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article imageOp-Ed: Body language — The abused science of interpretation?

By Paul Wallis     May 3, 2013 in Health
Sydney - When body language was “discovered” a few decades ago, (like nobody instinctively reads it) it sadly became a fad/craze. People started to take the fad stuff seriously, with dubious statistics and the usual crud that goes with anything psychological.
Before I go any further, if you want a good, analytical description of body language, you can find it here on including commendably well laid out information and definitions. There’s also a much needed description of natural and acquired body language in a credible cultural setting.
The real issue is a whole culture of quasi-psychological craptrap (it doesn’t deserve to be called claptrap) which goes with kinesics, the proper name of body language. This culture of analysis seems determined to be wrong at every opportunity. It’s also quite insulting on a humanistic level.
Body language is a basic form of communication. You don’t require a degree in applied bull to use it. Put it this way- You will read body language automatically, whether you get it right or not. Like any form of communication, If you start to interpret, particularly from a simplistic script, the chances of misinterpretation increase as you do so.
To get some idea of how far body language has gone as a cultural fix for anything and everything, check out these Google images. There’s sexual body language, (apparently incredibly banal) male body language, and endless Sims and suits in “typical” postures.
So- Are we supposed to trust every damn thing anyone writes about body language?
Sydney Morning Herald has an interesting article on the subject as it now stands:
…So how much can we really trust people’s body language as an indicator of what they’re thinking and feeling? In many cases, not a lot.
One of the biggest drivers of the body language phenomenon has been the pervasive statistic that only 7 per cent of effective communication can be attributed to the words we use. The remaining 93 per cent apparently comprises non-verbal cues such as the tone of our voice and our body language.
Be alert for the next time you hear that fallacy. Even the professor to whom it’s credited – Albert Mehrabian – has publicly rejected it as a misinterpretation of his research. He agrees that words matter and should be given more credit.
OK, now think about this for a second. What sort of credulous fool sees something as obviously wrong as a stat like that and believes it without question? Humans didn’t develop speech for a 7% return on investment. What’s said is said for a reason.
There is a quaint “school of thought” which barely accepts the idea that human higher brain functions exist at all. These people tend to be pseudo-behaviourists, knowledgeable about everything except what their science is supposed to do- Explore the reasons for behaviour. Things like body language are too perfect for these self-proclaimed superior beings in proving that human beings don’t think at all and providing useless insights into non-existent behaviours.
Individual body language can be very individual. My own body language is quite different from other people, in many ways. I use my hands a lot, and I’ve never yet seen any of my gestures used by others. I dislike “cultural” gestures as too common and not very expressive. I also notice that these unknown gestures don’t get a lot of accurate interpretation.
Pseudo-kinesics, however, has gone a long way in misdirection. Sydney Morning Herald again:
Women, take note: at the top of the list is head tilting. Do not head tilt! That’s what dogs do.
“Dogs tilt their heads to expose their necks as a way to show deference to the dominant animal,” writes Goman, (body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman writing in the Washington Post) and when women adopt this “feminine gesture” in the workplace, it makes men perceive them as submissive.
So now we’re not even talking about the same species? A head tilt by a human can be very hostile, meaning “What the hell? Are you saying…?” and anything but “submissive”. From a male human, a head tilt can be a precursor to a punch. It can also mean a question, disbelief, etc.
Crap it looks like and crap it is. The more complex (and evidently somewhat more honest) analyses use complex groupings of body language. Others see a posture which is comfortable, and attach meanings to the posture. The bottom line is context, as in any form of communication. A tense argument may mean that the posture is uncooperative, or even threatening.
As for discounting verbal communication, contempt is too good for this argument. Some people are verbally inarticulate, and they will show kinesics which are legitimate signs of communication. They’ll also be expressing a lot of frustration, which alters the signals. It’s just too damn simplistic to see a person in a single body position and assume you’ve read the whole story.
All individuals have their own behaviour patterns. Every culture has gestures, expressions, and other idiosyncrasies. Slang, actions to simulate expressions, etc. are all part of the mix. The average human vocabulary, from memory, is about 10,000 words. All of those words get some use. …Or is the theory that you’re such a good reader of body language that you don’t need to pay attention when someone says they’re going to kill you? Great option, guys.
Then there’s facial expressions- The Holy Grail of kinesics? No. Facial muscles are under tight control, and can be extremely, deliberately misleading. Some are genuine, particularly sudden response changes, but many people are experts at facial control. Some practice extensively.
It is a proven fact that posture can affect mood evolution, thinking, and even real emotions. The defensive posture is a classic case in point. The fetal position is another.
The question that interests me, though, is whether this quasi-kinesics is safe. I’ve seen a lot of people babbling on at me and completely misreading the poker face. (I’m lazy; I won’t waste expression on some people.) They then get horrified by the following “sudden” expression of extreme anger or hostility. They’ve read nothing right. It’s as if they didn’t see the truck coming.
I’ve seen other people in situations where the danger signs were totally ignored, too. The causes of the outbreaks of fury and screaming are invariably surprised. Even the mildest-looking people will react badly, but simply because they look mild, apparently that overrides the normal levels of caution. It can be suicidal.
Moral of story- If you claim to understand body language, observe the individual and learn how to read that person. Don’t assume the person fits the script. Many don’t.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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