7 Surprising Truths About Body Language

7 Surprising Truths about Body Language

We have all heard the statement “actions speak louder than words” and we have likely already discovered that we can communicate without the aid of a single word being uttered.  This is what we often refer to as the body language cues.

For example, wee can shrug our shoulders to say, “I don’t know.”  We can raise an eyebrow and we’ve just said, “Excuse me? Did I hear you right?”   We can turn our hands over palms up in front of us to say, “I don’t know what else to say.  That’s all I’ve got.”   And we can point to our nose to indicate that the other person’s “got it right!”

However, as a body language expert, there might be some other truths about this communication science that could surprise you.  Here are 7 – a little light summer reading.

1.  Stop reading into all my gestures and assuming you know my intention without checking it out.   Gestures, in and of themselves, are ambiguous.  They can mean many things.  If I cross my arms, I may be signaling my defensiveness, but I may also be cold from your air conditioning being turned up much too high.  If you think I am being defensive, there are probably other clues.

2.  The face is a poor place to start reading body language.   By the time most of us are adult, we’ve learned to mask our true feelings  — at least as they show up in our face – because we have to get along at work, at home, and in social settings.  So we pretend to be interested, we pretend to smile, we assume a bland expression when we’re actually peeved, and so on.  Of course, we’re not perfect at these polite deceptions.  We don’t always manage to stifle that yawn completely.  But for the most part, the face we present to the world is a polite mask that hides our true feelings.  And that’s a good thing, usually:  it helps us all get along with others in social or public places.

3.  The face often broadcasts our strongest feelings. You can learn to read what are called micro-expressions – sudden leakages of true emotion through the mask of the face – with some training.  These micro-expressions are fleeting – less than

a second in duration – and it takes work to learn how to spot them.  They typically only show up when we’re trying to hide a very strong feeling that is at odds with what we’re expressing out loud.  The expression of true feeling will suddenly and briefly break out across our face like a flash of lightning in the dark and be gone.

4.  Body language signals intent, not specific meaning. What body language does convey, with pretty good accuracy, is our emotional intent.  In fact, brain research shows that whatever we’re feeling first shows up in our body, and only later (nanoseconds later) in our conscious minds.  So, if we’re hungry, or impatient, or angry, or happy, our bodies know first, and they will pretty reliably signal those feelings.  Learning to recognize body language cues alerts you to someone’s emotional intent, not their specific conscious thoughts.  And while most of us our reasonably good at masking our feelings in our face, we’re not as good at disguising how we feel throughout the rest of our bodies.  That’s because our bodies know first.  By the time the conscious mind recognizes that anger, or that joy, it has already shown up in our bodies.  And that’s what you can learn to recognize and read.  Once you get good at recognition, you may even be able to shift your own emotional state by shifting your body.

5.  You’re much better at reading the body language of people you know than any expert.   Think about it.  You know already, unless you’re completely clueless, when your spouse is ticked off, or your child is bored, or your boss wants something done, now!  With people we know, we’ve already amassed many hours of study, and we recognize their tells.  Of course, the people that we know best can deceive us, but not usually for long and not typically on strong emotional stuff.

6.  To read body language with the greatest accuracy, it helps not over think it.  As humans, we’re hard-wired to read other people’s emotions and intents.  We have mirror neurons in our brains that fire when our unconscious minds register an emotion occurring in someone else.  We mirror that other person’s emotion so that we can share it and understand it.  This expertise developed on an evolutionary time scale and is an important part of our ability to survive as a species.  When we see fear, we react instantly, and unconsciously, in order to be ready to take quick action if necessary.

That unconscious expertise is your best ally in reading other people’s body language, because you already recognize the patterns.  It’s just a matter of bringing that knowledge from your unconscious brain to your conscious mind in order to act on the information intentionally.  So let your unconscious mind do the heavy lifting, and work instead on tuning in to your unconscious for reliable information about other people’s emotional intent.   Just pay attention – listen to your gut – and allow your conscious mind to interpret what you notice.  With practice, your abilities will quickly become more efficient in this process.

7.   You have 3 brains; 2 of them are good at reading body language.  Your conscious mind is poor at reading body language, because evolution pushed that chore down to your unconscious mind, which is much larger and faster and can handle the job in nanoseconds, reacting to danger long before your conscious mind could.  But you have a third “mind,” literally in your gut.  In fact, your gut has more neurons in it than a cat does in its head.  And that brain in your gut is wired to the unconscious mind in your head, so that when you become aware that you’re nervous, for example, that’s the end of a long process of your unconscious mind and your gut exchanging signals about that nervousness.  You do get butterflies in your stomach.  Your stomach is good at telling you if there’s danger or opportunity because it’s part of a complex sensing system with your unconscious mind (the one in your head) that is constantly scanning your surroundings and especially other people.

So start paying attention to your own interpretations – that’s where the real body language insights will come from.