The science of body language is a fairly recent study, dating primarily from around 60 years ago, although body language itself is, of course, as old as humans. Psychologists, zoologists, and social anthropologists have conducted detailed research into the components of body language - part of the larger family known as non-verbal behavior.
Stepping back in time when cave-dwellers discovered how to decipher grunts and to create words to convey their message, their lives became a lot more complex. Before verbal communication, they relied on their bodies to communicate. Their simple brains informed their faces, torsos, and limbs. They instinctively knew that fear, surprise, love, hunger, and annoyance were different attitudes requiring different gestures. Emotions were less complex then, and so were the gestures. Speech probably first developed between 2 million and 500,000 years ago, during which time our brain tripled its size. Today we tend to focus more on the words people speak, consequently most of us are largely uninformed about body language, let alone its importance in our lives.
Our spoken language, however, recognizes how important body language is to our communication. Here are just a few of the phrases we use -
Get it off your chest. This is hard to swallow.
Keep one at arm's length. As a rule of thumb.
Put your best foot forward. Face up to it.
Before the 20th century, a few forays were made into identifying and analyzing movement and gesture. The first known written work exclusively addressing body language is John Bulwer's Chirologia: or the Natural Language of the Hand, published in 1644. By the 19th century, directors and teachers of drama and pantomime were instructing their actors and students how to convey emotion and attitude through movement and gesture.
Perhaps the most influential pre-twentieth-century work was Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872. Darwin discussed the connection between humans, apes, and monkeys. These species use similar facial expressions, inherited by a common ancestor, to express certain emotions. Out of Darwin's work grew an interest in ethology, the study of animal behavior. It spawned the modern studies of facial expressions and body language, and many of Darwin's ideas and observations have since been validated by researchers around the world.
Since that time, researchers have noted and recorded almost a million non-verbal cues and signals. Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer researcher of body language in the 1950s at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), found that the total impact of a message is about 7% verbal (words only) 38% vocal (including tone of voice, inflection and other sounds) and a whopping 55 per cent of your message comes through your gestures, expression, and posture. Mehrabian's premise is that the way people communicate is inseparable from the feelings that they project, consciously or not, in daily social interactions. Although some people contest Mehrabian's figures, the point remains that body language and vocal quality significantly contribute to the meaning of the message and determine the effectiveness of our relationships.
Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell was another early pioneer the original study of non-verbal communication - what he called 'kinesics'. Birdwhistell made some similar estimates of the amount of non-verbal communication that takes place between humans. He estimated that the average person actually speaks words for a total of about ten or eleven minutes a day and that the average sentence takes only about 2.5 seconds. Birdwhistell also estimated we can make and recognize around 250,000 facial expressions.
Like Mehrabian, he found that the verbal component of a face-to-face conversation is less than 35% and that over 65% of communication is done non-verbally. Analysis of thousands of sales interviews and negotiations by researchers has shown that, in business encounters, body language accounts for between 60% and 80% of the impact made around a negotiating table and that people form 60 to 80% of their initial opinion about a new person in less than four minutes. Studies also show that when negotiating over the telephone, the person with the stronger argument usually wins, but this is not so true when negotiating face-to-face, because overall we make our final decisions more on what we see than what we hear.
Silent movie actors like Charlie Chaplin were the visual pioneers of body language skills, as this was the only means of communication available on the screen. Each actor's skill was classed as good or bad by the extent to which he could use gestures and body signals to communicate to the audience. When talking films became popular and less emphasis was placed on the non-verbal aspects of acting, many silent movie actors faded into obscurity and only those with good verbal and non-verbal skills survived.
Despite what it may be politically correct to believe, when we meet people for the first time we quickly make judgements about their friendliness, dominance and potential as a sexual partner - and their eyes are not the first place we look.
Most researchers now agree that words are used primarily for conveying information, while body language is used for negotiating interpersonal attitudes and in some cases is used as a substitute for verbal messages. Although you're capable of choosing gestures and actions to convey a particular message, your body also sends out signals without your conscious awareness. For example, a woman can give a man a 'look to kill' and will convey a very clear message to him without opening her mouth.
Regardless of culture, words and movements occur together with such predictability that Birdwhistell was the first to claim that a well-trained person should be able to tell what movement a person is making by listening to their voice. Birdwhistell even learned how to tell what language a person was speaking, simply by watching their gestures.
Many people find difficulty in accepting that humans are still biologically animals. We are a species of primate - Homo sapiens - a hairless ape that has learned to walk on two limbs and has a clever, advanced brain. But like any other species, we are still dominated by biological rules that control our actions, reactions, body language and gestures. The fascinating thing is that the human animal is rarely aware that its postures, movements and gestures can tell one story while its voice may be telling another.
Body language is an outward reflection of a person's emotional condition. Each gesture or movement can be a valuable key to an emotion a person may be feeling at the time. For example, a man who is self-conscious about gaining weight may tug at the fold of skin under his chin; the woman who is aware of extra pounds on her thighs may smooth her dress down; the person who is feeling fearful or defensive might fold their arms or cross their legs or both; and a man talking with a large-breasted woman may consciously avoid staring at her breasts while, at the same time, unconsciously use groping gestures with his hands.
The key to reading body language is being able to understand a person's emotional condition while listening to what they are saying and noting the circumstances under which they are saying it. This allows you to separate fact from fiction and reality from fantasy. In recent times, we humans have had an obsession with the spoken word and our ability to be conversationalists. Most people, however, are remarkably unaware of body language signals and their impact, despite the fact that we now know that most of the messages in any face-to-face conversation are revealed through body signals.
Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, former US President Bill Clinton, and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have animatedly and regularly used their hands to reveal the relative sizes of issues in their mind. A former Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, once defended pay increases for politicians by comparing their salaries to corporate executive salaries. He claimed that executive salaries had risen by a huge amount and that proposed politicians' increases were relatively smaller. Each time he mentioned politicians' incomes, he held his hands a yard (1m) apart. When he mentioned executive salaries, however, he held them only a foot (30cm) apart. His hand distances revealed that he felt politicians were getting a much better deal than he was prepared to admit.
When we say someone is 'perceptive' or 'intuitive' about people, we are unknowingly referring to their ability to read another person's body language and to compare these cues with verbal signals. In other words, when we say that we have a 'hunch' or 'gut feeling' that someone has told us a lie, we usually mean that their body language and their spoken words don't agree. This is also what speakers call audience awareness, or relating to a group. For example, if an audience were sitting back in their seats with their chins down and arms crossed on their chest, a 'perceptive' speaker would get a hunch or feeling that his delivery was not going across well. He would realize that he needed to take a different approach to gain audience involvement. Likewise, a speaker who was not 'perceptive' would blunder on regardless.
Being 'perceptive' means being able to spot the contradictions between someone's words and their body language.
Overall, women are more perceptive than men, and this has given rise to what is commonly referred to as 'women's intuition'. Women have an innate ability to pick up and decipher non-verbal signals, as well as having an accurate eye for small details. This is why few husbands can lie to their wives and get away with it and why, conversely, most women can pull the wool over a man's eyes without his realizing it.
Research by psychologists at Harvard University showed how women are far more alert to body language than men. They showed short films, with the sound turned off, of a man and woman communicating, and the participants were asked to decode what was happening by reading the couple's expressions. The research showed that women read the situation accurately 87% of the time while the men scored only 42% accuracy. Men in 'nurturing' occupations, such as artistic types, acting and nursing, did nearly as well as the women; gay men also scored well. Female intuition is particularly evident in women who have raised children. For the first few years, the mother relies almost solely on the non-verbal channel to communicate with the child and this is why women are often more perceptive negotiators than men because they practice reading signals early.
Most women have the brain organization to out-communicate any man on the planet. Magnetic Resonance Imaging brain scans (MRI) clearly show why women have far greater capacity for communicating with and evaluating people than men do. Women have between fourteen and sixteen areas of the brain to evaluate others' behavior versus a man's four to six areas. This explains how a woman can attend a dinner party and rapidly work out the state of the relationships of other couples at the party - who's had an argument, who likes who and so on. It also explains why, from a woman's standpoint, men don't seem to talk much and, from a man's standpoint, women never seem to shut up.
The female brain is organized for multi-tracking - the average woman can juggle between two and four unrelated topics at the same time. She can watch a television program while talking on the telephone plus listen to a second conversation behind her, while drinking a cup of coffee. She can talk about several unrelated topics in the one conversation and uses five vocal tones to change the subject or emphasize points. Unfortunately, most men can only identify three of these tones. As a result, men often lose the plot when women are trying to communicate with them.
Studies show that a person who relies on hard visual evidence face to face about the behavior of another person is more likely to make more accurate judgements about that person than someone who relies solely on their gut feeling.
The evidence is in the person's body language and, while women can do it subconsciously, anyone can teach themselves consciously to read the signals.
If you've ever visited a psychic you probably came away amazed at the things they knew about you - things no one else could possibly have known - so it must be ESP, right? Research into the fortune-telling business shows that operators use a technique known as 'cold reading' which can produce an accuracy of around 80% when 'reading' a person you've never met. While it can appear to be magical to naive and vulnerable people, it is simply a process based on the careful observation of body language signals plus an understanding of human nature and a knowledge of probability statistics. It's a technique practiced by psychics, tarot card readers, astrologists and palm readers to gather information about a 'client'. Many 'cold readers' are largely unaware of their abilities to read nonverbal signals and so also become convinced that they really must have 'psychic' abilities. This all adds to a convincing performance, bolstered by the fact that people who regularly visit 'psychics' go with positive expectations of the outcome. Throw in a set of tarot cards, a crystal ball or two and a bit of theatre, and the stage is perfectly set for a body-language reading session that can convince even the most hardened sceptic that strange, magical forces must be at work. It all boils down to the reader's ability to decode a person's reactions to statements made and to questions asked, and by information gathered from simple observation about a person's appearance. Most 'psychics' are female because, as women, as discussed previously, they have the extra brain wiring to allow them to read the body signals of babies and to read others' emotional condition.
To demonstrate the point, here now is a psychic reading for you personally. Imagine you've come to a dimly lit, smoke-filled room where a jewel-encrusted psychic wearing a turban is seated at a low, moon-shaped table with a crystal ball:
I'm glad you've come to this session and I can see you have things that are troubling you because I am receiving strong signals from you. I sense that the things you really want out of life sometimes seem unrealiztic and you often wonder whether you can achieve them. I also sense that at times you are friendly, social and outgoing to others, but that at other times you are withdrawn, reserved and cautious. You take pride in being an independent thinker but also know not to accept what you see and hear from others, without proof. You like change and variety but become restless if controlled by restrictions and routine. You want to share your innermost feelings with those closest to you but have found it unwise to be too open and revealing. A man in your life with the initial 'S' is exerting a strong influence over you right now and a woman who is born in November will contact you in the next month with an exciting offer. While you appear disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be concerned and worried on the inside and at times you wonder whether or not you have made the right choice or decision.
So how did we go? Did we read you accurately? Studies show that the information in this 'reading' is more than 80% accurate for any person reading it. Throw in an excellent ability to read body language postures, facial expressions and a person's other twitches and movements, plus dim lighting, weird music and a stick of incense, and we guarantee you can even amaze the dog! We won't encourage you to become a fortune-teller but you'll soon be able to read others as accurately as they do.
When you cross your arms on your chest, do you cross left over right or right over left? Most people cannot confidently describe which way they do this until they try it. Cross your arms on your chest right now and then try to quickly reverse the position. Where one way feels comfortable, the other feels completely wrong. The evidence shows that seven out of ten people cross their left arm over their right and furthermore that this may well be a genetic gesture that cannot be changed.
Much debate and research has been done to discover whether non-verbal signals are inborn, learned, genetically transferred or acquired in some other way. Evidence has been collected from observation of blind people (who could not have learned non-verbal signals through a visual channel), from observing the gesturing behavior of many different cultures around the world and from studying the behavior of our nearest anthropological relatives, the apes and monkeys.
The conclusions of this research indicate that some gestures fall into each category. For example, most primate babies are born with the immediate ability to suck, showing that this is either inborn or genetic. The German scientist Eibl-Eibesfeldt round that the smiling expressions of children born deaf and blind occur independently of learning or copying, which means that these must also be inborn gestures. Ekman, Friesen and Sorenson supported some of Darwin's original beliefs about inborn gestures when they studied the facial expressions of people from five widely different cultures. They found that each culture used the same basic facial gestures to show emotion, which led them to the conclusion that these gestures must also be inborn.
Debate still exists as to whether some gestures are culturally learned, and become habitual, or are genetic. For example, most men put on a coat right arm first; most women put it on left arm first. This shows that men use their left brain hemisphere for this action while women use the right hemisphere. When a man passes a woman in a crowded street, he usually turns his body towards her as he passes; she instinctively turns her body away from him to protect her breasts. Is this an inborn female reaction or has she learned to do this by unconsciously watching other females?
Most of the basic communication signals are the same all over the world. When people are happy they smile; when they are sad or angry they frown or scowl. Nodding the head is almost universally used to indicate 'yes' or affirmation. It appears to be a form of head lowering and is probably an inborn gesture because it's also used by people born blind. Shaking the head from side to side to indicate 'no' or negation is also universal and appears to be a gesture learned in infancy. When a baby has had enough milk, it turns its head from side to side to reject its mother's breast. When the young child has had enough to eat, he shakes his head from side to side to stop any attempt to spoon-feed him and, in this way, he quickly learns to use the head shaking gesture to show disagreement or a negative attitude.
The evolutionary origin of some gestures can be traced to our primitive animal past. Smiling, for example, is a threat gesture for most carnivorous animals, but for primates it is done in conjunction with non-threatening gestures to show submission.
Baring the teeth and nostril flaring are derived from the act of attacking and are primitive signals used by other primates. Sneering is used by animals to warn others that, if necessary, they'll use their teeth to attack or defend. For humans, this gesture still appears even though humans won't usually attack with their teeth.
Nostril flaring allows more air to oxygenate the body in preparation for fight or flight and, in the primate world, it tells others that back-up support is needed to deal with an imminent threat. In the human world, sneering is caused by anger, irritation, when a person feels under physical or emotional threat or feels that something is not right.
The Shoulder Shrug is also a good example of a universal gesture that is used to show that a person doesn't know or doesn't understand what you are saying. It's a multiple gesture that has three main parts: exposed palms to show nothing is being concealed in the hands, hunched shoulders to protect the throat from attack and raised brow which is a universal, submissive greeting.
Just as verbal language differs from culture to culture, so some body language signals can also differ. Whereas one gesture may be common in a particular culture and have a clear interpretation, it may be meaningless in another culture or even have a completely different meaning.
What you see and hear in any situation does not necessarily reflect the real attitudes people may actually have. You need to follow three basic rules to get things right.
One of the most serious errors a novice in body language can make is to interpret a solitary gesture in isolation of other gestures or circumstances. For example, scratching the head can mean a number of things - sweating, uncertainty, dandruff, fleas, forgetfulness or lying - depending on the other gestures that occur at the same time. Like any spoken language, body language has words, sentences and punctuation. Each gesture is like a single word and one word may have several different meanings. For example, in English, the word 'dressing' has at least ten meanings including the act of putting on clothing, a sauce for food, stuffing for a fowl, an application for a wound, fertiliser and grooming for a horse.
It's only when you put a word into a sentence with other words that you can fully understand its meaning. Gestures come in 'sentences' called clusters and invariably reveal the truth about a person's feelings or attitudes. A body language cluster, just like a verbal sentence, needs at least three words in it before you can accurately define each of the words. The 'perceptive' person is the one who can read the body language sentences and accurately match them against the person's verbal sentences.
So always look at gesture clusters for a correct reading. Each of us has one or more repetitive gestures that simply reveal we are either bored or feeling under pressure. Continual hair touching or twirling is a common example of this but, in isolation of other gestures, it's likely to mean the person is feeling uncertain or anxious. People stroke their hair or head because that's how their mother comforted them when they were children.
To demonstrate the point about clusters, here's a common Critical Evaluation gesture cluster someone might use when they are unimpressed with what they are hearing:
The main Critical Evaluation signal is the hand-to-face gesture, with the index finger pointing up the cheek while another finger covers the mouth and the thumb supports the chin. Further evidence that this listener is having critical thoughts about what he hears is supported by the legs being tightly crossed and the arm crossing the body (defensive) while the head and chin are down (negative/hostile). This body language 'sentence' says something like, 'I don't like what you're saying', 'I disagree' or 'I'm holding back negative feelings'.
Research shows that non-verbal signals carry about five times as much impact as the verbal channel and that, when the two are incongruent people - especially women - rely on the nonverbal message and disregard the verbal content.
If you, as the speaker, were to ask the listener shown above to give his opinion about something you've said and he replied that he disagreed with you, his body language signals would be congruent with his verbal sentences, that is, they would match. If, however, he said he agreed with what you said, he would more likely be lying because his words and gestures would be incongruent.
If you saw a politician standing behind a lectern speaking confidently but with his arms tightly folded across his chest (defensive) and chin down (critical/hostile), while telling his audience how receptive and open he is to the ideas of young people, would you be convinced? What if he attempted to convince you of his warm, caring approach while giving short, sharp karate chops to the lectern? Sigmund Freud once reported that while a patient was verbally expressing happiness with her marriage, she was unconsciously slipping her wedding ring on and off her finger. Freud was aware of the significance of this unconscious gesture and was not surprised when marriage problems began to surface.
Observation of gesture clusters and congruence of the verbal and body language channels are the keys to accurately interpreting attitudes through body language.
All gestures should be considered in the context in which they occur. If, for example, someone was sitting at a bus terminal with his arms and legs tightly crossed and chin down and it was a cold winter's day, it would most likely mean that he was cold, not defensive. If, however, the person used the same gestures while you were sitting across a table from him trying to sell him an idea, product or service, it could be correctly interpreted as meaning that the person was feeling negative or rejecting your offer.
Throughout this guide all body language gestures will be considered in context and, where possible, gesture clusters will be examined.
Someone who has a soft or limp handshake - especially a man - is likely to be accused of having a weak character. However if someone has arthritis in their hands it is likely that they will also use a soft handshake to avoid the pain of a strong one. Similarly, artists, musicians, surgeons and those whose occupation is delicate and involves use of their hands generally prefer not to shake hands, but, if they are forced into it, they may use a 'dead fish' handshake to protect their hands.
Someone who wears ill-fitting or tight clothing may be unable to use certain gestures, and this can affect their use of body language. Many obese people can't cross their legs for example. Women who wear short skirts will sit with their legs tightly crossed for protection, but this results in them looking less approachable and less likely to be asked to dance at a nightclub. These circumstances apply to the minority of people, but it is important to consider what effect a person's physical restrictions or disabilities may have on their body movement.
Older people are harder to read than younger ones because they have less muscle tone in the face.
The speed of some gestures and how obvious they look to others is also related to the age of the individual. If a five-year-old child tells a lie, he's likely to immediately cover his mouth with one or both hands.
The act of covering the mouth can alert a parent to the lie and this mouth-covering gesture will likely continue throughout the person's lifetime, usually only varying in the speed at which it's done. When a teenager tells a lie, the hand is brought to the mouth in a similar way to the five-year-old, but instead of the obvious hand-slapping gesture over the mouth, the fingers rub lightly around it.
The original mouth-covering gesture becomes even faster in adulthood. When an adult tells a lie, it is as if his brain instructs his hand to cover his mouth in an attempt to block the deceitful words, just as it did for the five-year-old and the teenager. At the last moment though, the hand is pulled away from the face and a nose touch gesture results. This is simply an adult's version of the mouth-covering gesture that was used in childhood.
This shows how, as people get older, their gestures become more subtle and less obvious and is why it's often more difficult to read the gestures of a fifty-year-old than those of a five-year-old.
Gesturing can add emphasis to your voice, clarify your meaning, and give impact to your message. Whether your point requires a gentle approach, or a firm approach, your body's instinct is to reflect and move in harmony with the emotion.
In addition to reinforcing your message, hand signals especially reflect your desire for your message to be taken seriously. Watch a well-schooled politician standing at the podium. See how the hands move in a precise, controlled manner. No wasted gestures, just those specific ones that paint a clear picture and accurately convey the message.
Experienced lawyers, celebrities, and anyone in the public arena are also adept at emphasizing their messages through considered movements and gestures. By carefully timing, focusing, and controlling their actions, moving in synchronicity with their spoken words, and responding appropriately to the atmosphere in their environment, they court and woo the people they want, and dismiss others with assurance.
At times in life you may want to conceal your thoughts and feelings, so you behave in a way that you believe hides what's going on inside. Yet, wouldn't you know, out comes a slight giveaway gesture, often invisible to the untrained eye, sending a signal that all's not what it appears. While these micro gestures may be fleeting they can carry great weight. If micro body signals appear incongruent with words a person has spoken it should call into question the genuineness of those words. Overall women tend to better read body language than men and are not as readily deceived by feigned gestures.
In the 1970s, Paul Ekman and W V Friesen developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to measure, describe, and interpret facial behaviors. This instrument is designed to measure even the slightest facial muscle contractions and determine what category or categories each facial action fits into. It can detect what the naked eye can't and is used by law enforcement agencies, film animators, and researchers of human behavior.
During an interview a man was explaining why he had quit his last job. He indicated that there had been insufficient future opportunity available to him and that it was a hard decision to leave as he got on well with all the staff there. A woman conducting one of the interviews said she had an 'intuitive feeling' that the applicant was lying and that he had negative feelings about his former boss, despite the applicant's continual praising of his boss. Reviewing the interview on video, it was noticed that each time the applicant mentioned his former boss a split-second sneer appeared on the left side of his face. Often these contradictory signals will flash across a person's face in a fraction of a second and are missed by an untrained observer. His former boss was called and the discovery was made that the applicant had been fired for dealing drugs to other employees. As confidently as this applicant had tried to fake his body language, his contradictory micro-gestures had undercut his credibility with the woman running the interview.
The key here is being able to separate the real gestures from false ones so a genuine person can be distinguished from those lying. Signals like pupil dilation, sweating and blushing cannot be consciously faked but exposing the palms to try to appear honest is easily learned.
There are, however, some cases in which certain body language can be deliberately simulated to gain an advantage. In higher level beauty contests contestants tend to use studiously learned body movements to give the impression of warmth and sincerity. To the extent that each contestant can convey these signals, she will score points from the judges. But even the expert contestants can only fake body language for a short period of time and eventually the body will show contradictory signals that are independent of conscious actions. Many politicians are experts in faking body language in order to get the voters to believe what they are saying, and politicians who can successfully do this - such as John F Kennedy and Adolf Hitler were able to do - are said to have 'charisma'.
It is difficult to imitate body language for any significant period of time but it is important to learn how to use positive body language to communicate with others and to eliminate negative body language that may give out the wrong message. This can make it more comfortable to be with others and make you more acceptable to them.
Set aside at least fifteen minutes a day to study the body language of other people, as well as acquiring a conscious awareness of your own gestures. A good reading ground is anywhere that people meet and interact. An airport is a particularly good place for observing the entire spectrum of human gestures as people openly express eagerness, anger, sorrow, happiness, impatience and many other emotions through body language. Social functions, business meetings and parties are also excellent. When you become proficient at the art of reading body language, you can go to a party, sit in a corner all evening and have an exciting time just watching other people's body language rituals.
Watching video content is also an excellent way of learning. Turn down the sound and try to understand what is happening by first watching the images. By turning the sound up every few minutes, you will be able to check how accurate your nonverbal readings are and, before long, it will be possible to watch an entire movie, TV program, or other video without any sound and understand what is happening.
Learning to read body language signals not only makes you more acutely aware of how others try to dominate and manipulate, it brings the realization that others are also doing the same to us and, more importantly, it teaches us to be more sensitive to other people's feelings and emotions. Just as a bird-watcher loves watching birds and their behavior, so those acutely attuned to others in their environs delights in watching the non-verbal cues and signals of human beings at the office, social functions, beaches, on television, or anywhere that people interact. He or she is a student of behavior who wants to learn about the emotional state of his fellow humans so that he may ultimately learn more about himself and how he can improve his relationships with others.