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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Body language

Francisco Javier Ruz, Flickr


I was watching the movie Hugo recently, and noticed that right before he walks up to his "crush", one of the characters straightens and smooths his hat and jacket. I said to the kids: "This, my friends, is how you know if someone is interested: they make sure they look their best right before they present themselves to you".

It got me thinking of the whole body language phenomenon. Did you know that up to 93% of what we communicate is non-verbal? It can be in the way we move, but also in the way make eye contact and smile, as well as in our tone of voice. There are all kinds of other manifestations of how we feel in certain situations and toward certain people. For example, when someone hides their mouth or scratches their nose while telling you something, it might be a lie. And people who really want to engage with you will face you completely, feet included. If their feet are turned toward the side, it means they are getting ready to leave, and therefore not fully present.

Being able to "read" others before they even say a word can come in very handy in a lot of situations.

The space one takes is another evocative manifestation of non-verbal communication. I have talked about it before: some men take an awful lot of space, by sitting with their legs wide apart, for example. It is also said that a man trying to flirt might lean with his hand up on the wall, as a way to appear bigger and manlier. Women, on the other hand, are often seen taking as little space as possible. Today, I saw a video interview that is a potent example of it.



Melissa Rauch (Bernadette from the Big Bang Theory)
 "properly"  keeping her limbs to herself and sitting tall. Pay attention to her knees and elbows.
Don't you think it must be uncomfortable and awkward to "act so straight and small"?



Do you allow yourself all the space you deserve? Do you feel entitled to more space than you deserve? How does your use of space affect the people around you? And how about the way you communicate to others non-verbally? Have you ever stopped and wondered what kind of message you were sending, even unconsciously?

As I was mentioning to someone recently, not communicating anything is also a form of communication. In sociology class, I learned that in order to avoid interacting with strangers in public spaces, one must be particularly attentive to others. Counter intuitive, isn't it? By averting our gaze and moving out of another's way, we communicate something: we communicate that we don't want any interaction with them! 

By the same token, someone who does NOT move out of the way on a narrow sidewalk or passageway, and ends up banging into you, is also communicating something. He is making a status statement: I am more important, so YOU have to move out of the way. Have you ever tried to maintain your trajectory in cramped spaces, just to see what would happen? I tested it while a student in Montreal. An astonishing number of men walked straight into me (some hurting my arm and/or side in the process). It was a - disappointing - eye opener.

Speaking of non-verbal communication, I personally have a hard time with people who don't smile or who don't make eye contact, in situations that would normally call for it (unless shyness explains it, which happens). People who behave like that basically tell others "I will not acknowledge your existence, I will not use basic manners with you, and I will certainly not show any pleasure in seeing you". 

Then again, people who lock their gaze with yours and stand a couple inches away from your nose aren't any more pleasant. There are certain tacit expectations when it comes to body language, and when someone doesn't comply to them in one way or another, it usually makes their interlocutor uncomfortable.

This is important. After all, don't they say "People will forget what you said... but people will never forget how you made them feel." (Maya Angelou)


How do YOU make others feel?
How easy is it for you to read other people's non-verbal language?





11 comments:

  1. If "Bernie" opened her legs, we would see things we're not supposed to see (short skirt), but you are right, she's using very little space. Great post !!

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    1. Thanks! I understand the short skirt issues, but still, she looks very stiff physically.

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  2. How do you distingush if the men walked into you or you walked into them :-)

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    1. Haha.

      Well, I still instinctively slowed down and moved a little tiny bit to the side... they didn't. They slammed into me. Also, most of them were much bigger and taller than me, which means that the collision hurt me much more than it hurt them. BTW, I tested that on young men, university students.

      It's been shown that the first person to offer a seat to a pregnant woman or an elderly person is usually... a woman.

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    2. I found this to be true when I was pregnant....

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  3. I think non-verbal communication is very important, which is why I think social media/texting isn't the best if you want to have actual conversations, people tend to take everything out of context.

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    1. You are so right, GiGi. I've had a couple misunderstandings over email. That's too bad, because it was with nice people.

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  4. I once had a girlfriend who deliberately, and literally, hung out behind a giant fern at a social gathering so as not to interact with anyone. But people would approach and ask, "What's the deal?" How's that for body language?

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    1. That's interesting, Tara!

      I was a shy kid, and I thought that by "hiding" in a corner and saying nothing I would get no attention, but people would walk up to me and ask "Why are you not talking?" Whether we like it or not, people do notice.

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  5. I think that body language and inflection are so important - I tell my oldest son all the time to smile (he is very shy and quiet at school - fine but still smile!!).

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    1. A smile is very powerful. :-)

      Not everyone has to be an extrovert, but I believe there is a minimum to be done in order to have harmonious interactions with others. (I was shy too.)

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