Louder Than Words Reading Body Language

By Susan Glick (Discovery.com, August 2000)

The woman sits alone in a noisy cafe. Her legs are tightly crossed; her fingers clasp the edge of the table; her head is down. She speaks to the menu when she mumbles her order. She misses the smile the waiter sends in her direction. At a glance, you can guess how she is feeling. Her body language says it all.

Like it or not, our bodies send out messages constantly. Sometimes the message is clear. Other times, the message is conveyed more subtlety. Often we don't even realize what our bodies are telling the world. But by familiarizing ourselves with a few basic nonverbal signals, we can improve our ability to read the body language of others, as well as control our own.

Our use of body language is largely unconscious. We get the message and we send the message--but we really aren't thinking about how we do it. To become more aware, says anthropologist David Givens, Ph.D., "you have to have some kind of strategy for it."

Communication experts study such things as gestures, facial expressions, posture and voice, but Givens recommends a simpler approach. Director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., Givens suggests focusing on "the three most telling and expressive parts of the body:" the lips, the shoulders, and the fingertips and hands. These three parts, with their "great connections to the brain," says Givens, reveal a person's visceral, gut response to what's going on. So watch for compressed lips, hunched shoulders and fidgety fingers, and move on from there to the bigger picture.

To increase awareness of your own body language, Phyllis Mindell, Ph.D., president of Well-Read, a communications consulting firm in Boston, Mass., and Rochester, N.Y., recommends videotaping yourself and watching for what works and what doesn't.

One of the easiest changes to make, she suggests, is to keep an open body. Women, more than men, shrink into their spaces. For example, "you don't clench the fist, you open the fist. You don't fold the hands in a tight hand grasp, you tent the fingertips. You don't sit with your hands tightly folded, you drape them loosely over the arms of the chair. You smile." "The open body represents power," says Mindell, author of A Women's Guide to the Language of Success, "and the closed body represents weakness or insecurity or hostility."

Other changes are harder to make. Grimacing, fidgeting, extraneous movement—these distracting gestures can be tough to eliminate. Mindell encourages clients to "concentrate on one less-than-perfect move at a time and resolve to change it."

Eye contact, say the experts, is one of our weakest nonverbal skills and yet it is essential to establishing trust. Mindell points out that eye contact—touching someone with your eyes--helps you "build a bridge between whatever separates you from your audience--all those physical, psychological, cultural differences."

With effort and self-discipline, anyone can improve their nonverbal communication skills. Admits Givens, "You have to go through a process where initially you get pretty self-conscious and you don't know what to do and you become a statue, but you get over that pretty quickly. You get more natural." Watch people around you and mimic gestures and movements that work. "It's like having a manual," says Givens. A manual without words.

(Copyright 2000 Discovery Communications, Inc.)

March 15, 1999 THE BIG CITY

Inventing a Hand Signal to Offset the Classic Gesture of Road Rage

By JOHN TIERNEY New York Times

What we have here is a failure to communicate. New York's streets and sidewalks are clogged with more people from more places than ever before, and often the only way they can talk to one another is through sign language. But there is only one clearly understood gesture.

What if you have something to express that cannot be represented by a raised middle finger? Even New York drivers are sometimes tempted to say "excuse me" or "thank you." Now that civility is coming back into fashion, New Yorkers could use a new signal, and researchers are already at work on it. One of them is Gridlock Sam, a k a Samuel I. Schwartz, who coined the term "gridlock" when he was chief engineer for the city's Department of Transportation. "With traffic at record levels, we need to give drivers a way to lower the rage level," said Mr. Schwartz, now a consultant and the traffic columnist for The Daily News. His experimentation with friendly signals began with the 1960's peace sign, the two fingers raised in a V, but he found it ineffective. Some people resented its political connotations; some thought he was flashing a victory sign; some got angry because they saw only one finger. Mr. Schwartz has had better luck with a gesture of apology: a light tap of the palm to the forehead.

"I do it when I've inadvertently cut someone off," he explained. "It's a way of saying, 'How thoughtless of me! I'm sorry!' People seem to get the idea."

Could the Forehead Tap become a standard gesture? Maybe locally. But David Givens fears it will not be a lasting contribution to world peace, and he should know. Dr. Givens, the director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., is an anthropologist working on the first dictionary of body language.

"The Forehead Tap," he said, "might show you're angry at yourself, but it's not a sign of appeasement, and it can be ambiguous. In some Mediterranean regions, it means 'I'm crazy' or 'A curse on you!' In France, you knock your forehead to mean that your companion is stubborn."

Incidentally, even the raised middle finger is not universally understood. Although it has a long history--ancient Romans called it the "digitus impudicus," or indecent finger--it's not an automatic reflex. "The finger is an iconic gesture," Dr. Givens explained, "that was invented in some cultures to picture the male genitalia. It's a symbol of dominance that must be learned."

But some gestures are automatically understood by all humans, and Dr. Givens proposes to use them in a new signal of goodwill that he has concocted: the Bowing Thumb Waggle. It incorporates gestures that vertebrates have been programmed to make--and to recognize in others--since amphibians and reptiles began making peace by lowering themselves to the ground as a display of submission.

"When we feel meek or friendly, our emotions toggle these old reptilian brain circuits," Dr. Givens said, "and we automatically start to shrug our shoulders and rotate our wrists so that the palms face up. It's our equivalent of the submissive gesture that dogs make by lowering their head below their shoulders. Around the world, when people feel helpless or contrite, they hold up their open palms, and when they want to be friendly, they wave hello with an open palm."

To make the Bowing Thumb Waggle, you display the open palm and wave gently, with the fingers spread slightly apart and the thumb folded across the palm. "It looks as if you have only four fingers," Dr. Givens said, "and that's interpreted by the subconscious brain as a sign of weakness. The overall gesture says, 'I mean no harm, as you can see by my open palm and poor thumbless hand.' It can't be confused with any other cultural cue anywhere, not even in the Middle East."

The Bowing Thumb Waggle has not been tested in the field, but Dr. Givens is confident it could make New York a friendlier place. "You could do it out the window of your car to apologize or ask someone to let you cut in," he said. "You could use it to politely interrupt someone in a boardroom meeting, or if you wanted to accost someone on the sidewalk to ask directions." And if someone does not reciprocate with goodwill to your bowing thumb and waggling palm? In that case, Dr. Givens recommends that even New Yorkers avoid the temptation to fully rotate the palm and bow three other fingers.

Copyright 1999 (TheNew York Times) [Back to CNS]

Body Language Basics

Body Language Basics

If you can answer yes to the following questions you want this course. Have you been looking for a great way to get more subscribers? Do you constantly seek quality information to provide to your readers? Have you been looking for a way to quickly increase awareness, traffic and profits for your business?

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment