The truth is that much of what we're told about reading body language is a lie.
Touching your face or looking to the left are not dead giveaways that you are lying. Nor is crossing your arms a surefire sign that you don't like someone or are hiding something. Necessarily.
Body language might not reveal why someone is feeling a certain way, but it can tell us what someone is feeling. And while there is no hard and fast formula for reading body language, there is a subtle art to observing. Mastering it means not jumping to conclusions and recognising that context is key. Once we understand this, we can start to learn the language of the body, sit back and see what it says.
Our bodies can betray our thoughts and words, revealing insecurity, doubt, fear, nerves, vulnerability, or anxiety as well as interest, sense of intimacy and status.
So we asked the best in the business for his insights into the biggest body language myths, how to tell if someone is flirting or just friendly and how we can influence others with our body language. Joe Navarro spent 25 years as a counterintelligence agent for the FBI and has been studying human body language for nearly half a century. He is the author of What Every BODY is Saying among other books. Here is what he had to say:
What are the main things we miss or misconstrue when reading someone's body language?
The biggest problem with reading body language is context. While it is true that we can usually observe what someone is thinking, feeling, fearing, or desiring, often times context affects what we see. At the airport we expect to see lip biting and neck touching (stress relievers) as flights are being canceled but those can be seen on a person at a restaurant if they suddenly remember they forgot to turn the iron off. The mistake we make is in seeing the body language but not following it up with a question such as 'Are you OK? or 'What's wrong?'
I once sat across from someone who I thought was not having a good time with me and as it turned out, she was concerned that she hadn't locked the doors to her car. For over an hour her context was car security not the date.
How much do different cultures/upbringings play a part in body language?
There are universal behaviours that we all share controlled by the limbic brain [which controls emotional behaviours and motivation], but then there are those that are influenced by culture or are totally cultural. Compressed lips is a universal behaviour we use to indicate that something is bothering us. As is eyeblocking (covering eyes with hands or fingers), we all do this. But, culture can influence how we perform behaviours such as when we crinkle our nose up (as if something smelled really bad). In some cultures this is done lightly, while in others (especially around the Mediterranean or Caribbean) these can be exaggerated looking almost caricature-like. So, we say culture influences these but doesn't get rid of them. And then, of course, there are strictly cultural cues such as the American 'OK' thumbs up sign, which I don't recommend doing in Egypt because there it is a phallic gesture.
Is there a distinction between honesty and openness or are they essentially one and the same?
I would not mix the two together because you can be very honest in what you say, but if you feel threatened (e.g. in an interrogation room) you may display behaviours that are closed. I look at psychological comfort and when there is psychological comfort we see open, relaxed, broad gestures. We see more touching, more head tilt, more smiling. The minute these go away or there is psychological discomfort then we have to ask why and not immediately associate it with deception. Is the discomfort, and thus the less open gestures, as a result of me (i.e. the person simply doesn't like me), is it because of circumstances, is it because of what is being discussed or is it because the person is concealing guilty knowledge. We don't know the cause until we explore it, even though we do observe the behaviours.
As you have said, pathological liars have quite a different profile to the rest of us, in part because they are so practised. For the rest of us, are there particular clues to lying?
Accomplished liars do it so often and so frequently and with such versatility that it is difficult to detect just from their body language. Even for professionals we are no better than chance at detecting deception (50/50), so in the face of a skilled liar it becomes even more difficult. There are clues to lying, in fact in my book Clues to Deceit I cover over 200 of them, but in essence we are looking for signs of psychological discomfort to then explore what is the cause behind it.
What are some of the main myths of body language?
That it can be used to discover signs of lying most of the time. That is just not accurate in all circumstances and for all people. There are plenty of gangsters, Mafiosi, and psychopaths out there who lie all the time and don't get caught because for them lying is a tool for social survival. The other myth is that body language doesn't matter or we don't know what it means. We now know fairly much what all nonverbals mean and in context they can tell us what someone is thinking, feeling, desiring, fearing, or intending.
What are the key things you look for when you meet a person and what do they tell you about them?
We first assess for danger as all primates do and then we assess for status and we do this subconsciously. The next most important thing we should do consciously is look for signs of comfort and discomfort and that is what What Every BODY is Saying is about. If they are comfortable then all is good. If we see signs of discomfort then it is up to us to determine why, what is the cause so we can fix it.
Many people seem to misconstrue friendliness/affection with flirtation. Are there ways of delineating?
Flirting and affection are often displayed within cultural rules so know where you are and make sure you understand what is being transmitted. Sometimes we just have to ask because you can get it all wrong. At the same time, some people give a lot of courtship cues accidentally and so we see the repeated smile, eye gaze, or touch as being flirtatious when, in fact, they haven't mastered just being friendly, so it comes off as courtship displays.
What has surprised you personally or been your biggest lesson about body language or the way people behave?
How honest it is. Coming to America as an immigrant who did not speak English you quickly learn that it is not what people say, but their behaviour that really shows what they feel and think. It is the universal lingua franca.
It's as much as 80 per cent of our communication. How much are we miscommunicating through our bodies and what can we do to communicate more clearly?
Nonverbal communications can be quite high - 100 per cent in lovemaking, but it is all contextual. We don't really know the numbers - 60 to 80 per cent because it is contextually-driven and can change in an instant. What we can say is that gestures and body language reflect what we think and feel and so we look for them to compliment our speech and when they don't then [there is an] issue.
To what extent do we influence other's physical behaviour?
Absolutely. You can affect others with nonverbals. Throw food on your blouse or shirt and go shake hands - always there will be registered negative emotions. When someone is angry, move back a little and stand sideways and watch as they become less angry. In fact, if you stand next to them but at arms-length, both facing the same way, [it is] very difficult [for them] to stay upset. We are primates and primates show aggression by facing off each other at close distance, so by doing the opposite, moving away angling your body you can diffuse the situation.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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