to Withers. When asked by Mojo in 2003 Withers said, "Stan McKenney sent those lyrics to me in the mail. I've gotten a gazillion things in the mail and that's the only one I've ever done something with because I could see it. If I don't see it, it doesn't occur to me, so I don't attempt to say it."


Immediately, Withers was able to visualize McKenney’s words because the situation in the song is so relatable. It taps into our primal brains that tell us something is up without a word being exchanged. That primal brain that we all possess has kept us safe (and in this case free from heartache) for thousands of years.


Many people are able to visualize this situation based on the lyrics. Can’t you see the staredown, hear the throat clearing, and feel the frustration? To McKenny’s credit, he actually uses the words “cue” and “intuition” in the song to develop this scene he’s created.


Analyzing The Lyrics


Now, let’s break down the song to see why we all find it relatable and what it can teach us about nonverbal communication.


“A man we passed just tried to stare me down”


There is a strong visual opening. Right away, the voice is of the boyfriend who talks about the visual surprise and frustration he receives from a stranger who passes him and his girlfriend. Also, it’s worth noting the boyfriend is paying attention enough to see those people passing close to him. He also establishes a relationship with the yet-to-be-identified woman to which he is speaking when he says “we passed.”


So right off the bat, there’s a dynamic between a couple and a stranger. The stranger seems to take some offense to the boyfriend, but we don’t know what that is… yet.


“And when I looked at you

You looked at the ground”


Oh snap! The nonverbal plot thickens. When the boyfriend looks at her for some justification for the odd exchange with a stranger, she can’t look at him. She looks away, seemingly wanting to hide from the situation by looking down and pretending this isn’t happening.


While not a hard and fast rule of nonverbal communication, eye contact has been long associated with honesty. The boyfriend has to ask himself why his love can’t look at him and has chosen to hide her face by looking down at the ground. Is she trying to keep from lying to her boyfriend?


Picture this, someone you love looking down at the ground. Is this person bringing good news? Probably not. Someone looking at the ground is burdened or ashamed. When kids are scolded, do they look into the eyes of their parents? No, they generally look at the ground and wish they were somewhere else.


“I don't know who he is

But I think that you do

Dadgummit

Who is he, and what is he to you”


Clearly, the boyfriend has picked up a vibe from the stranger and his girlfriend that are incongruent with two strangers passing each other on the street. He now sees that there is a relationship he’s unaware of between these two. He’s now understandably upset wants answers. Wouldn’t you?


“Something in my heart and in your eye

Tells me he's not someone just passing by”


The brilliance of this line has to be acknowledged. Here the writer has tied the growing feeling of distrust in the boyfriend's heart to the expression he now sees in his girlfriend’s eye. The boyfriend knows the hard truth in his heart and it’s now moving through his consciousness.


“And when you cleared your throat

Was that your cue”


This question by the boyfriend seems to be the death nail in his suspicion. The girlfriend can't look her boyfriend in the eye and she’s cleared her throat to tell the stranger to end his staredown. Is that something that is done between two strangers on the street? Or is it a nonverbal signal between people intimately familiar with one another? What makes more sense? This ain’t looking good y’all.


“Now when I add the sum of you and me

I get confused when I keep coming up with three

You’re too much for one man but not enough for two

Dadgummit

Who is he and what is he to you”


The boyfriend is literally doing the math and there is one more denominator than he was aware of. At this point, we don’t know if this couple is exclusive. We can judge by the boyfriend’s reaction that he thought that there was only an A and B, but now he’s starting to see that there is more to the equation. His intuition triggered by a glance and a throat clearing is now paying off.


Finally, things come to a head in the final verse,


“Well, you tell me men don't have much intuition

Is that what you really thinking girl

Or are you wishing

Before you wreck your old home

And search for another new”


The boyfriend seems to recall a previous conversation that he’s had with his girlfriend before when he says, “You tell me men don’t have much intuition”. Maybe she has put off his suspicions before telling him that men aren’t intuitive about these things. Now he’s asking “Is that what you really thinking girl or are you wishing” The boyfriend is now fully confrontational, the nonverbal cues as gone and he’s fully speaking his mind. It seems that he is no longer in doubt as to her fidelity.


Lastly, he says, “Before you wreck your old home and search for a new”. This seems to be a warning for her to choose her words carefully because he’s convinced of his position on her faithfulness. Maybe in this case “your old home” refers to marriage, living arrangement, or courtship, but at any rate, it looks like the boyfriend is telling her she’ll soon be looking for another relationship.


He does not say it’s over as if he’s still waiting for her to respond. Perhaps in this story, he’s spoken so quickly or forcefully that the girlfriend has not had a chance to defend herself or push a lie even further. At any rate, we’re all left wondering what she says next and what happens to the couple. But I think we can all foresee where this is going.


Dang. All of this from passing a stranger on the street.


For a different take, The Three Degrees covered this song on their album So Much Love. They changed the gender of the song to be, Who is She (And What Is She To You.) In my opinion, it sounds much more genuine coming from a female perspective. You can listen and judge for yourself.

Regardless of which version of the song you prefer, there are some relatable lessons shared in Who Is He (And What Is He To You). We’ve seen an observant boyfriend follow his intuition, recognize intimate nonverbal cues, and question what seems incongruent. In a few steps, his love life has changed which shows us that paying attention to what others are doing is just as important as what they’re not saying.


Full Lyrics:


A man we passed just tried to stare me down

And when I looked at you

You looked at the ground


I don't know who he is

But I think that you do

Dadgummit

Who is he, and what is he to you


Something in my heart and in your eye

Tells me he's not someone just passing by

And when you cleared your throat

Was that your cue

Dadgummit

Who is he, and what is he to you


Now when I add the sum of you and me

I get confused when I keep coming up with three

You're too much for one man

But not enough for two

Dadgummit

Who is he and what is he to you


Well, you tell me men don't have much intuition

Is that what you really thinking girl

Or are you wishing

Before you wreck your old home

And search for another new


Dadgummit

Who is he, and what is he to you

Dadgummit

Who is he, and what is he to you

Dadgummit

Who is he, and what is he to you

Dadgummit

Who is he, and what is he to you


© Universal Music Publishing Group


DeleteMe_250.png
Protect Your Family with Your Inbox.