People Lie, Bodies Do Not
We know body language can have a big impact. We sense it every day. For example, when we attend a show and say an actor “inhabits a role,” we mean their body language acts just like the fictional person would. When you are on a train or in a restaurant and you muse about the dynamics of the people across the way, you are reading body language.
Body language facilitates an understanding of others for two main reasons: first, we obtain most of our knowledge from visual stimuli, and second, the body does not lie. When we misread or misinterpret body language cues it places us at a disadvantage.
It always was and still is humans’ basic language. We read people unconsciously. When what someone says conflicts with their body’s message, they seem disingenuous. A common statistic says that 55% of what we communicate is visual, 38% is vocal and only 7% is what is actually said.
If 93% of communication is nonverbal, we should know as much as possible about how to understand and use it. This article discusses key body part players and their range of actions and then suggests how to read other peoples’ unspoken agendas and how to project your best “you” in the workplace.
Body Language Basics
Before language, humans moved in groups and needed a way to communicate. They used body language. People followed leaders by watching what they did and following along. This is still seen when people in conversation “mirror” each other’s physical positions. Reading others occurs constantly, mostly as unconscious communication.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, body language is “the conscious and unconscious movements and postures by which attitudes and feelings are communicated” and “the process of communicating what you are feeling or thinking by the way you place and move your body rather than by words.”
Body language includes:
- facial expressions, especially the eyes;
- how you hold your body, your posture;
- gestures, the most important of which in business situations is the handshake. Humans shake hands as a way to measure authenticity. The handshake “dance” begins when you take a small step forward, look the recipient in the eye, smile and offer your hand, palm up. In networking situations, keep your hands vertical in the shake itself, indicating equality, and match the other person’s pressure. Give a greeting. Step back as you release the hand. This interaction sets the initial relationship;
- touch, which is an important body language component, whether it is welcome or not;
- connections with inanimate objects, like cigarettes, pencils, and coffee mugs; chewing on a pencil indicates the person is unsure. Doodling while someone is talking says that person does not value what the speaker is saying;
- proxemics, which includes spatial distance and positioning.
As can be deduced from this list, some body language is an involuntary, mostly unconscious, reaction to our environment and situation. Some actions, such as smoking, are learned. Some actions are inborn, like smiling back when someone else smiles; others are learned through personal experience. The meaning of body language actions is culture-bound, and influenced by many factors including age, gender, and the relationship’s power dynamic.
Reading Body Language
Reading body language is an inexact science at best. For example:
- Do crossed arms signal disagreement or a request to lower the air conditioning?
- If I scratch my nose, does it presage a lie or does it just itch?
- Does rubbing my eye signal tiredness, irritation or anger?
Movements need to be read in context and clusters. You need to see at least three coordinated body language indicators to feel that your reading is correct. For example, you might infer that someone does not like what you are saying if:
- They have their hand on their face with the index finger pointed up across their chin and the rest of the hand across their mouth suggesting disagreement.
- Legs and/or arms are tightly crossed, suggesting defensiveness.
- Their chin and head are inclined downward indicating negativity.
People look for this kind of congruence to nonverbally support spoken conversation.
One way to test the accuracy of your interpretations is to be aware of micro-signals. These are involuntary facial expressions that occur in 1/25th of a second. For example, when pupils contract, an eyebrow lifts, the corner of your mouth twitches. We do not see them, but they register with our unconscious. It is almost impossible to fake body language, because it is too difficult to align gestures, micro-signals and spoken words.
Being “perceptive” means that you are good at spotting incongruities between a person’s body language and words. When your “gut tells you something” it is reacting to a discrepancy you sense. For example:
- Real smiles involve the mouth and the eyes. Fake smiles involve only the mouth. When you encounter fake smiles, take the time to review the other body’s language “tells” in order to understand why the person is feeling hostile.
- Legs and feet indicate how we feel. When networking, if in a cluster talking together one or two people have a foot pointing away from the group, then that conversation is uncomfortable or about to end. In meetings, if you see someone jiggling their feet or pointing them away from the speaker, the feet owner likely wants to run away.
Body Language and Communication
Body language is useful in conversation because it creates the base for human spoken interactions. Whatever we are saying is either reinforced or subverted by our body language. For example, eyes regulate conversation. As you speak, your eyes glance around at those listening to you. When you are ready to end a sentence, you tend to look up, signaling to others that they may speak. When you widen your eyes in conversation, it inspires trust and positive feelings.
To indicate interest in what the speaker is saying and show that you are paying attention, you can do any or all of the following body language moves:
- tilt your head to one side,
- make eye contact with the speaker,
- nod periodically to show you are following along,
- widen your eyes to show approval, and
- lean slightly forward toward the speaker.
An understanding of basic body language cues is important in business situations for people who need to know what colleagues are really thinking.
- Observing body language determines our initial impression of people before they say a word. In those initial three to eight seconds, when we meet someone for the first time, we form an initial impression that becomes the lens through which we filter future impressions of the person.
- How you physically comport yourself influences your brand because body image is a powerful component of your brand image. When working or networking, it is important that your clothing, affect, energy, comportment and courtesy all support positive interactions with others in the room.
- When you want to create a sense of psychological comfort, mirror the behavior of others in the conversation, make eye contact, smile, stand tall and use people’s names.
- Remember the importance of mind-body connection. Understanding your own body language increases your self-awareness and self-control, which are prerequisites for emotionally intelligent leadership.
Posture is also a key tool for projecting the image you want people to see. When you walk into a room or sit in a chair, set your body so that your head is aligned with your spine, your whole body is upright and your expression is one of interest and self-confidence. Others will see you as a positive leader.
If you sign up for a networking function and it turns out that you are having a bad day and cannot bring yourself to project authority, energy or grace, do not go. No matter how much you try to act positive, your body will show how you really feel.
Proxemics form the basis of power formations. Humans have five spatial zones (COVID-19 notwithstanding):
- Zero to six inches for intimate relationships like mother/child, lovers, etc.
- Zero to 18 inches for the intimacy of close friends and crowded places.
- Eighteen inches to four feet for people you interact with on a regular basis.
- Four to 12 feet for social events, non-touch encounters.
- Twelve feet or more for public areas with no interaction, with strangers.
When we have to engage in activities that violate these guidelines, we fudge it. Think of crowded elevator behavior: by facing front, looking straight ahead, saying nothing and not touching, our minds construct an invisible cocoon around us.
Spatial relations are also vital, but unconscious, indicators of relationships. In meetings, relationships in the room and the role of the leader can be established without saying a word.
- Sitting opposite another person creates a feeling of confrontation. Sitting side by side blocks conversation, since it is awkward and physically tiring to look someone very close to you in the eyes.
- Sitting behind a desk while the others sit on the other side emphasizes the authority and objectivity of the person behind the desk.
- When you want to create a feeling of congeniality and cooperation:
□ sit at a 45% angle from the other person,
□ hold meetings around a round table, or
□ lead the meeting from the center of a rectangular table.
- When standing while participating in group conversations, stand at a slight angle to the others to encourage openness and congeniality.
Taking the time to learn more about body cues will increase your ability to communicate effectively. Understanding your own body language will allow you to project the most favorable image as a support for your position in the organization. The most intuitive leaders read bodies well. Use this knowledge to understand dissent and forge consensus in your firm, your family, with clients, judges and juries.
Carol Schiro Greenwald, Ph.D., is a networking, marketing and management strategist, coach and trainer. She is the author of two books, “Strategic Networking for Introverts, Extroverts and Everyone In-between” (American Bar Association, Law Practice Division, 2019) and “Build Your Practice the Logical Way – Maximize Your Client Relationships” (with Steven Skyles-Mulligan, American Bar Association, First Chair Press, 2012). This article appears in the Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal, a publication of the Entertainment, Art, and Sports Law Section (EASL). For more information, please visit NYSBA.ORG/EASL.