Body conscious is one thing – we’re all sensitive about our appearance and what other people look like – but body language is arguably even more important. It’s got nothing to do with your weight, the state of your abs or the tone of your tan, but your body language can be the most striking – and the most revealing – thing about you.
As human beings we are fundamentally a visual animal. Most of what we respond to and our most effective forms of communication are all based – first and foremost – on what we see. If you compare how a bat hears or how a dog uses its nose you can see that we rely on our vision more than we do any other sense. And whilst it might be hard to believe it, that is every bit as true of how we get on with one another as it is anything else. Language is only a small part of how we communicate. Remember, when we are very young we don’t have any sense of language, but we are watching and learning every minute we’re awake.
In adult life the signals we send out are more complex and more sophisticated than the ones we produce as babies, but that is not to say that they are any less effective as forms of communication. Have you ever wondered how it is that some people appear honest and straightforward before they’ve even said a word? And have you ever felt threatened by the way someone walks towards you on a street at night? Those aren’t just matters of chance.
Any time of day or night our brains are receiving and processing thousands of visual messages, many of them entirely unconsciously. We are so bombarded with visual information that we simply cannot handle it all with the conscious part of our brains – if we did we would never get anything done. It would be like trying to have a conversation with 30 different people, all shouting at us at the same time.
Instead, what our brains do is relegate much of what is going on to a lower order of brain power. It’s the sort of thing that we might occasionally be aware of, if for example a stranger catches your eye and holds your gaze for slightly longer than you expected. Ordinarily, though, all those signals tick along in the background merely filtering into our consciousness as a series of hunches and intuitions.
Increasingly, however, psychologists and other body language specialists are identifying the role that our physical behaviour plays in shaping our social relations. In a world where successful communication can be a matter of life and death or where it can mean the difference between clinching a big deal or seeing it slip through your fingers, being able to read another person’s body language – and being able to control your own – are vital and valuable skills.
The eyes have it
Perhaps the most obvious example is the way that people use their eyes to signal to each other. Humans are the only great apes where the whites of the eyes are routinely visible. It makes for a contrast that is immediately expressive. Our eyes have evolved in this way because we are a fundamentally social species: being able to see the expression in each other’s faces is an essential social tool.
If someone can’t look you in the eye it’s never a good sign. It might be because they have done something wrong or it may simply be that they are trying to hide something from you.
That uncertain sense that someone isn’t being straight with you starts with their eye contact. Looking to the side or downwards can be a marker of some form of deceit.
That’s’ why a salesman is trained to look his prospect in the eye. Their livelihood depends on being able to manipulate the subtle signals that generate a positive regard. Of course when they get it wrong it – if they overdo the eyeball to eyeball action – they can be slightly intimidating. You can have too much of a good thing!
Another sign to look out for is someone who works to hold your gaze but who blinks more than you would ordinarily expect. Blinking is a sign of stress. Ask yourself, what have they got to be stressed about? Maybe they are uncomfortable in some way with what they’re saying or doing.
And as with blinking, the contraction and expansion of a person’s pupil can be a real giveaway. It’s what they call a ‘tell’. If we look at something (or someone) we find attractive we physically react so as to take in as much of a view of them as possible – our pupils expand. If we can’t stand the sight of what we’re looking at our eyes try to limit our exposure to them – our pupils contract. Of course this action is also determined in part by the amount of light that’s around. But if you spot a movement in someone’s eyes (one way or the other) you will be one step closer to understanding precisely where they’re coming from. Who knows where it might lead?
This sort of up close and personal scrutiny is easier to achieve in some settings and in some relationships than others. If you’re dating for example, you’ll have more opportunity, and more license, to stare into someone’s eyes than you will if you are trying to sell them a car or an insurance policy. But our eyes are expressive for a reason – we’d be crazy not to pay serious attention to what they’re telling us.
Reading the tells
Physical ‘tells’ are more than just a matter of what we give away with our eyes. We all have certain physical habits – some more subtle than others – that characterise our interactions. And of course, whether we care to admit it or not, we all tell the occasional fib from time to time.
Whether that is a matter of negotiating the terms of a business deal, complementing our mother in law on the quality of her cooking or simply playing a game of cards with our pals, there are times when what we say and what we are thinking are out of line. That’s just another one of the things that makes us human. What is interesting from a body language point of view is that the tension that we experience when we do that – when we know we’re being slightly naughty – prompts an involuntary reaction in us. It’s a way of releasing that tension.
Someone insisting that they are offering their lowest possible price over a deal might swallow after speaking (and they might look away, too). Some see it as a way of subconsciously swallowing (and hiding) the social crime they have just committed. Alternatively, a card player whose every move is likely to be scrutinised by their opponents may concentrate so hard on their poker face and keeping their voice steady that they overlook their routine scratch of their nose when they are bluffing. It’s the sort of thing that in the highly charged environment of professional card playing can be the difference between walking away with a million and walking away without one. That’s quite an expensive itch!
Tells are all around us, they certainly aren’t confined to the world of the professional gambler. As often as not we don’t register them. But when you find yourself saying I alwaysthought there was something about him…. What you’re admitting to is having noticed the tells but having ignored what it was they were saying.
More seriously, for example, it is standard practice for professional psychologists who work in prison settings to terminate any interviews as soon as they feel a sense of unease. Even the professionals can’t always put their finger on what the tells are in a given setting, but in situations where they may be putting themselves in serious danger they know that the messages are there for a reason. Those tingling hairs on the back of your neck are never something you should ignore. Remember, there are millions of years of human history and communication that go way back beyond our ability to use language.
Less dramatically, we have all seen people give presentations of one sort or another – whether it is simply a teacher in a class or a politician up on a podium. As much as those public speakers are asking us to take on board what they are saying they are also implicitly asking us to trust them. And the best weapon they have to achieve that is their body language.
Confidence is expressed as a matter of a straight back, a balanced stance, an upturned chin and solid, bold gestures. Compare David Cameron’s public demeanour with that of an anxious child at a school presentation. The child might hunch over one leg, look to the floor and tangle their fingers – all signs of discomfort and all of them signs that suggest weakness, indecision and vulnerability. David Cameron may be overconfident, but it is more likely that he has been schooled and practised in presenting a public persona that is redolent of authority, confidence and power. Next time you see him speak watch his gestures – his hand movements in particular are rigid and stiff like those of a puppet. Compare them with the smoother more relaxed style of Barack Obama. Both presentational styles are entirely self-conscious techniques but, they do much to characterise the peculiar style of each of them as a leader.
As much as what we do is revealing, where we do it is every bit as telling. The study of proxemics looks at how close, or how far apart, people place themselves in their interactions.
It is something that ordinarily no-one would pay much attention to – other than that teenagers like to cuddle up to each other and that older people are more distant. Partly this is a matter of convention – older people tend to have been raised in more conservative environment and that finds its expression in their public shows of affection.
But there are other factors in play besides generational differences. If two people are attracted to each other they will – amongst a flurry of other signals – show their attraction by standing or sitting slightly closer to the object of their desire than they otherwise would. You can see it most obviously when people are moving as in walking between classes along a crowded street. Amidst the huge number of micro-decisions that a person has to make as they walk through a crowded space, the pull of desire has an almost magnetic quality. If you turn round in a bar and someone just happens to be standing next to you, it may not be quite the surprise you think it is!
And it is not just the matter of distance that is revealing. The angles that we adopt in relation to each other are also illuminating. For example, it is unusual to be face to face with someone at anything less than about 18 inches unless we are involved in an intimate relation with them. But compare that with public transport where we are often in physical contact with the person sitting next to us even though we have never met them before. In short, the closer we are to someone, and the closer we want to be to them, the more front on our stance is apt to be. Again, this is a technique that is easily exploited by those seeking to make a good impression on us. It is a way to appear open and honest, with nothing to hide, as opposed to standing askance which is akin to a door that is only half open. This is definitely not the most welcoming way to address someone!
The other great physical mode of communication that we have not mentioned concerns the body’s involuntary release of hormones that signal amongst other things our readiness to fight or to get physical on a more friendly basis. Either way, even though we are not aware of it, our physiology will react to the signals that are bombarding it. It’s the sort of invisible communication that dogs and bats might routinely adopt but that we have no awareness of and no control over.
The more overt aspects of our body language are however considerably easier to spot, even if most of the time we are too busy trying to work out which cards to play, what car to buy or which policy to vote for to actually take on board what all those subtle messages are trying to tell us. They are worth giving some thought to, though, and they’re a lot easier to get to grips with than the gym!