Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Body Language by Michael

I've been researching body language for a couple of years. Depending on the book or tutorial, the topic can be very boring or very interesting. The boring stuff tends to be a repetitive rehash of FAQs, tips, and tutorials or cheap knockoff books trying to capitalize on the dating craze. I've passed up many a book in the bookstore that promises to win me the girl of my dreams for a night in favor of a book on sales and marketing that only mentions body language.

While no one really knows the history of human communication, it is generally accepted that body language was developed long before verbal language was. Animals communicate their needs, moods, and intentions through body language but there is evidence that animals also communicate through sounds and chemicals. Natural pheromones have only been studied for a few decades.

I think the first pheromones were discovered in ants early in the 20th century, but Martha McClintock documented human pheromones in women in 1969. She launched a slow revolution in human biological science that has begun to explode over the past 10 years as commercial enterprises have found ways to monetize pheromone science. Of course, pheromones have gotten a lot of bad press, but we all produce them and science is still documenting what they do. Pheromones apparently communicate states of health, biological relationships (mother and child), states of fear, states of arousal, etc.

But, to get back to body language, I've found there are relatively few interesting tutorials on the Internet. Most of the attempts to document body language in detail get bogged down in list of "signs of interest" and "how to seduce people through mirroring" techniques. There is so much more to body language than that. Good sales people learn to read body language to determine how well they are doing with prospective customers. Many retail clerks, ignorant of body language, often press potential customers needlessly because they don't key in to the signals we send out.

Nonverbal communication, like pheromones, is prone to its own controversies. For example, many of the quick tutorials and even some hard-core technique books and FAQs promote the 7-38-55 rule. This rule states that 90% of our communication is non-verbal. The rule is based on research performed by Professor Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s and which he published in two books in 1971 and 1972. Mehrabian's research was originally published in a paper titled "Decoding of inconsistent communications", and his numbers are based on a very narrow area of study. Some critics of this rule have been arguing strenuously by that it should not be promulgated across the entire spectrum of non-verbal communication tools.

Dr. C.E. Johnson has pointed out that if over 90% of our communication is nonverbal, we should be able to travel to any other country and understand about 90% of what the non-English speakers tell us. And that is certainly not true. In fact, I've been keenly interested in cultural differences in body language. I have many Asian friends, for example, and they tell me that certain American gestures and actions are considered to be offensive in Asian culture. I've found a couple of Asian body language tutorials (for traveling Americans) that reiterate those points.

I've found, through constant practice and experimentation (inspired by the books I have read), that body language can be used to understand what other people are emotionally drawn towards, or how they physically feel. But there are plenty of situations where I still don't understand the other person because their body language is so inconsistent with what they are saying, or it's inconsistent with itself.

I voted for George W. Bush in large part because of body language. I don't agree with all his decisions. But he is a far more sincere man than most of the people who run for President. I would rather know where our leaders stand than have to be guessing where they stand. John Kerry turned me off because he uses extremely artificial body language. His characteristc extended hand gesture, that he uses to emphasize almost everything he says, screams out, "This man is coached. He is hiding his true feelings."

So, I didn't want to put Kerry into office because I just couldn't trust him to be honest. I may sometimes think Bush is an idiot, but I really think all those political people are idiots. And even I'm an idiot on occasion. Just because someone fumbles in answering an unrehearsed question doesn't mean they're incapable of making a rational decision. Just because I disagree with their decision doesn't mean anyone else would have made a better decision.

The way people express sincerity in their body language is important. There are some gestures that are almost universally interpreted as sincerity, but someone who knows about these gestures and use them to pretend to be sincere. It's the unexpected movements that people make which reveal their true intentions. Just because someone holds their hands up palms outward or touches their chest doesn't mean they are telling you the truth. Do they look vulnerable? Are they placing themselves in a clearly vulnerable position, or are they reaciting in a careful way to a potentially threatening approach by someone else?

Don Steele, one of the many "dating gurus" you'll find out about when you look into body language, says that if you want to interpret body language you need to look for clusters of actions and reduce them to their simplest possible meanings. Exagerate what a gesture can represent in order to discern its most likely meaning. If I hold a glass in front of me as I speak with you, imagine me holding a shield to defend myself. If I remove my glasses, imagine a knight in armor lifting his visor to expose one of the most important parts of his body.

Body language doesn't stop with the body, though. It encompasses the space around the body as well. That is, you stake out your territory and other people stake out their territory and then you negotiate with each other over territorial rights and possession. Territory doesn't end with physical space, though. It also includes philosophical space. But I've got to run, so I'll come back to this another day.


Post a Comment

<< Home