Unlike the 7 universal facial expressions, body language at this time is not considered universal across all humans. The interpretation of body language can differ depending on the culture or country, each can have its own particular signals or different meanings. But if you have ever been in an interaction with a language barrier you can most of the time get your basic message across just by moving your body!
The interest in body language is largely focused on the fact that much of the time our body is unconsciously sending messages related to our internal states. You may tap your foot if nervously waiting for an important interview, or clench your fists and jaw if angered. These signals can be picked up if you are trained to see them giving you the advantage of reading others body language. Awareness of body language can also help you control your own behaviours, ensuring you put out the correct message or stop you from giving away information that may put you at a disadvantage.
Gestures are conscious or unconscious movements with our, hands, head, arms or legs which can have specific meanings to replace speech or to help emphasize it.
Gestures differ greatly, cultures and countries can have gestures that do not cross over, and even social groups can have their own signals or meanings for gestures, such as scuba divers and airport marshals.
The same gesture can be offensive in one culture and acceptable in another. For example, sticking two fingers up with the knuckles facing outwards is the sign for ‘two’ which would be perfectly acceptable in most areas of the world, but in the UK its considered rude.
Another example is the simple head nod, in many cultures, this indicates an affirmative message, ‘yes’. However, in Turkey, Greece and some other eastern European countries the head moving up in a nod direction actually means ‘no’. It’s important that we do our homework with regards to what is normal from a gestural point of view, within the culture that we’re working in or visiting.
Illustrators are those gestures that we use to reinforce what we’re saying. An example could be the use of batons. If you are making a number of points in a discussion, or as we tend to see with politicians we make a pointing gesture that comes down at the same time as you say “Point one…point two…”, using the illustrator to reinforce and hammer those points. They are called batons as they are similar to a conductor of an orchestra.
When giving directions you may use illustrators to reinforcing the message you are trying to convey, by pointing left or right and signalling straight ahead.
Illustrators are not always done with just the hands. We can show emphasis through the raising of our eyebrows. Sometimes we may highlight some of the words being said by using our brows or facial expression as we say them for extra emphasis.
Manipulators are body language characterised by fidgety gestures, such as tapping feet, clicking pens, biting nails etc. most are related to rubbing, scratching, picking and grooming motions. These can all show signs of low-level anxiety or stress. For reading body language the interesting use for manipulators is if we see dramatic increases or decreases in manipulation. If we are asking a question and then, all of a sudden, the manipulator’s increase this could be a sign of stress and the topic can be explored further.
In Body language, body tension can be reactive or proactive. Most of the things we’re talking about here are reactive, some of the reactive elements could be things like suddenly crossing their arms, suddenly clenching their jaws, a tight hand clasp all of a sudden, or gripping the furniture, or suddenly moving backwards. These would all be examples of something that’s potentially reactive. So, it could indicate a sudden rise in anxiety, or fear, or anger, or stress, in some way.
But, equally, we’re interested if there’s a sudden tension in the body from a proactive way. So, is there a sudden lunge forward, sort of a leaning forward and a stern lock with the body, in order to perhaps convince me that they’re telling me the truth?
Reactive could show a more anxious appearance, with regards to tension, or we’re also interested in the proactive tension in the body, that can indicate that they’re trying to seem more strong.
Gaze and blink rate are body language signals and behaviours that may allude to a person’s internal state.
We must remember individual differences and the person baseline, are they the sort of person that likes to hold eye contact, or do they avoid eye contact? There are a lot of myths around lying and eye gaze. So, people believe that if someone is lying, then they won’t make eye contact, which is a complete myth, some people make more eye contact than others. Some people hate eye contact. And, actually, there’s more research to suggest that people make more eye contact if they’re lying, in order to find out whether or not you’re actually believing them or not.
On average we have around 4 or 5 blinks per minute. So, our eyes only really need to blink, one blink every 12 to 15 seconds or so, in order to lubricate. But that will vary, depending on the activity that we’re taking part in. If we’re reading, for example, the blinking may decrease as we’re scanning words. If we’re listening, then our blink rate might slow, or be stalled in some way. If we’re speaking, then you may see a slight increase, as somebody is recalling stories. You might see an increase in blinking as people are accessing memories.
Now, if people are thinking hard, then often we see this decrease in blink rate. And also, if people are trying to convince you, or trying to lie, we see blink rate decrease as well. You can also see a compensatory effect with blinking. In a lie, the blinks may go from a normal base rate to no blinks or very few blinks. Then when the lie is complete, the blinks then increase dramatically as to compensate the holding off of blinking.
We may see these patterns of blink rate and gaze-holding in relation to being deceptive, which is supported by research, But: baseline, baseline, baseline. What do people usually do, and when do they do something different? That’s what’s important.
Deception detection accuracy increases in trained individuals, what these individuals know is that a single body language movement or signal cannot provide an accurate reading of another person on its own. You may see someone fold there arms after you ask a particularly confronting question. This may be due to them distancing themselves from the question, or putting a barrier up, but it may also be because the temperature in the room dropped or simply be a personal style… it is the skills and techniques that you follow up with that will increase your ability to catch a liar.
So, in body language, there are no universal body language illustrators of deception, or of signals. So, baseline is crucial, which is a person’s normal behaviour for a given context.
Gestural slips are how we can actually say or hint at something with an unconscious gesture. When these gestures appear they may highlight thoughts and feelings that the other person does not want to admit. Especially when they are leaked, for example… if you see a subtle head shake ‘no’, when somebody is saying something affirmative. Or if somebody is saying ‘no’ but they’re nodding their head. These are the hidden inconsistencies between these unconscious gestures and the conscious words the other person is choosing to use.
The important thing about body language is: when is there a change? Is there a big increase in manipulators – maybe people are trying to be overly convincing with their gestures? Or, is there a sudden decrease in the way they use their gestures, which could indicate they’re thinking very hard. So, either way, when we get big increases or decreases, or if we have that out-of-sync kind of use of illustrators, that’s something that we need to be interested in.