What Body Language Tell You That Words Cannot

U.S. News & World Report Interview With David Givens, Anthropologist

The most successful lawyers, teachers and salespeople, among others, have one thing in common: A capacity to understand nonverbal signals and use them advantageously.

Q Mr. Givens, why is it important for people to understand body language—that is, communication by means of movements and gestures?

A The best salespeople, the best teachers, the best business managers have an innate ability to read body language and put it to profitable use. They adapt their presentation to the messages they pick up.

For example, the most successful trial lawyers are those who can look at a jury and a judge and pick up little cues that tip off what people are thinking. An observant lawyer may notice that the judge is compressing his lips into a thin line as the lawyer is speaking. This is a common sign people use when they disagree or are becoming annoyed. A smart lawyer will quickly try a new approach.

Such signals are used constantly, even though people generally don't realize they are communicating through their movements, posture and mannerisims.

Q What kinds of information is nonverbal language likely to reveal?

A Very often it signals a person's true feelings, which may be contrary to what is actually being spoken. For example, a person may hunch the shoulders, angle the head to one side and compress the lips. That's a good indication that he or she is uncertain about an idea or perhaps disagrees with it, even without saying so in words.

Q Would you give some examples of the most common indicators of approval and disapproval?

A When people show rapport with each other, they swivel their upper bodies toward each other and align their shoulders in parallel. They face each other squarely, they lean slightly toward each other, and there

Can is more eye contact. If they disagree, they unwittingly or unconsciously turn their bodies away from each other. Such signs are unmistakable forms of body language.

Q Do people more often than not try to exhibit dominant behavior in the presence of others?

A Some people do, but many also assume a submissive stance. The head, arms, legs and feet tell the true intent. When the boss pats an employee on the back, the employee's toes will invariably pigeon-toe inward--a classic sign of submission—and the boss will toe out, a sign of dominance.

By contrast, people in submissive roles will tend to crouch slightly and display self-protective stances. They may fold their arms or hug themselves, cross their legs or reach up and touch their throats. People with a more dominant attitude will use more-expansive gestures, spreading the arms and legs, creating an air of openness.

Q What are some other universal nonverbal signals?

A One is an automatic raising of the eyebrows that a person does when he or she meets someone else. It takes place very quickly at the instant when recognition takes place, and it is a natural and universal form of greeting.

Another obvious cue is known as the "hand behind head," which signals uncertainty or stress. When someone is disturbed or startled by something, the first reaction is to reach up and touch the back of the head. It is a totally unconscious reflex.

About 125 nonverbal signals of this type have been cataloged as recognizable.

Q Where do we get mannerisms such as these? Are they learned as a part of our culture?

A No, they are almost entirely inborn. Nonverbal behavior occurs naturally, without being taught, and even shows up in newborn infants and in lower animals. It is firmly grounded in evolutionary development. It's something that Mother Nature provides to help us get along with each other.

Nonverbal communication is also what we call culture-free: it applies worldwide. People can go anywhere and understand these signals, even if they don't know the spoken language.

Q Is courtship one of the situations that is strongly influenced by nonverbal skills?

A Yes. In fact, early courtship is almost entirely made up of nonverbal actions. Men and women unconsciously shrug their shoulders when they find each other attractive. It is an "I give up" signal, almost a childlike gesture that shows they are harmless.

Early courtship is filled with shy, juvenile, awkward behavior between the man and the woman. A woman attracted to a man will tilt her head down and to the side, then look in his direction in a coy or coquettish way. A man at a party or at a bar will stake out his territory by putting cigarettes or cash in front of him, to show females his status relative to other men.

Q What if a woman decides that she isn't interested in a man's overtures?

A The simplest gesture is simply to turn her body away from him. It's the "cold shoulder," one of the most recognizable gestures in the entire animal kingdom. It is really one of the kindest yet most effective ways to dampen someone's ardor. And men can use it, too.

Q Would you include touching in the vocabulary of nonverbal communication?

A Yes. And it should be used very carefully. Skin is our oldest sense organ, and when it is touched by someone it carries a strong emotional impact. It is a very sexually loaded form of communication.

In a business or social setting, a casual touch can be almost electric, even in a professional relationship. When someone is touched, he or she immediately stops for an instant and wonders, "What did that mean?" In such settings, "hands off" is the best policy because even a well-intentioned touch can be badly misconstrued. [11/19/84]



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  • seija
    What body language can tell you that words cannot?
    3 years ago

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