I originally came to discover body language through people watching.
Like many solitary types, I’ve always enjoyed observing others from afar, not in a voyeuristic – camera in pocket, extra thick jeans, Japanese schoolgirl manga in hand – kind of way, but rather watching peoples interactions and reenacting with different voices the conversations I assumed they were having based on their physical expressions. Body language, however, is extremely useful for us less socially adept in day to day life. Apart from being more successful at life in general (since the whole world is run by people all with hidden thoughts and agendas), deciphering body language can help you to socialize by helping you to appear friendly or affable, to learning love interest signs and flirtations when dating. Understanding body language also helps your career such as when you are submitting job applications or attending meetings, to simple things like winning at a game of poker or chess, finding out if someone is lying to you, to helping you change your emotional state by using the law of cause and effect, but most important of all, to read in between the lines of any given situation and have a more in-depth awareness of what is happening around you in this socially driven world.
Introduction to Body Language
One of the greatest barriers us less socially inclined have is our inability to detect physical social cues in conversations. Extroverts develop this skill unconsciously through years of practice, while us loners must learn them all as an instruction manual. Sometimes we over-complicate things because we’re oblivious to what for others appears to be so simple they aren’t even conscious of their ability to read these signals.
We are all conscious of the words we use, we can control and arrange our words in whatever way we want to portray our thoughts or emotions in any given moment, even though they may not be true.
The purpose of body language is to simply have a better understanding of social interactions of yourself and others, to understand exactly your surroundings and what is going on in the minds of the ones around you, to then approach the situation or person in the right way instead of merely making assumptions which leads to many misunderstandings, for instance: thinking somebody doesn’t like you when in fact they are just shy.
According to Albert Mehrabian a pioneer in body language research from the University of Pennsylvania, when communicating with others, 7% is verbal (words), 38% is vocal (sounds & tones) and 55% is physical. It appears that slowly as we have evolved over time, we’ve become more distracted with words and lost our awareness of the physical aspects our non-verbal ancestors used to communicate with, missing out on that 55% of body signals. Many have claimed our physical gestures are learned through environmental mimicking while others say we are inborn with it, an example of this being the ‘No’ side-to-side head movement used by babies when they are full and don’t want to continue breastfeeding or eating their pudding. Through the observation of different cultures from around the world (sharing identical non-verbal communication), blind people (they can’t see therefore cannot imitate others) and our closest anthropological relatives, apes, and monkeys, Mehrabian has come to the conclusion that all play a role in our unconscious physical gestures.
The Fundamental Rules of Body Language Reading
There are certain rules you must follow in order to understand what is being said properly, the three main ones you should remember are these:
- Contextual Reading: When reading someone’s body language, it’s easy to confuse gestures…for instance: someone you may be talking to while sitting outside in a winters night who is crossing their arms and legs could be a sign of defensiveness (crossing our arms/legs was a way to protect our vital organs against threats) or it may actually be a sign that they are cold (observe if they have raised shoulders), however, if this gesture occurred in a different environment then it would change the meaning completely. Scratching our necks could mean we are indecisive or uncertain, or it could mean we forgot to shower. Similarly, a gentle handshake in between men could mean one of them has a weak character, or maybe he suffers from arthritis, women with short miniskirts will most likely have their legs crossed all the time while sitting…it doesn’t mean they are defensive though, while fat people can’t cross them at all. Make sure you pay attention to the context a person exists in before you judge the meaning of their body language.
- Cultural Reading: Because part of our body language is learned through our environment, you can imagine that what applies to some cultures won’t apply to others; the biggest cultural differences exist mainly in relation to personal space, eye contact, touch frequency and insult gestures. Italians and Spaniards, for example, kiss each other on the cheek instead of shaking hands. In Bulgaria the head nodding for ‘Yes‘ actually means ‘No‘, the Japanese facial gestures of surprise are what we use to express fear, Japanese also politely smile and nod a lot in conversations while speaking… it doesn’t mean they agree with you, it’s just a way of encouraging you to continue by stating “I heard what you said“. Additionally, men holding hands in Saudi Arabia is a sign of mutual respect, thumbs up is commonly used as OK or Good but in Greece, it means ‘Up Yours‘ while in Japan it can mean five or man. If you caught a woman naked, depending on where she was from…a Middle Eastern would cover her face, an American/Australian/British would cover her boobs with one hand and her genitals with the other, a Swedish would cover her genitals only, a Sumatran her knees and a Samoan her belly button.
- Cluster Reading: This is the most important rule out of the three as it will assist you in the above two problems of context or cultural mistakes. In the same way, every language has it’s words and sentences, so does body language; every gesture is a word and to understand the whole meaning of what is being said, you must read body language in a group (aka. clusters) of words and gestures to create a sentence. We all have our little ticks that we do out of boredom or habit, so reading body language in isolation won’t do you much good. For instance, say a woman is playing with her hair, twirling it and so forth – this could be a tick, but if she was playing with her hair (a self-comforting gesture to resemble our mums rubbing our heads after getting hurt) and then proceeded to cross her arms and legs (both defensive)…it could be interpreted as though the woman is feeling anxious, nervous or under pressure.
- Congruent Reading: Congruence is the observation of whether body language matches what a person is saying. Someone for example who is crossing their arms, legs and making worried faces in response to your question of whether they are okay or not, would be most definitely withholding something if they answered with an unconvincing “I’m fine”. Congruent body language reading doesn’t only have to be present in word and gestures, it could also be the tone of voice used to answer, like an angry pitched tone while saying they are fine would imply they’re not. The thing always to remember with body language is to take it with a grain of salt, it’s not an exact science, we are human beings after all and very unpredictable so it does not always work. Just as we are unpredictable so is life – so there is a lot of contradiction in body language…some people will look at you more than usual when lying (because they know that people like looking away when lying, so they try the opposite) while others will avoid eye contact, you should have some sort of relationship with a person to know them for a long time and have a baseline of what their normal gestures, moods, emotions and habits are.
4,000 years ago ancient Egyptians believed that women’s facial lips developed proportionately to their outer genital lips (vulva) during puberty. When women are sexually aroused their genital lips flush with the blood rushing to that area and turning red, so the Egyptian women invented lipstick as a way to alert men when an adolescent female was sexually mature. In the year 423 B.C, Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote a play called “The Clouds” in which Socrates and Strepsiades had different roles – Strepsiades had to show Socrates his “middle finger” which was a direct symbolism of the penis and testicles used as an insult of sexual inferiority in an attempt to say “My wiener is much bigger than yours…”, (this is where the “flipping the bird” gesture originated)… I hope your learning of these two trivial pieces of knowledge ruined your life the same way it has mine … I will never look at a woman with lipstick or one flipping me the bird the same way ever again. And you thought body language was boring … !
I have broken down the different types of gestures and categorized them by parts, areas and specific subjects of the body to make it easier:
- Personal Space
- Signs of Attraction
- Palms & Thumbs
- Hand Shakes
- Signs of Lying
You will notice that many people claim to do many of these gestures because they find them comfortable, this is because any physical gesture that matches our mental attitude in a specific moment will feel comfortable. Here is a fun experiment you can try – as I have mentioned in the arm gestures article, crossing your arms is a sign of a defensive or negative emotion…whenever you are having a lot of fun by yourself or with your friends and feel happy and excited… try crossing your arms and see how comfortable and open to happiness you feel.
Law of Cause and Effect
There is also the Law of Cause and Effect that states if our bodies have the symptoms of a specific emotion, our minds will follow it because our gestures and emotions are directly connected to each other. Take the Laughter Therapy groups around the world who force laughter and as a result feel happier afterward. This is another great thing about body language – adopting the physical position of a specific attitude will help you to start feeling and thinking that specific way…try crossing your arms and legs while looking downwards to become more negative, start jumping up and down while nodding your head (doing the “Yes” head movement) to feel more positive, hold your hands behind your back and expose your chest or sit down with your legs spread wide to feel more confident…in this case, “Fake it till you make it!” is a reality.
In future articles, I will go into more advanced subjects like the brain cortex, where the right hemisphere of the brain controls the visual memories, spatial abilities, and emotions while the left hemisphere is specialized in analyzing information, logic and language. When you observe someone talking over the phone…depending on who they are talking to, they will hold the phone on their right or left ear, if it’s a family member, partner or close friend they will hold it on their left ear while for speaking to their boss, telemarketer or stranger they will hold it on the right one (due to the right hemisphere controlling the left side of the body and vice versa). Based on the brain hemispheres, you can also appeal to a persons emotional, humorous or serious side depending on where you stand in contrast to them and what direction their eyes are facing…standing to their left affects their sensitive side for example to tell a sad story while standing to their right will appeal to their humorous side. This is why all late night talk show hosts always position their tables on the right side of the studio and the guests to their left while serious shows like Larry King position the host on the left.
Now that you know the basics of body language and how it reveals our emotional state, try practicing by sitting down at a cafe or CBD (Central Business District) and observe people interact, or else watch politicians on the news or analyze actors playing roles…you’ll notice the most successful actors are the ones who use the right body language to express the emotion presented in that scene of the film. Be aware of yourself as well during conversations and lookout for any of the positive, negative, open or closed gestures; slowly, through practice and observation, all these cues will become engraved inside of you and hopefully make your communication with others vastly easier and perhaps even more enjoyable, giving you that extra sense of control.