Body Language: What we’re really saying

BodyLanguageWhat is your body say about you? We’re not talking about your height, weight, size, or shape.  We’re also not talking about whether you’re athletically trim or could stand to lose a few pounds.  What we’re talking about is what your body is unconsciously communicating, when you’re consciously communicating to others.

Whether you are aware of it or not, your body is constantly giving off signals all the time regarding your state of mind, your physical and emotional comfort, and how you feel in a given situation.

Today it is commonly accepted that body language, our posture, expressions, and the gesture we use, all convey meaning.  Yet, it has only been since the 1960s that body language was recognized, or that studies into its origin and meaning even began.  Even more surprising is that while most people understand the basic idea of body language, few realize how important it actually is in everyday life.

Body language pre-dates spoken language, which probably first developed somewhere between two million and five hundred-thousand years ago. Before that time, and before our enlarging brains allowed us to start thinking in terms of abstractions, there was not much separating the way our very ancient ancestors communicated and the way the animals around them did.  In other words, body language and probably sounds made in the throat were the only way to tell friend from foe and a safe situation from a dangerous one.

With the growing important and reliance of spoken speech, our conscious reliance on body language faded over time. Still, on an unconscious level, we continue to transmit these unspoken signals and interpret them from others all day, every day. In fact, studies of body language and its importance show that our communications, in spite of our focus on words, is about 7% verbal (the words we use) and 38% vocal (tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds), while an astonishing 55% is nonverbal. It seems we say a lot even when we’re not “saying” anything at all!

Body language comes in a variety of forms, but most people can (at least unconsciously) recognize three main types:

Distance: We judge other people’s intentions at a distance primarily from their posture and their gait – the way they walk.

Proximity: We gauge what other people in a room with us are thinking or feeling by posture and gestures.  The range of this seems to work best at a distance of 20-35 feet.

Up close: When we’re close to someone we focus on facial expressions, the eyes, and gestures.  Interestingly, we also send and receive signals at this range by how close we get to someone else or allow them get to us.

How fine-tuned is this ability?  Well, it takes twelve muscles to produce a genuine smile and doing so involves two muscle groups: the zygomatic and the orbicularis oculi.

However, we can only control the zygomatic muscles consciously. That means that a fake, or “Say Cheese!” smile does not and cannot mimic the real things because we can’t consciously control the mussels needed to produce a genuine smile. Not only was the ability to tell the real thing important to our ancient ancestors, but scientists at MIT have learned that of the 50-some-odd kinds of smiles human can produce, most people can not only discern the differences, but can also almost always tell the fake one.

So, what should you be aware of about what your body (language) is saying? Studies have shown many consistencies with the meaning of some body language.

What the Eyes might be saying:young beautiful blonde girl expression collection isolated on white

Gaze

When a person looks directly into your eyes when having a conversion, it indicates that they are interested and paying attention. However, prolonged eye contact can feel threatening. On the other hand, breaking eye contact and frequently looking away may indicate that the person is distracted, uncomfortable, or trying to conceal his or her real feeling

Blinking

Blinking is natural, but you should also pay attention to whether a person is blinking too much or too little. People often blink more rapidly when they are feeling distressed or uncomfortable. Infrequent blinking may indicate that a person is intentionally trying to control his or her eye movements. For example, a poker player might blink less frequently because he is purposely trying to appear unexcited about the hand he was deal

Pupil size

One of the most subtle cues that eyes provide is through the size of the pupils. While light levels in the environment do control pupil dilation, sometimes emotions can also cause small changes in pupil size. Wider pupil size generally signals interest and a comfort zone; small, tight pupils can often be signaling anger, hostility, suspicion, or a negative reaction to what is being said.

What the arms and legs might be saying

• Crossed arms might indicate that a person is feeling defensive, self-protective, or closed-off
• Standing with hands placed on the hips can be an indication that a person is ready and in control, or it can also possibly be a sign of aggressiveness
• Clasping the hands behind the back might indicate that a person is feeling bored, anxious, or even angry
• Rapidly tapping fingers or fidgeting can be a sign that a person is bored, impatient, or frustrated
• Crossed legs can indicate that a person is feeling closed off or in need of privacy.

What the head might be saying

• Overly tilted heads are either a potential sign of sympathy, or if a person smiles while tilting their head, they are being playful
• Lowered heads indicate a reason to hide something. Take note if someone lowers their head. If it is when he is complimented, he may be shy, ashamed, timid, keeping distance from the other person, in disbelief, or thinking to himself or herself. If it is after an explanation, then he may be unsure if what he said was correct, or could be reflecting (It should be noted that some cultures see this as a sign of respect)
• Cocked heads mean that they are confused or challenging you, depending on eye, eyebrow, and mouth gestures.

Interpersonal or communications skills are not a small or unimportant thing: they are vital to your ability to have good relations with friends, loved ones and co-workers. And of course, body language is only one component of the interpersonal and communication skills we all need to succeed in the workplace, and to have good relationships with others.

Many folks who struggle with communication, either in approach, in how they listen (or don’t), or how they use words and tone, don’t realize it or simply have learned poor skills or bad habits. These things can be fixed through awareness, training and practice.

So, if any of these skills, from understanding or interpreting body language, to listening or communicating, are becoming a problem in your work or family life, we urge you to call Capital EAP and speak to one of our counselors.