what is body language? by sean borland

This is the question I  always start my workshops with. Its interesting to see how people answer. Obviously you are curious… that’s why you are here, right?

It’s very common to hear people listing specific gestures like crossing your arms or something vague like “facial expressions”.

 But how do we bring it all together within a scientific framework?

Lets take a quick look at the two words individually.
Body: we are talking about our physical being. Hands, arms, shoulders, eyes, mouth, legs, feet etc. You get the point.

Language: ultimately language is a communication tool that allows us to express and convey meaning, emotions, thoughts and interact with others by articulating sounds into words and sentences that are recognised and understood by other people.
If I was in the same room as you right now and was to look at you and say hello you would most likely look back at me and also say hello or hi etc. What just happened? I expressed my desire to acknowledge and greet you by articulating a word that is universally associated with those feelings (at least in the English Language). You immediately recognised the word (so common in this everyday exchange) and instantaneously/subconsciously scanned my voice for tone/sarcasm/emotion. Everything seems congruous ( i.e. no sarcasm or anger) and in context so you respond with an appropriate answer….. Hi. Success! Communication has been achieved. We have acknowledged and greeted each other in a friendly manner.
Now imagine that we are again in the same room and I start waving at you while smiling…. What happens? Yes, you would most probably smile and wave back! What was communicated this time? Exactly the same thing as before only without any talking. I used a gesture to communicate my acknowledgement and greeting towards you. You responded by waving back. Once again communication has been achieved!

So from now on, rather than merely thinking of the individual gestures or body poses/movements try to think of the message behind them and what is being communicated on a deeper level.

How do we learn and know these gestures? Where do they come from? Well…. studies show that some are attributed to social conditioning. Seeing them repeated over and over again as we grow up. Other theories point to evolutionary psychology and the notion that over millions of years of development we have internalised specific reactions to certain triggers. For example…. If we cannot see a persons palms/open hands as they walk towards us in the street later in the evening we will feel inclined to cross to the other side. Why you ask? Well, they may be concealing a weapon and weapons have been around a lot longer than modern day crime deterrents like the police force or cctv cameras. So for the vast majority of human existence being able to “gauge” a situation in a glance was often a matter of life or death. The person walking towards you wishes to conceal their weapon, turns their hands over, you interpret this as a sign of danger and take action by crossing the street!
Ever had a “bad” feeling about someone? Or felt that someone was lying to you? Well it may very well have been down to a specific gesture or mannerism that triggered those feelings.
Please forgive my overly simplified definition of this incredibly fascinating subject. It really is a vast field that deserves to be properly studied. Future articles will have us diving deeper into the subject matter and exploring all the practical ways that body language can help us in day to day situations.

If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more then feel free to check out some of my other work. You might even want to share some of it on social media. Just saying…..

“My mind was BLOWN to smithereens! Our staff still talk about his show two years later”

David Bishop- Senior Strategist- National Australia Bank