(Published in the June 2010 issue)
As some happy hour lore goes, picking at the sticker on your beer bottle is an expression of sexual frustration. But next time you find yourself fingernail-deep in a beverage label, you might doubt such an absentminded gesture carries a specific meaning. Clearly, body language plays a huge role in communication, but how complex is it really? Like a secret code, does it exist alongside our spoken words, hinting at truths we’d rather not reveal, or don’t even know ourselves?
And if so, could mastering the art of deciphering and displaying these signs grant one the power not only to read minds, but also to control them?
It’s a question that occupies bar stools and research dens alike, though the opinions, often conflicting,range from the realm of hocus-pocus to the disappointingly obvious. But most experts agree that few utilize body language as effectively as they could.
“People are only aware of about 10 percent of their body language,” says Dr. Peter A. Andersen, a communications professor at SDSU and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Body Language. “Our attitudes leak out." And that leakage gushes continuously through a myriad of behavioral channels such as eye movement, spatial relationships, gait, timing and dress.
As Dr. Andersen says, one cannotnot communicate. There is no such thing as a blank facial expression, and if we try, we often just look bored or catatonic. In fact, the more dynamic one’s expressions, the better, as research shows people who exhibit more facial movement have more friends starting from a very young age.
And studies suggest that managers who express their emotions-even anger-are promoted more quickly than those who do not.
“We’d rather be around people whose emotional state is clear, rather than having to guess,” says body language expert Patti Wood, who has been coaching professionals and giving seminars on the subject for more than 25 years. But body language doesn’t just influence how others respond to us.
In a fraction of a second, it’s been proven to alter our biochemical state. We feel how we act. Though it’s a bit counterintuitive, confidence and insecurity, cheerfulness and depression are products of expression. One way Wood demonstrates this during her talksis by making timid volunteers pretend they are brave by standing on the stage and taking a step towards the audience.
“It freaks people out,” Wood says. "They step forward and they’re not scared anymore.”
So how does body language play a part in those highly self-conscious situations, such as, say, courtship? Let’s take a common scenario: Jack is attracted to Jill. How should he approach her? What often happens, Wood says, is Jack will talk to Jill for 20 minutes, thinking he’s getting somewhere. But when all efforts don’t culminate in a kiss (which, incidentally, researchers trace to the bygone practice of mothers feeding children mouth-to-mouth), he’ll want to know why.
The clues are right in front of him. Though Jill’s smiling, it’s tight-lipped. And while she’s facing him, her torso is pointed elsewhere; or if sitting, her legs are crossed away from him. Perhaps she blocks him with her purse, drink or crossed arms. Or she blinks or looks away to relieve herself momentarily from the situation. She will touch her ear, nose or other body part in an act of selfcomfort.
Though these signals might be due to either lack of interest or just plain nervousness, men’s biggest mistake often lies in missing the cues and consequently failing to try to make her comfortable. For Wood, as well for those other alleged experts of reading bodies, it’s really just as simple as expressing a desire to connect.
“I’m pretty good at what I do, but I’m usually wrong in my assumptions about body language,” says Rich Kise, a car salesman of 16 years at Pacific Honda. “I just try to establish a rapport with people who come in scared to death we’re going to jump on them and empty their pockets. Car salesmen are just as scared as anyone else, and I try to make them warm up and realize that.”
Men and women both would do well to put time and effort into that initial greeting. When approaching a stranger, love interest or not, one should raisetheir eyebrows in deep recognition, and shake the other’s hand, a gesture that alone is worth three hours of face-to-face time. Wood finds this action so crucial, that if it seems inappropriate for the situation, she advises substituting a brief touch on the forearm instead. But after establishing a warm connection, women often face the problem of being interpreted as too warm, maybe even hot.
“All female body movements are interpreted as flirting by men,” Dr. Andersen explains, even mere eye contact. Such miscommunications, from either sex, could be quickly stamped out by paying attention to the sum of signals, in particular to the hands, which Wood says constantly send out emotional messages.
While few gestures are universal, open hand language can be interpreted as having a calming and connective effect in friendly, threatening or romantic situations. And as for the bottle-label example, Wood sees it as an indicator of nervousness more than of sexual frustration. But if that action, or a more sexually-profound action of the mouth such as biting on a straw or Styrofoam cup was paired with extended eye contact, then Wood might interpret it as a sexual cue. Hand gestures are powerful tools in themselves, and one might be surprised to glance down during conversation and observe their own pair’s breezy and independent fluency. Or pay attention to a politician’s.
The dramatic and confident gestures employed by President Obama during his campaign speeches, along with his use of a preacher’s cadence, led Wood to conclude that it hardly mattered what he was saying; he was rousing the crowd with something other than words. Gesture is everywhere, and itlegitimizes the theater of romantic, friendly, service or business relationships. And while gesture is processed by the same part of the brain that interprets speech, it is much more difficult to repeat one’s gestures than what one just said.
This mysterious nature has led some researchers to call it a "window of the mind." But there are many different categories of gesture, some learned, some spontaneous, some symbolic, and one should be wary of assigning a universal meaning to even the most common ones.
While the origins of the yes/no head movement might stem from a baby’s nursing behavior, some cultures shake their head sideways to mean “yes.” While the middle finger (or digitus obscenus) has been used as an insult since at least ancient Roman times, a friendly wave in America is equivalent to "screw you” in Haiti. And just talking with one’s hands at all was considered vulgar as recently as in the mid-20th century by European upper class. Dr. John Haviland, a UCSD anthropologist, works with cultures where it is never polite to look someone in the eye. Ignorance of such practices can be devastating, he says, especially in courts of law where judges might misinterpret such behavior.
The movement of the eyes is an extremely complex facet of communication, surrounded by controversy and myth. Ever talk to someone and start wondering why you can’t decide which eye to look into? Relax. Wood says that’s just a natural part of the triangular movement of our gaze that skips from one eye to another to the nose and back again. Butdeliberate use of our gaze can be quite powerful. Looking someone in the eye, along with a confident stride and uplifted head, can make a woman seem less vulnerable when walking alone at night.
“It tells them you’re not afraid,” Wood says. “Avoiding gaze leads them to think you’re fearful and makes your body fearful.”
There’s a lot to read in your date’s eyes, too. Check for dilation of the pupils-contraction might mean boredom or intimidation. Though research has only recently demonstrated some of the causes and effects of non-light-related pupil dilation (it reveals attraction and makes the observer more attracted), folklore has long been aware of such facts. Centuries ago, Italian women used Belladonna, a beauty remedy that dilated their pupils artificially; and in the jade trade, buyers wore dark shades to hide their interest.
Pupil dilation is also one of the few cues that might reveal a lie, but Dr. Andersen warns that even the best body language experts catch dishonesty only 70% of the time. Instead of relying on specific gestures, like touching one’s nose or avoiding eye contact, it’s better to compare the suspected liar’s body language with his normal behavior. Gary Hassen, spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, says there is no secret technique used when interviewing a suspect or victim.
“If I’m going to talk to them, I want to see them,” says Hassen,who has served as a detective for 24 years. “I want to read them. But is there any specific thing to look for? Not really. It’s like a puzzle. A piece here, a piece there.”
But the more you approach authorities about this topic, the less they’ll say. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, a woman who performs background investigations for a security company in San Diego says there are no signals she immediately assigns a meaning to when conducting interviews. But if someone does look away during a question, or draws out the syllables of a one-word response, it might indicate there is more to the answer than they’d like to say. So she’ll rephrase the question.
I find myself using her same technique when I ask a TSA security guard at Lindbergh Field if body language helps him identify potentially threatening people. With open arms and raised eyebrows, I approach him in hopes he won’t dismiss me immediately.
“Nooooooooo,” he responds hesitantly, after quickly scanning my face, hands and eyes as if trying to determine whether I’m crazy, earnest or up to no good. Funny thing about his answer is that it’s well reported that the TSA employs a program called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) in many airports. I look him meaningfully in the eye.
“Is it a sensitive question?" I ask. “Yes,” he answers, this time painlessly, his body relaxed. He gazes back at me, in his stiff blue uniform with a shiny metal badge. I nod my head in understanding. The message is too delicate for words.