Body language - an excursion
Body language forms a major
part of non-verbal communication. Watzlawick's observation that "people
can't not communicate" also applies to body language. J. Fast talks about
the obligation of communication presented by body language: "A person can
refrain from talking, but he cannot prevent his body from communication
by body language. He has to say something with his body, whether or not
it is true - but it is impossible for him to say nothing." For example
analysis of video recordings has shown that practically everybody speaks
with their hands and almost nobody is able to desist from moving their
hands or fingers longer than 15 seconds while speaking (S. Molcho). If
body language is consciously suppressed, in order to prevent communication
with the body, the behaviour appears unnatural or forced. A typical example
is the mimic rigidity and unnatural posturing of the mannequin in Haute
Couture as she attempts not to transmit any emotional signal. Another example
is the accentuated static technique of role-playing as exemplified by Sean
Connery and others in the James Bond films (J. Fast).
|The body does not lie.
In the same way that there
is a drive to articulate with the body movements, it is not possible to
avoid noticing body signals. Some people are able to interpret body signals
intuitively and correctly. For many however body language is a foreign
language the basic principles of which have to be learnt in order to recognize
non-verbal messages. It must be pointed out here that there is a basic
danger in the interpretation of body language. Birdwhistell, who did most
of the basic work in kinesics, urgently warns that: "There is no position
or movement of the body that has any unique significance." He points out
that the interpretation of the kinesic can only be correct when it is consistent
with the total behaviour pattern of a person. Birdwhistell: "We will never
know the full significance of what a person says from the spoken word alone.
But we will also never know the full meaning of an expression of body language.
If we only take notice of the words in a conversation it is probable that
we will get as incorrect an impression, as we would if we were to only
take notice of body language."
Although body language is
at the basis of all languages, it was not investigated until relatively
recently, and then in America. Kinesics as part of the psychology
of expression is still controversial because it is not completely accessible
to scientific scrutiny. It was developed by the philosopher and psychologist
Philipp Lersch (1893-1969). The term expression is a general term
which includes body language, emotional expression and vocal expression.
Vocal expression is made up by an inseparable intertwining of verbal and
non-verbal communication: voice and speech together form a "tandem" (Ploog).
Verbal information can be
clearly underlined and magnified by body language. Gesticulation can "colour"
the meaning of what is said, exerting a particular weight. However body
language can also reduce the power of the words and diminish their significance.
Finally body language can be used to express something that cannot be expressed
in words, either because the speaker has not got the necessary vocabulary,
or because the information is itself very difficult to put into words.
This applies to the attempt to make descriptions of physical suffering
clear. A typical example if that of the so-called Levine sign. Here the
patient with angina pectoris "describes" the pressurizing nature of the
ischaemic pain whilst laying the tightly clenched fist at the lower end
of the sternum. Using the index finger for the description of cardiac discomfort
is however typical for functional cardiac disturbances, which are usually
localized as pricking or the shape of a point on the left side of the chest.
should be taken into account when interpreting body language. Major misunderstandings
can arise if they are not. For example Russian soldiers invading Bulgaria
were very surprised to find that the Bulgarians reacted to every order
that they gave by shaking their heads. It was only later that they learnt
Bulgarians mean "yes" when they shake the head.
The following interpretation
of body language is based mainly on the work of J. Fast and S. Molcho.
Eyes and eye contact
The eyes are the most important
of all of the parts of the body involved in transmitting information. They
can convey the most subtle nuances. Acceptance of another person always
takes place with eye contact. The "empty regard" makes the other
anonymous or reduces the other to a "non-person". Usually eye contact takes
place at the start of every discussion, and depending upon what is said
and on the setting, is followed by further short eye contacts. There is
a further "ritual glance" at the end of a sentence. This eye contact lasts
between 2 and 4 seconds in the Western world in cases where the people
do not know each other. Depending on the situation, this can be much longer
or much shorter if the two trust each other. Not using eye-contact may
be pathological, as the genetically-determined ritual glance which acknowledges
the other as a person is no longer available (a typical example is the
husband who answers the wife while he is reading the paper, but does not
raise his eyes).
In Mediterranean and Arab
countries eye contact lasts much longer, but is very brief in Asians, whereas
Africans do not look at the person who is speaking at all, or only make
eye contact at the very end of the discussion. The length and intensity
of regard can imply that there is a territorial battle occurring; he
who drops his gaze first has lost. Observation can markedly influence the
course of the conversation, and also markedly disturb it. Strong fixation,
which has the objective of forcing the other to concentrate on what is
said, usually has the opposite effect, as the other cannot listen any more.
It is especially important that the discussion partner in a heated discussion
is given the opportunity to avert his gaze. On the other hand, if there
is too long a time between eye contacts, this too can endanger a conversation.
The information transfer will then be weighted more to one side, as the
person receiving it has already "retreated". This particularly applies
to conversations which are unpleasant or distressing for one partner; as
he can not run away with his legs, he takes the next option which is to
at least do this with his eyes.
Pressing the lips together implies
disagreement and signals that the person does not wish to speak. Lowering
the corner of the mouth should express disparagement or ignorance.
The hands are second only to
the eyes in importance as an instrument of body language. The close relationship
between brain and hand ("thought and deed") plays a major role. It is known
that the thumb and forefinger alone take up ten times as much cerebral
cortex as one foot. Particular significance has been attributed to each
The thumb is regarded
as the dominant finger, and is also the strongest as regards motor function.
Caesar used the outstretched thumb to seal the fate of gladiators, either
to live or die. "Thumbs up" means "Okay, you can fly" in aeronautics. If
the thumb is protected and hidden by other fingers, this can be an expression
of anxiety and a desire to hide.
The index finger is
the most sensitive. S. Molcho refers to it as the "most knowledgeable"
of all. The index finger teaches, but, when pointing, threatens. Those
who use the outstretched index finger sometimes create unpleasant feelings
in those they are talking to. People who have been brought up differently
use substitutes such as ball-point pens, pipes or glasses held between
thumb and index finger to make their point.
The middle finger
is regarded as the finger for "self-actualization", while the ring-finger
is that of feeling. It is not able to move easily without the middle finger,
and has a passive role. The little finger is occasionally regarded
as the "society" finger, and extending it was previously a sign of eliteness.
The way the hand is held
expresses significance. When the hand is open, the palm is offered,
and this is twice as sensitive as the back of the hand. Whoever offers
the open, sensitive face of the hand, is offering trust, is conciliatory
and charitable. The gesture of freely giving and taking is symbolized by
the open hand (iconography of religious painting, the blessing, intercession
and offering). The open hand signals that the other is respected, and is,
at the same time, an offer of a symmetrical, mutual relationship. The opposite
occurs with the gesture of the covered palm, when the sensitive
palm is underneath and the back of the hand is turned upwards. The person
hides his sensitive side from the world around him. People who continually
direct the back of the hand to their conversation partner, protect themselves
either because they are uncertain or because they would like to hide something;
they are very often difficult business partners.
Tendencies to conceal
can be signaled by hands which are held on the table, the arms of the chair,
the thighs or under the table. Discussion which are run with the use of
the outstretched finger usually take place from a dominant position. A
fist indicates aggression or a readiness to fight, although this often
is in contrast to the comprehensive and apparently receptive words being
uttered. Somebody who pushes open hands away from himself, indicates that
he wants to be rid of something. S. Molcho refers to a historical example
of this. During the Vietnam war, President Nixon held a television interview,
in which he attempted to calm the young protesters with major promises.
Whilst he was saying "I promise you, you will get everything you want!"
he visibly pushed his hands forwards.
The left hand is mostly
referred to as that of feeling and the right hand as that
of action. Movement of both hands accentuate the significance
of open or closed hands. If for example the arm is supported at the elbow,
and the fist laid in the other hand, this symbolizes the construction of
an internal protective wall. Pressing the palms together and interlocking
the fingers to form a palisade signifies defensiveness. Holding the hands
together in the shape of a pyramid can signify weighing of mutual interests
and readiness to agree. Rubbing the hands can have various meanings such
as coming to the point, satisfaction, or gloating over the misfortune of
another. Folding the hands together with raised thumbs is a symbol of dominance.
Finally touching the body
with the hands can also express a meaning; the hand that flies to the mouth
probably blocks a hasty statement. The hand that rubs the nape of the neck
can be an expression of an unpleasant situation. Pulling the tip of the
nose can accompany painful or incorrect statements. If the head is supported
by thumb and index finger at the root of the nose, tiredness or exhaustion
can be signaled. It may be that an attempt to continue concentrating is
signaled if the ear lobe is taken between the thumb and index finger.
Body positioning, sitting
and leg movements have been discussed in the chapter on the correct
seating position .
Even though interpretation
of body language is illuminating, it must be reemphasized that body
language may have more than one meaning and a passably reliable
interpretation can only be made in the context of other non-verbal expressions,
and what is said. The likelihood of significance is increased if two body
language statements are judged to be confirmatory. It is therefore important
to remember that: "Nonverbal statements have to be checked verbally" (R.H.
Geisler: Doctor and patient - a partnership through dialogue
Pharma Verlag Frankfurt/Germany, 1991
of this page: http://www.linus-geisler.de/dp/dp12_body_language.html