Body language is one of the few languages we don’t provide at Vandu, and the fact that readers of body language are called experts rather than interpreters suggests why. While an interpreter can either get it right or wrong, body language is not an exact science, and several consistent signals must be recognised to support a conclusion. Having said that, so much more can be understood from a person’s body language – many sources agree that between 50%-80% of communication is non-verbal.
Scientists and philosophers have connected physical behaviour with meaning, mood and personality throughout the ages, but only in living memory has the science of body language become as sophisticated as it is today. Initially the only notable findings on body language were made by the ancient Greeks but Charles Darwin was the true pioneer on the subject, and his book written in 1872 ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ is commonly regarded as the beginnings of the body language science, and is the only pre-1950’s reference made by Julius Fast’s book ‘Body Language’ – the book that brought the science to the mainstream.
So, what is body language? The dictionary definition is this:
“Body language -noun- the process of communicating what you are feeling or thinking by the way you place and move your body rather than by words”
However, what actually counts as body language is up for debate. They tend to encompass these actions:
• How we position our bodies.
• Our closeness to and the space between us and other people (proxemics), and how this changes.
• Our facial expressions.
• Our eyes especially and how our eyes move and focus.
• How we touch ourselves and others.
• How our bodies connect with objects, for instance, pens, cigarettes, glasses and clothing.
• Our breathing, and other less noticeable physical effects, for example our heartbeat and perspiration.
Most of us can instinctively read certain body language signals, such as crossed arms and a tapping foot might indicate impatience or frustration, however it is considered bad practice to make judgements on one signal – it’s better to go on what’s called ‘clusters’ otherwise known as a group of similar signals.
Another thing to consider is the cultural differences between people; comfortable proximities differ between cultures, as do meanings behind eye contact. For example, keeping eye contact might mean certainty or confidence in the U.K, but in Latino culture prolonged eye contact can mean you are challenging an individual or that you might have a romantic interest in the recipient. In many Asian cultures staring into the eyes of someone is also a sign of aggression. Another example of this is handshakes, here in the UK and most of the western world a firm friendly handshake is considered polite, but across Muslim cultures its frowned upon for men and women to touch publicly, and in Hindu cultures men place their hands as if praying to greet women.
Understanding body language can be a great tool to get a better impression of someone or a particular interaction between two people, and it provides signs that aren’t so obvious by any other means of communication.