Let's Talk About…Body Language
Ahhh, the languages of body speak. There are thousands of studies, books and papers on the subject of body language, not to mention television shows that rely heavily on narrow labels of body signals. Sociologists, psychologists, criminologists and 17,000 (approximately…well, maybe I exaggerate) other “ologists” have offered insights gained from kinesics. As an actor and communications maven, it seems to me that there are a couple of problems with this “define, label & box” attitude.
Myth: People will look to the right when lying. Generally speaking, when people are trying to access memory, they move their eyes to the left, however there is no truth to the myth that liars categorically look to the right.
Kinesics, a.k.a. the study of body language, is actually not an exact science. All of the information we receive via non-verbal signals is subjective. For example, sitting and listening to a speaker or actor while keeping your arms crossed in front of you is a pretty good indication of disinterest or disengagement. It could also mean that you’re cold. Or it could mean that you’re uncomfortable. Or it could mean any combination of those feelings. Perception is in the eye of the beholder. If I am teaching and one of my participants is sitting low in their chair with their arms folded, my feeling is that I am not connecting to this person.
Fact: Your gut doesn’t lie…ever. This is the primitive, unconscious part of you that assimilates the non-verbal information you receive. Listen to it.
The second difficulty with creating a body language dictionary is the fact that as individuals, we all speak slightly different body languages. What may be acceptable, even desirable in this country within a certain group, may not be elsewhere with others. We can and do generalize and hypothesize but there is no A + B = C body language formula, contrary to what you may see on television.
Myth: Liars won’t make eye contact. This may be true of some children who haven’t yet learned to lie well, but most people are able to tell varying degrees of truth while keeping a steady gaze.
Yes, there are some excellent generalizations to be made about body language. Any actor or speaker knows that the audience is with them when they see heads nodding affirmatively – it’s a universal sign of engagement. Conversely, and one of my pet peeves, is a woman (it’s generally only women who do this) who stands up to speak and crosses her ankles while standing. It screams of discomfort – not only does it convey that she’s uncomfortable standing in front of people, which will probably override the actual information she is trying to give, but the physical stance looks awkward and slightly painful.
Fact: The spine is a good indication of interest. Baring medical or physical issues, the angle of the spine, “leaning in, neutral or leaning out” are excellent indicators of engagement.
Where we excel is at reading the body language of people we know and interact with frequently. It is logical that we would be more aware of the mood, energies and intentions of the people with whom we spend the most amount of time, like spouses and children.
The key to kinesics it to understand that body language signals intention and emotion but not specific meaning. The best and most reliable way to “read” other people is to gage our own feelings.
LB Adams is the Owner of Pragmatic Dramatics based out of Charleston SC. Her company uses basic acting techniques and theatre games to train business professionals to communicate more effectively.