About “Body Language”

Debunking the Myths

by K. Studd (2020)

Body language is a trendy term that is used frequently without discretion.  We need to be wary of using this term too generally or using it inappropriately. By inappropriately I mean in ways which oversimplify the complex and interwoven multiple layers of non-verbal communication.

The non-verbal components of communication have a long history of interest and study. These nonverbal aspects have been proven in some studies to convey more than 60% of the information delivered. This means that the verbal content – the words by themselves – in some contexts, convey less than 1/2 of what is being communicated. In addition, when there is perceived inconsistency between the verbal and nonverbal message, the non-verbal aspects are what the observer/interpreter often relies upon and uses in deciphering the “real” message being conveyed.

Non-verbal communication is much more than specific gestures. It runs the gamut from tone of voice, tempo and phrasing, eye contact, weight shifts, facial expressions, use of space in both postural and gestural actions and much, much more. Non-verbal cues have many layers and include universal components, culturally specific components and individually unique aspects. This is why the non-verbal is so significant – it connects the personal to the cultural and to the universal and it is why we call upon the information it conveys in making judgments about others.

Think for a moment about overhearing a conversation in a “foreign” spoken language. For example, if I get on an elevator with others who are speaking in a language that I am not familiar with I have a limited ability to understand what is being communicated. In fact, I can, in this one-time observational context, only know minimal things about the nature of the communication. I can observe that words/language are being used to express, or to communicate, or interact. I might be able to discern some of the intent. If for example there is laughter, or loud voices or whispering this might lead me to some partial and limited conclusions – however much of this understanding is coming not from the words but the vocal tone, eye contact, and spatial proximity in the relationships of those engaged in the conversation. But any “translation” (interpretation) is very limited. I might intuit many things but to have any real access to true understanding I would have to observe-listen-see much, much more.

What is identified as “Body Language” too often assigns specific intent to discrete actions. The idea, for example, that an action of crossing the arms across the chest can be assigned a specific meaning is very misleading. It might, depending on the context, be that I cross my arms across my chest to hide a stain on my shirt, or because I am chilly, or as a way to connect to and sense myself to help me focus my thinking before replying in a situation, or it might be that I am creating a boundary, as an expression of either power or vulnerability. But it would be very dangerous and misleading to assign some fixed definition to this action such as “self-protection” without much more information about the person performing the action and in what context it is occurring. Repetition is necessary for pattern to emerge and context matters. The language of the body has universal aspects but also has significant cultural components and also has personally unique aspects. All are important in assigning meaning to the actions and interactions referred to as Body Language. Misunderstandings can and do occur as easily from a lack of understanding the language of the body as from a lack of understanding the words used when express ourselves and when we communicate with others.