Silent movies from the 30’s have always fascinated me: characters making methodical movements, gestures, odd facial expressions. They were employing basic principles of body language, the art of non-verbal communication. As such, great actors like Charlie Chaplin rarely failed to get laughter from his audience, as specific body cues were often followed with a comedic antic.
Reading body language is not an exact science, but knowing how to recognize certain patterns of behavior can place you at an advantage when dealing with people. Especially those whom you are communicating with verbally, but who are sending mixed messages via body language. At times, looking for clusters of signals, rather than a single element can improve reliability that much more.
When studying body language, the body is divided into four parts: the head, arm, torso, and legs. The head portion includes every part of the face, from chin, to forehead, to hair. The arm area encompasses the fingers, hand, and elbow. The torso is the central core of the body which begins from the neck, down to the hips and bottom. The leg part includes the thigh, knee and foot.
For purposes of this article, we will be concentrating on three classic techniques of reading body language, with emphasis on patterns of behaviour: attraction, status, dishonesty/honesty.
Technique #1, Body Language of Attraction
If you are in or returning to the dating scene, and want to know whether someone is really interested in you, observe where they place their arm or hand when sitting. According to Patti Wood (pattiwood.net), body language expert, where a person places his/her hand is a sure sign of attraction.
If a person sits with arms and hands by their sides at the table, they are exhibiting a closed position, and not showing much interest in any kind of personal interaction. However, if he/she is sitting across from you, with an arm on the table and fingers pointing toward you, they are in an open position. This position shows the intent of reaching out symbolically and being able to touch you. If they do so, they are certainly interested!
Technique #2, Body Language of Status
If you want to be perceived as a person of status and importance, the first step is to dress for success, as first appearances matter. This means being clean-shaven, hair cut or styled, clothes fresh, laundered, and pressed. The second step is to practise how you carry yourself in everyday life, as stature equals status.
According to a study published in Psychological Sciences, “nonverbal cues can give away a person’s SES” ( socioeconomic status). Using body language to convey status is a good way to improving your image; helpful when competing for a promotion; important when looking for a salary raise; and useful in having more control in everyday situations, either on yourself or other people.
A person’s height or appearance of size has always been an unspoken measure of status. The taller you seem, the greater status you will have. However, you do not need to be born big or tall to have status. You only need to address the torso part of your body language to appear taller. The status position (one of regal stance) is to always stand straight, hold your head high, shoulders back and squared (not slouched), and walk with purpose (as well as carry a big stick).
Past and present movie stars like Audie Murphy, Alan Ladd, Paul Newman, and Tom Cruise are/were all small-stature men. On screen, they appear bigger than life, because film makers saw fit to give them the perception of tallness and size. To be seen in a positive light, small-stature actors are never placed beside men who are otherwise taller; specific camera angles are used to play up their size. Often it is not beneath them to stand the hero on an apple crate when kissing the leading lady, who just happens to be taller than the leading man.
Technique #3, Body Language of Deception/Dishonesty
The third classic technique deals with the head area, in the body language of deception. Lying is a form of deception, and when trying to figure out whether someone is being dishonest or not, look first to the head for signals and other telltale physical signs of deception.
The most classic sign of lying is when a person cannot or does not want to look you in the eyes, or give direct eye contact. A person trying to lie or being caught in a lie will usually look elsewhere, or at something else when talking to you. Children will not look you directly in the eyes because they are afraid of consequences, or do not want their eyes to reveal the secret.
Furthermore, a person who is lying may be persistently swallowing when he/she is talking. When a person lies, they often experience a dry throat and need to swallow frequently. Also, the act of swallowing serves as a stall tactic, taking the time to make a break in the conversation , and having the time to think out that lie.
Reading the head area is very reliable when trying to detect non-verbal cues of dishonesty; especially when accompanied by cluster messages such as fidgeting, sweaty palms, or finger play (mostly exhibited by children). As for adults, they tend to change the subject; along with making a quick physical movement to change positions; often with some kind of verbal exclamation to distract, like ” Oh, look at that!”.
This writer and her husband, who has made many border crossings and answered many strange questions have learned to always look a border agent in the eye and to only answer questions that are asked. No more, no less; as anything out of the ordinary may have them taking you inside for further questioning.
On a concluding note of caution: be careful when applying Western understanding of body language to Eastern non-verbal behavior, as certain gestures do not necessarily mean the same response, as a person may perceive it to be.