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Body Language (In The Real World)

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Forget What You Think You Know About Body Language

…unless it’s about a specific person whose habits and mannerisms you know intimately, in which case, you probably have enough personal data stored up to actually recognize patterns à la “when my spouse does this, then…”, and probably do know what’s going on.

For everyone else… our body language can be as unique as our idiolect

What’s an idiolect? It’s any one given person’s way of speaking/writing, in their natural state (i.e. without having to adjust their style for some reason, for example in a public-facing role at work, where style often becomes much narrower and more consciously-chosen).

Extreme example first

To give an extreme example of how non-verbal communication can be very different than a person thinks, there’s an anecdote floating around the web of someone whose non-verbal autistic kid would, when he liked someone who was visiting the house, hide their shoes when they were about to leave, to cause them to stay longer. Then one day some relative visited and when she suggested that she “should be going sometime soon”, he hurried to bring her her shoes. She left, happy that the kid liked her (he did not).

The above misunderstanding happened because the visitor had the previous life experience of “a person who brings me things is being helpful, and if they do it of their own free will, it’s because they like me”.

In other words…

Generalizations are often sound… In general

…which does not help us when dealing with individuals, which as it turns out, everyone is.

Clenched fists = tense and angry… Except when it’s just what’s comfortable for someone, or they have circulation issues, or this, or that, or the other.

Pacing = agitated… Except when it’s just someone who finds the body in motion more comfortable

Relaxed arms and hands = at ease and unthreatening… Unless it’s a practitioner of various martial arts for whom that is their default ready-for-action state.

Folded arms = closed-off, cold, distant… Or it was just somewhere to put one’s hands.

Lack of eye contact = deceitful, hiding something… Unless it’s actually for any one of a wide number of reasons, which brings us to our next section:

A liar’s “tells”

Again, if you know someone intimately and know what signs are associated with deceit in them, then great, that’s a thing you know. But for people in general…

A lot of what is repeated about “how to know if someone is lying” has seeped into public consciousness from “what police use to justify their belief that someone is lying”.

This is why many of the traditional “this person is lying” signs are based around behaviors that show up when in fact “this person is afraid, under pressure, and talking to an authority figure who has the power to ruin their life”:

Research on Non-verbal Signs of Lies and Deceit: A Blind Alley

But what about eye-accessing cues? They have science to them, right?

For any unfamiliar: this is about the theory that when we are accessing different parts of our mind (such as memory or creativity, thus truthfulness or lying), our eyes move one way or another according to what faculty we’re accessing.

Does it work? No

But, if you carefully calibrate it for a specific person, such as by asking them questions along the lines of “describe your front door” or “describe your ideal holiday”, to see which ways they look for recall or creativity… Then also no:

The Eyes Don’t Have It: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

How can we know what non-verbal communication means, then?

With strangers? We can’t, simply. It’s on us to be open-minded, with a healthy balance of optimism and wariness.

With people we know? We can build up a picture over time, learn the person’s patterns. Best of all, we can ask them. In the moment, and in general.

For more on optimizing interpersonal communication, check out:

Save Time With Better Communication

…and the flipside of that:

The Problem With Active Listening (And How To Do It Better)

Take care!

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