By Patrick Truly
The wink has become a mainstay in nonverbal communication. Like most nonverbal cues, a wink can carry many different meanings, including attraction, trust, friendship, solidarity, intimacy, closeness or competition. It is accomplished by closing one eye for a brief second while keeping the other one open. The open eye is usually focused and directed at the person who is receiving the message from the sender. In most cases, the receiver and sender share some type of relationship and both understand the meaning and intent of the wink.
In the film I, Robot, Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a detective in 2035 that is investigating the death of a scientist who was the head of a company called U.S. Robotics. This company is the leading manufacturer of NS-5 robots and has created them to follow the Laws of Robotics: 1) A robot may not injure a human being, or through contact, allow a human being to be injured, 2) a robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except when that order violates the first law, and 3) a robot must protect its own existence except if it will violate the first and second law. The death of a scientist appears to be suicide, but Det. Spooner believes it was murder and thinks the main suspect is the scientist’s assistance, Sonny, who is a robot. During his investigation, Det. Spooner learns Sonny is far more advanced beyond normal robots and has been given the ability to learn emotions and feelings by the scientist. Eventually, Det. Spooner and Sonny learn more about each other and end up fighting on the same team against the main culprit, VIKI, who is a computer processing unit that has taken over the main systems and controls all other robots.
There are two scenes that illustrate the significance of the wink. The first is in an interview room where Det. Spooner is interrogating Sonny. Sonny has observed one of the other detectives give Det. Spooner a wink as he walked in the room, so Sonny asks Det. Spooner about it. Det. Spooner explains that a wink is a sign of trust and is a human interaction that is unfit for robots. Sonny tells Det. Spooner that his father (the scientist) attempted to teach him human emotions. The second scene is towards the end of the movie when a bunch of other robots are closing in on Det. Spooner and a psychologist who has helped him throughout the movie. Sonny appears to take the psychologist hostage and is holding a gun to her head. While the other robots are watching, he tells Det. Spooner that he will follow orders from VIKI and that Sonny will escort them to an area for processing. As he explains that he would prefer not to kill the psychologist, he gives Det. Spooner a wink. He then gives Det. Spooner a small head nod and proceeds to fight the other robots with Det. Spooner.
These two scenes illustrate how powerful nonverbal communication can be. When Sonny learned what a wink signified (trust), he then used it to communicate that emotion with Det. Spooner later during a heated situation. Sonny was able to communicate an emotion with just his eyes and illustrate his intent on helping Det. Spooner with simple eye behavior and a head nod.
Burgoon, Guerrero, and Floyd (2010) explain that eye behavior is a very instrumental part of kinesics. They state that the eyes are “used to perform many functions of kinesics, including expressing interpersonal attitudes or emotions, regulating interactions, signaling attention…” (p. 122). This falls in line with how the movie portrayed a wink as a method of communicating a complex human emotion in nonverbal form.
Burgoon, J.K., Guerrero, L.K., & Floyd, K. (2010). Nonverbal Communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
I, Robot. Dir. Alex Proyas. Perf. Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, and Alex Tudyk. Twentieth Century Fox, 2004. Film.