If you say something to me
An’ you mean, you mean what you say
An’ you’re wanting my attention
There’s a game you must play
Use your eyes and your face
Words have no place
Move your body in a way
So I will know what you say
Inxs – Body Language – Inxs
As my faithful readers know I originally was seeking to become a psychologist or psychiatrist, a sociologist at worse. I am fascinated by humans and human behavior; we are such a complex and contradictory lot. A walking contradiction wrapped up in an enigma and sealed with layers of deceit. I loved these classes so much because they helped to unravel the mysteries of us and those around us; not surprising many who go into this field are looking for cheap therapy. My absolute favorite were field studies, where we would go out into the world and observe, in real time, the theories and ideas we were just taught. One of those I have to share is that of the one true universal language. The ultimate foreign language to learn and if mastered will serve you well. This language is body language. Just like laughter and tears, joy and sadness, surprise and disappointment the reactions and postures are universal. Body language is the oldest form of communication we have, and it works with animals too, surprising that once learned how far you can apply it. There are far better sources on the subject then I can ever hope to reach, but it is a necessary skill we all need to learn.
As with many things we do, we read and react to body language, just not on a conscience enough level to understand the what and why of it. To do things in life without purpose is a shame and waste. By learning this skill we will increase our purpose as we will see things around us in a different light.
The first lesson is simply profound; everything communicates. It communicates in such volume we learn, at a very young age, to block it out, silence it. First we must learn re-direct this filtering process and open ourselves to the communications flooding in from those around us. First note of concern; notice the word filter… we have to filter because we live in an age of information overload. An age where information is being carpet-bombed across our conscience from numerous sources all competing for our attention. Selective reading of our environments is what we have to do, fortunately we have been honing this since we were able to sit-up and formulate a thought. I can hear some saying, everything can’t possibly communicate… oh I say, name one thing that doesn’t! I’m waiting. A rock you say… that rock is screaming more information at us then the angry cabby during a traffic jam. Its size, shape, mineral makeup, attitude or relationship to its surroundings, how well it blends or contrasts with its environment, etc. Ok, you in the blue shirt… Ahhhh the vacuum of space! Good, well it is stating its temperature, light content or lack of it, lack of air, atmosphere, life, planets, stars, gravity, etc. Even the nothing is communicating, it communicates what it does not have, as apposed to things that communicate what they do have or are made up of. Next is to peal a layer off and see what is underneath. Back to the rock. What else does it tell us, its age, the process that gave it its current shape and surface, where it has been or maybe where it came from. This process can go on and on until we end up with nearly nothing left. Interesting side note, did you know everything in the universe is derived from one element, hydrogen… yet the way to the next element on the periodic table is to add electrons, in a process that happens in the sun elements are created in the core of the sun and then spewed across the cosmos when the star reaches critical mass and explodes, also know as a super nova, look it up, pretty cool agh.
Now we know everything communicates, not just animals. Its time now to add complexity to the equation. Seeing our goal in this lesson is body language let us cut to the chase. What does an angry person look like, sound like? What does a loving person look like? Both are important lessons we learn at very young ages, we just don’t realize we are doing it. Ever fixate on a person in a crowd and not really know why? No matter how hard you try you cannot stop noticing them. Are they familiar? Do they seem out of place? What the heck is it?!? They are communicating a specific message and you are receiving it, but it is not one of the primitive signals we know, therefore the primal mind is passing the message off to the conscience mind. Here the conscience mind is desperate as all it knows what to do with the information is to try to match it up against past experiences. Your brain is reading every memory it has trying desperately to find a match. The next time this happens take notice and see what memories come to the front of your mind… you can’t they are all flying around and you will recall seemingly trivial events from years ago as your mind is searching your long term memory.
Body language is mainly visual, with subtle differences like dialects, and very similar across cultures. There are audible queues as well, but we are not getting that deep into it here. How can I be sure about the visual thing? Being the skeptic I am I have to see it and believe it in order to believe it. Now I have a stigmatism, my eyes are flat on the front causing light to not enter the eye correctly. This is genetic and usually caused by premature birth as the eye never fully developed. My vision is not bad, 20/40 without glasses or contacts, meaning something 20 feet away looks like it is 40 feet away. I did not know I had bad eyes until I was in 6th grade. For all those years before I thought that is what everyone else saw when they looked around. Here is my point. I could not tell who people were until they were 30 feet away from me usually. However I learned to identify people by there walk and how they carried them selves. This served as a means of identifying people at much greater distances, almost 100 yards away! We all do this and it is not a unique thing, but one many are unaware of as it is very primitive. This simple example goes to show how well this technique works. We can single out an individual in a dense crowd by the subtle gate they have, handy in an airport. And you thought the shouting and waving of arms is what drew your attention.
Next is the face and torso. These are what we use to communicate the most. Shuffling of the feet, nervous leg bouncing, foot placement and knee attitude are important, but these are subtleties, not major vehicles of body language. Focus on facial expression and hands. These are the true lie detectors of nature. Have you ever seen Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger? Remember the scene where the Recall agent is trying to convince Arnold’s character he is actually asleep and having a dream, not a real life experience? Watch it and see how well the body language of the scene is written. The Recall agent is trying his best to look impartial, unafraid, as if he is not real… except for the tiny bead of sweat that runs down his temple when Arnold has a gun to his head. Bingo, that conveys nervousness meaning he is real and lying and therefore gets a cap in his cooler for the effort. Is there too much animation of the hands, trying to draw your attention away… not enough leading to boredom and wandering attention? Is the head up or down, nose crinkled or furrowed, ears red, veins in the neck bulging, lips drawn tight, nostrils flared, eyes narrowed? All subtle changes nearly, but not completely, impossible to stay on top of during any performance. Interactions with others are merely performances as we are trying to show others what we think they want to see, and we use there feedback, which body language is a part of, to modify our actions to meet these ends.
Posture is also a huge giveaway. Slouched shoulders and head down are universal with shame and submission, while shoulders back and chin high are signs of confidence and power. The next time you watch a professional politician on the campaign trail notice his posture and body language, this speaks to how well we like a person, we all know they lie their arses off so we have to make up our opinion by what our ‘gut’ is telling us… yes this translates to body language. Kerry was terrible at this as was Gore, any wonder they did so poorly in contests they should have won with ease… they had bad body language conveying weakness, impersonality, and lack of commitment. We all want a strong leader, one who will be dignified and respect in stature, its primal… not logical.
Ok so now we want to put it all together. Get a book of faces; you know those blank faces showing different expressions, study it for a day or two. Find a book on body language with lots of illustrations, study it. Then apply what you learned to product’s cartoon characters. Why does the Brawny Man look the way he does, Mr. Clean, Aunt Jammima, The Quaker Oats Man, Charlie the Tuna? Why do those magazines at the grocery checkout put those people in those poses on there covers? What is up with all those bill boards along the interstate? Take a trip to the mall, grab a nice frothy coffee and pick a good spot to watch people pass by. This was half of our experiment. The other half was to stand in a busy area in different postures to see what would happen, very interesting. Learn to recognize what the body is saying and compare it to what is being said, see how often it matches or doesn’t. The lessons of body language can serve you well in business, parties, personal relationships, and even with animal reactions and interactions. This skill is more then a novelty as I have expressed. It is worthy of serious study, make an effort to truly study it, apply it, and see for yourself how accurate it can be.
A person leaning forward with arms crossed and lips drawn tight is mad, a person leaning back, legs crossed, arms crossed and head back is relaxed and deep in thought, though not on anything in particular. A person leaning forward in their chair looking you dead in the eye is studying you and what you are saying very carefully. A person walking slowly with chin tilted, down, looking over their brow, shoulders square is stalking and looking for a confrontation. That person on the bus with knees drawn up tight reading a book and chewing on a finger nail is very intelligent, shy, and unsure of themselves. A woman who carries book or bags very close to her chest is meek and modest. The loud boisterous boy who seems so comfortable by parading his body around is hiding a lack of personality and self worth. A woman who is staring into your eyes and fidgeting with her hair or cup while you tell a story isn’t really listen to you, she is undressing you in her mind. If she is doing the same thing but bouncing her crossed leg or tapping on the table top can’t wait for a good exit to get far away from you. A man who is smiling and gesturing with his hands while talking to a woman is interested in her and feels comfortable enough to be a little open, a good opportunity to steer the conversation where you want it to go girls. A man who has his hands in his pockets while talking is very insecure and trying to get this over with. People who walk fast with long strides have purpose and determination. Quick tempered people have a ‘bird like’ look, squinty eyes darting about, head turning from side to side, shoulders square and back slightly arched. They are poised for a confrontation and there bodies are often in the ‘stressed’ position. ‘Crazy’ people can be spotted a mile away, not by the wild look in there eyes, this seals the perception, no it is the odd erythematic shuffle and inability to stay still we key on. People sitting, in any posture, absolutely still are disturbing to us, perhaps because this is the end stage prior to an attack, or ambush. There is a huge difference between the strides of a person meeting a loved on and one about to throw a punch. We are pre-programmed with many of these, all we need to do is to transfer them from our primitive consciousness to our upper consciousness. Learning about handshakes, tenting fingers, leaning forward and slightly raising your hand, and leaning back are key lessons for business, just as learning about women uncrossing their legs and pointing both knees at you, slightly slumping forward, leaning in elbows on the table and resting their chin in their hands at the coffee shop is so valuable. Holding a mans gaze and getting him to shut-up and slightly tilt his head, and keep his hands still and his shoulders forward is a sure sign he is putty in your hands, as long as you don’t get too excited and creep in too close. Lean how the two sexes handle personal space, really good for business. See the value and insight of body language is as valuable as learning your primary language, more so because the subtle differences across cultures do not differ all that much. People are people, there reactions to smiles and cross looks are the pretty much the same. There are notable differences, but they are not all as difficult to learn as learning another language.