The minute someone walks in the room, you can usually get a sense of how they are feeling. Not from what they say, but from what their posture, gesture, and expression tell you. That’s body language.
Human beings are wired to read one another’s body language. It’s only the exceptional few (towards one end of the autistic spectrum) who lack the capacity. The upshot of this is simple; if a little surprising:
We cannot not communicate.
Everything we do – or don’t do – says something to people around us. Body language is universal, powerful, and rarely lies.
What is Body Language?
Body language is a non-verbal form of communication. This means that any way we can communicate with any part of our body, but without words, is body language. The ‘without words’ part is important. It means that sign languages are not part of body languages. They allow us to use movement, gesture, and expression to form words.
This does, however, leave open a wide range of ways to convey information deliberately or leak information inadvertently. And again, it is worth noting that our use of body language can be deliberate as well as unconscious.
Modes of Body Language
I’m not aware of a comprehensive list of modes of body language – but I’d bet that academics have attempted to create one. But this list covers the main modes that are useful to managers
- Posture – how we hold our body
- Proximity – where we place ourselves with regards to other people’s personal space. The closer, the more intimate we are trying (consciously or unconsciously) to be
- Movement – the fluidity, pace, and style with which we make movements
- Gesture – voluntary and involuntary indications largely with our hands, arms, and head
- Facial expressions
- Touch – also called haptics, this is the body language of intimacy
- Eye movements, and eye contact or aversion – this has the technical name of oculesics
- Autonomic indications – things we can barely control, like breathing rate, shaking, flushing, salivary secretion or suppression, and sweating
- Vocal indications – things like tone of voice, pace, timbre, and inflection can give away clues about autonomic response, so could be classed as body language
Is the Language of Our Bodies Truly Universal
Much of body language is universal. Smiles, frowns, and expressions of disgust seem to be truly culturally invariant. They turn up in the same way all over the world and so are part of what makes us human. Really, we are all the same. As Paul Simon said, ‘It’s the myth of fingerprints’.
But there are plenty of gestures that are far from universal. Desmond Morris’s ‘Manwatching‘ (US|UK) is a classic popular guide to human behavoiour and contains many examples of culturally specific gestures that sit within a defined range of:
- social grouping
Same Language: Different Dialects
We all use the same body language, but we adopt different dialects, sociolects, genderlects, and the like.
Gestures add dialect and the others. They are deliberate refinements of body language that get baked into a culture or social grouping. We cannot readily stop ourselves from using our own dialect gestures- they feel natural. But they are not innate. And we can create new gestures that others can learn, imitate, and form into habits.
How do we Read Body Language
The current thinking is that our ability to read body language is down to a set of brain cells called ‘mirror neurons’. Mirror neurons respond to actions that we observe in other people (and anthropomorphic representations like cartoons).
Discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues, it seems that mirror neurons fire the same way when we observe a movement or expression, and also when we make the same movements ourselves.
Researchers also attribute disorders like autism to defects in the mirror neuron system.
However, a lot of this is speculative. Mirror neurons were identified and have been studied primarily in monkeys. Though similar to us, they are not the same. So we need to remain cautious in our assessment of these ideas.
Here is an excellent article posted online by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Go on… Show me How to Read Body Language
Unfortunately, this is far too big a topic for this article. Whole books have been devoted to the topic. The best I can do for you is to recommend some of my favourites.
But, before I do that, let me give you some general – but very useful – advice.
Advice on Reading Body Language
Don’t worry about learning the ‘rules’ of body language. For most of us, the dictionary is baked into our neural wiring. we can read many of the universals without learning them. What you need to do is allow yourself to observe empathically and let yourself feel what it must be like to stand, sit, or move like that, and to use your hands, feet, and face in that way.
Deliberate gestures that we learn culturally are different. You can only learn them. However, it’s fair to say that most of them communicate something like:
Given that fact, often the surrounding involuntary body language offers plenty of clues to the sort of message the user is trying to convey. I listed seven principles of body language in an earlier article.
What is Your experience of Body Language?
We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.
To learn more…
I promised some book recommendations.
My first is The Body Language Pocketbook, by Max Eggert. It is full of tips on how to interpret and use body language to sharpen your communication skills. Its primary audience is managers and so it largely steers clear of theory and advanced ideas and sticks to practical advice on using and interpreting basic body language at work. I’d say it covers the 20% of body language that will give you 80% of the useful ideas.
But if its a topic that really interests you -as it does me – here are my favourite recommendations for further reading:
- The Book of Tells, by Peter Collett (US|UK) – popular and anecdotal
- You Can Read Anyone, by David J Lieberman (US|UK) – workplace oriented
- What Every Body is Saying (US|UK) – popular detailed, by a forensic interviewer
- Dissecting Pinocchio (US|UK) – mainly about detecting lies and deception, by a forensic interviewer
You may also like our article about Amy Cuddy, who popularised the concept of ‘Power Poses’.