Verbal and Nonverbal Communication in Maintaining Group Leadership: Lord of the Flies (1990)
The movie, Lord of the Flies (Hook, 1990), based on Golding’s now classic novel of the same title (1954/1997), was about how boys who had expected to return home from their military boarding school instead had to cope with being stranded on an isolated tropical island after dropping into the sea from their crashed plane.
Observations were on the topics communication and leadership. There were two major differences between the situation of these boys and examples used in research on group dynamics (e.
g., Johnson & Johnson, 2008). First, of course, the group formed in the movie consisted of children (the boys ranged in age from about 6-7 years to 12-13 years) in a situation that would have challenged most adults. Second, at the beginning, the boys were not and had never intended to be a group, in the sense that they were on the same plane only because they shared a final destination.
Thus the movie offered an opportunity to study group dynamics in the raw, so to speak, an opportunity to observe the spontaneous verbal and nonverbal communication among inexperienced children that determined establishment of and maintenance of leadership of boys who by necessity needed to function as a group. Based on observations of behaviors on a checklist (Appendix A), inexperience in leadership roles and poor skills in both verbal and nonverbal communication resulted in a split between leaders, with one of the leaders and most of the boys becoming increasingly savage and eventually killers.
The first of two obvious observations on the behavioral checklist (Appendix A) was that almost all communication was not in a dyadic context (defined as limited to an exchange between only two characters, Johnson & Johnson, 2008). In the entire movie, there were fewer than five exchanges between two individuals who were alone. Second, there was a clear pattern in the development of leader conflict (based on Rybak & Brown, 1997) that emerged through observations of both verbal and nonverbal communication (Anderson, 1999). Although it was clear from the beginning that there were two potential leaders of the group, Ralph and Jack, overt conflict (verbal, not physical) did not occur until around the middle of the movie. However, although until shortly before the actual conflict there were messages indicative of competition or hostility in the interactions between the two boys themselves, actual events, as well as other characters, were suggestive of the future conflict.
The first indication of leadership occurred at the beginning of the book, the evening they were stranded on the island, and one of the youngest boys addressed his question about anyone else being on the island to Ralph, referring to him as “sir” (apparently a term used at the military school when younger boys spoke to those they viewed as authorities). Although it was Jack who responded, his response seemed spontaneous and not related to any competition for leadership. His response that it was “just an Island” and they were alone was an indication that he formed opinions quickly and expressed them directly (probably not even realizing that the younger children were frightened and that his comment probably perpetuated their fear). Another boy asked “What if there’s no water?” and Ralph’s response resulted in calming the group, saying everyone was thirsty and hungry, but they’d be able to figure out what to do after they all got some sleep. These exchanges did reveal personality differences between the two boys in the sense that Jack and Ralph leaned toward being impulsive and reflective respectively.
The next morning, there was another indication that Ralph was perceived as leader, when another child directed his report of finding water to Ralph, also calling him “sir.” Ralph’s leadership was formalized after the character that was to play an important role in the development of conflict between Ralph and Jack gave Ralph a conch that had washed ashore and could be used as a horn. He used the conch to get the attention of the other boys and announced the rule that whenever anyone wanted to speak to the group, they would be able to do so by taking the conch, in effect, trying to establish a pattern of orderly group communication. After he said that the island was probably uninhabited, Jack, in a change from the previous evening, pointed out that they didn’t know that was true, that they “got to explore more.” His tone was in no way argumentative or hostile, but indicative of his nature as a boy who thrived on exploration and adventure, and Ralph, in fact, agreed that they would have to explore. Similarly, when Ralph said they’d need to find a way to start a fire, Jack supported him. One of the younger children asked Jack if he was “the leader,” addressing him as “sir,” and the assumption that a group had to have an established leader probably reflected the military school routine. Then the boys began speaking to each other, one noting that Jack was the oldest, another that Ralph was the “colonel” (apparently ranks were given at the school), then many voicing agreement that the role should go to Ralph. Jack’s response seemed genuinely good-natured, “I guess you just won the election,” suggesting that he considered the job of supervising a bunch of younger children by no means an enjoyable one.
Sometime later, Ralph and Jack were walking alone, and Ralph told Jack of his worries about all of them being able to “hold up.” Jack told him not to worry so much, that indeed “we got it made…no parents, no academy…no girls.” When he then said he actually wouldn’t mind “getting some” from some girls, Ralph good-naturedly responded, “As if you ever got any.” They then fought physically, but neither seriously nor viciously, as when Ralph pretended he fell on his already wounded arm, had Jack asked if he was all right, only to have Jack then kick him down, and the two wound up laughing.
While Ralph and Jack were having positive interactions, it became apparent early in the movie that Ralph would be in the position of trying to protect the boy mentioned above, who had found the conch. The boy’s appearance alone would almost inevitably put him at the bottom of the hierarchical structures that are typical in the groups children formed (Maccoby, 1999). He can only be described as resembling a large ball of blubber, pale but with balloon-shaped pink cheeks. Were such a boy quiet and shy, he might have mostly been ignored. But “Piggy,” as he came to be called, also spoke up frequently and, unfortunately, what he said probably would have annoyed the other boys regardless of his appearance. Because Piggy himself was cautious, he learned a great deal about all sorts of dangers and genuinely intended to be helpful when he cautioned other boys. His cautions provoked minor annoyance, relative to the responses provoked by his expressing his sincere beliefs about justice. Piggy was highly intelligent – but thoroughly clueless about “language pragmatics” (Crain & Lillo-Martin, 1999; the social, rather than syntactic, rules governing language use, for example, using questions, such as “Would you close the door?” rather than commands, such as “Close the door”). For example, Piggy seemed to be 10-11 years old, an age when most boys have learned that telling another boy, especially one with higher group status, to “shut up” is asking for trouble, and this is how Piggy responded after Jack explained why he didn’t think they’d ever get rescued. Jack responded not only assertively, but also with seeming astonishment, “Are you telling me to shut up?” Piggy made matters worse when he said that the group didn’t need people like Jack who “try to scare people” (and he really wasn’t referring only to himself when he spoke of people being frightened). Few boys are any more sensitive than Jack, who responded, “What we don’t need around here is you, Shit-brain.” Inevitably all the other boys laughed, except Ralph. As Piggy walked away, Ralph shouted that all of them should “shut up” (an acceptable way for a high-status group member to address a group, as opposed to an individual). Jack just shrugged, seeming to be confused, rather than offended, by Ralph’s defense of Piggy. Then Ralph patted Piggy on the shoulder and told him the behavior of the others was only because he was new at the school. As Ralph probably already realized, Piggy said “it’s always this way.”
Ralph was being kind in protecting Piggy (and the two actually became friends) but had he been older, he might have recognized that part of a leader’s role was helping group members learn appropriate ways to interact with others (Johnson & Johnson, 2008; Rybak & Brown, 1997). For example, had he asked Piggy to describe the entire incident, Piggy might have realized that although he had been treated cruelly, he wasn’t merely an innocent victim, but that it was a mistake to have told Jack to “shut up.” Indeed, Piggy’s unsolicited comment while Jack and Ralph were down on the ground trying to start a fire probably would have made a kindly old lady want to strangle him. While working, Jack became frustrated and used a word, “shit,” that flows easily from the mouths of most young (and probably older) people. After Piggy’s prissy comment, “swearing won’t help,” Jack got up and grabbed Piggy, telling him “Shut your fat ass.” This time, Piggy was saved when Ralph realized they could use Piggy’s glasses to start a fire, and all of the boys forgot about Piggy in their excitement about the fire. In the end, as discussed below, Piggy’s very well-intentioned way of communicating resulted in tragedy.
For a while, most of the boys in the group seemed to be functioning well, as in one scene where they were marching in line and singing as they worked and, in another, where different small groups of boys splashed in the water and played in the sand. During the latter scene, it came as a surprise when Ralph used the conch to call a meeting, saying the boys were fooling around too much instead of working. What he said was less problematic than the nonverbal communication of his tone of voice, sounding as those running the military school probably did. Although the other boys had shown they respected Ralph as a leader, they did not seem to expect him to speak to them as a disapproving adult might. After Ralph asked if anyone else wanted to speak, several of the boys started complaining that things were being stolen, and then they all began shouting about what they were going to do to the thieves when they were caught. Ralph obviously was unprepared because after he shouted for order and said they’d need stricter rules, his solution was “Hand out demerits, I guess.” Obviously, most of the boys laughed, and, unfortunately, Ralph did not recognize he probably could have diffused the situation by laughing with them about himself (i.e., using humor, Johnson & Johnson, 2005). Instead, the boys continued to laugh and, in a first display of competing for leadership, Jack, standing in the middle of the first row of boys, held up his arms in a nonverbal gesture of taking over.
Before the assembly ended, there was an interaction involving Ralph, Jack, and one of the youngest boys indicative of Ralph’s basic concerns for group members and Jack’s increasing destructiveness. The boy asked Ralph, “Sir, are we ever going home?” Ralph assured the boy, saying “of course we are.” When the boy told Ralph that Jack said they were never going to be rescued, in a nonverbal act of assurance, Ralph kneeled down to face the boy and trying not to offend Jack, used the word “misunderstood” rather than contradict Jack, ”No, you misunderstood. That’s not what he meant…” Jack interrupted, saying “That’s exactly what I meant,” and then Ralph did contradict him, telling the little boy not to listen to Jack, that they would be rescued.
Jack happened to like one of the work activities Ralph had suggested, hunting. He made a spear and went out on a hunt, after which most of the boys other than the youngest ones also made spears and joined as Jack led them on expeditions, with their main goal of getting the pig that had evaded Jack the first time he hunted. Hunting initially served as the active physical play characterizing groups of boys (Maccoby, 1999), but also the kind of play conducive to becoming part of the boys’ very identities (similar to Dungeons and Dragons). Jack led them in painting black and red lines on their cheeks, so they appeared to be warriors, and when they caught the pig, they were caught up in the excitement of spearing it even after it obviously was dead. None of the boys, including Jack, seemed aware of their increasing brutality.
The decisive split between Ralph and Jack occurred after a helicopter had past over their island. As all of the boys were waving to it, Ralph noticed that the fire that was being used as a signal and was supposed to be guarded at all times had gone out. His anger then erupted, blaming Jack and his group. Jack also became angry, telling Ralph he was forming another group, and then the two started to fight each other physically. Fighting is typical behavior among boys in groups (Maccoby, 1999), the boys seemed evenly matched, and a long fight might have resulted in them working out their anger, rather than splitting up. Alas, Piggy, despite showing courage, again made matters worse by getting in the middle. When Jack knocked him down, the other boys laughed, and as Piggy sadly walked away, Ralph followed to offer comfort. Thus two groups emerged, Jack’s large one and Ralph’s smaller one. The boys seemed to feel safer in Jack’s group, although when Jack wasn’t looking, their conversations with Ralph suggested they really wanted to be in Ralph’s group. Eventually, fear drove all but Piggy to Jack’s group. They all, including Jack, grew more and more out-of-control, exhilarated hunter/warriors out for blood. During an evening of running around like savages, they found the missing plane captain, who they had previously dragged to shore, ill and deranged, lying dead beside the sea with Simon, one of the youngest children, next to him. They savagely speared not only the dead captain, but also speared Simon to death. Although Ralph and Piggy didn’t participate in the murder, Ralph knew that, despite Piggy’s protests, he didn’t try to stop them not out of fear but because he too was caught up in the pervasive, somehow exhilarating, excitement of that brutal evening. A day or two later, Jack’s group stole Piggy’s glasses to make a fire for cooking their meat. Ralph demanded Jack return the glasses and again the two fought, evenly matched, and destined for a long physically draining battle. This time, Piggy grabbed the conch and began speaking about behaving as grown-ups. One of three boys who were standing on rocks above them pushed a heavy boulder over the top and onto Piggy’s head, of course, killing him. Soon after, they were after being spotted by a United States Marines helicopter.
The boys’ initial behavior seemed considerably less aggressive, both physically and verbally, than I would have expected from typical American boys. Clearly, cinematically, their initial civility heightened the drama of their deterioration. In fact, the filmmakers themselves might have chosen to place them in a military boarding school to explain their initially tame behavior. Unlike in Great Britain, in the United States there are few boarding schools for elementary-school aged children and even fewer that also are military schools (What is a military academy? 2008), which might be why the boys on the island had been on the same plane – they were among the few boys at the school who lived in the United States. The relevant point is that the group of boys in the movie might have underestimated the extent to which group dynamics could turn brutal among children left to themselves. Even the ring-leader of the revolt, Jack, didn’t approach the aggressiveness one would expect in a leader of a group of boys. In the United States, “researchers have watched as schoolchildren pushed, shoved, and punched each other” (Smith & Mackie, 2000, p. 506). In an early and now classic study (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961, as cited in Smith & Mackie, 2000), two groups of boys went to summer camp. Each group believed they were alone at the camp and until late in the first week, the boys in each group got to know each other and took on the structure typical of groups. Merely discovering another group of boys at the same camp led to rivalry that quickly escalated to hostility and then “full-blown war” (p. 503). Thus, it isn’t justified to conclude that boys like those in the movie become the kind of adults needing the same kind of training and functioning in the same way as the members and leaders of the adult groups researchers have studied (e.g., Rybak & Brown, 1997).
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What is a military academy? (2008). Retrieved Oct. 30, 2008, from
Behavioral Checklist of Communication between Leaders and Group Members
Names of characters in scene (if name unknown, description)________________________
Approximate number of non-participants______________________
Description of examples of the following verbal communications:
Description of the following nonverbal communications:
*Separate checklist forms were used for each character in each scene. Completing the forms required extensive use of the pause button.
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