One reason I have a hard time recommending non-academic books on body language to people is that most of them give a false notion of what body language is and how to interpret it. Until very recently, most general-readership book tended to convey the idea that certain postures and gestures had specific meanings. The greatest example of this is the common belief that if a person has his arms crossed, it means he’s resistant to what you’re saying. It might mean that. Or it might mean he’s cold. It depends on context.
I like the example of the arms crossed because it gives me a great opportunity to explain what non-verbal communication is and why we’re able to interpret it at all.
First, there are indeed gestures that have specific meanings. We all know a few of these, from the hand wave to the up-raised middle finger. The technical term for these is “emblems.” When we’re talking about the communicating power of body language, we need to be aware of the fact that these types of gestures are culturally specific. The ‘bird-flip’ gesture here in the United States is one upturned middle finger, with the back of the hand pointed toward the recipient. In Ireland it’s the upturned middle and index finger. If we’re not aware of the meanings of these kinds of gestures in other cultures we can find ourselves ‘speaking’ the wrong language.
What’s important about emblems is that they exist for the purpose of communicating. They are substitutes for words. The most interesting form of body language, to me, are non-verbal behaviors that reflect our psychological state, but which don’t exist for the purpose of communicating. Here I’m talking about behaviors that occur more or less unconsciously. For example, if you’re very nervous your breathing will get shallower and more rapid, and you may begin to tremble. Your intent with these behaviors isn’t to signal that you’re nervous. Instead, these behaviors are part of your body’s regulatory system. They’re the by-products of your body’s efforts to deal with stress. These behaviors are important because they will occur even when you consciously try to hide them. You may succeed in masking or minimizing them, but you will never eliminate them. Because of this, they become clues to a part of your mental state you’re trying hard not to reveal.
The natural response to stress, fear, dislike, or really any unpleasant stimuli is to try to avoid or escape it. Unfortunately, escaping unpleasant situations is not always possible or socially acceptable. Imagine, for instance, that you’re on a blind date and it’s going miserably. You really hate this person. If you could, you’d get up and walk out. But you can’t because your date would report back to the friends who set you up and you’d never hear the end of it. And besides, just walking out wouldn’t be polite. Now you’re in a jam. There’s a part of your brain, a deep, reptilian part, that would like nothing better than to get the hell out of there, and this part of your brain is sending signals to your muscles telling them to get ready to flee. There’s also an intellectual part of your brain that is monitoring these impulses to flee, and it’s doing its best to keep these impulses from showing. Unfortunately, the intellectual part of your brain has limited processing power. It can’t monitor everything. So some of these impulses to flee show up in your behavior without you being aware of it. The result is what we call “leakage.” It isn’t the purpose of these “leaked” behaviors to communicate your hidden emotions, but they do it anyway.
Getting back to crossed arms, how to we know how what meaning to extract from this behavior? After all, there are several reasons a person might cross his arms. As I’ve mentioned, he might be cold. Also sometimes people will cross their arms as an effort to pacify themselves or reduce nervousness. Then again, sometimes people will cross their arms as an effort to subconsciously block out unpleasant or unwanted experiences. Note that in none of these scenarios is the purpose of the behavior to communicate a specific message. It is not the goal of the person who is crossing him arms to have me know that he doesn’t like what I’m telling him, or that he’s nervous, or even that he’s cold. In fact, on a conscious level he’s probably trying to keep me from suspecting any of these things. So the secret to interpreting the “arms crossed” behavior can’t lie in asking ourselves what message is intended. It has to lie in trying to figure out why the behavior is occurring.
You start by avoiding the question, “what does this behavior mean,” and instead ask, “what does this behavior do?” In the case of arm crossing, most often the possible answer to the latter question is either “it helps calm this person down,” or “it helps create a psychological barrier or layer of protection against something (probably me) that this person is finding unpleasant.” Both of these possibilities will start out as merely guesses. We can never know with perfect certainty which, if either, of these possibilities is the correct explanation. However, once we’ve stated the possibilities we can begin to search for corroborating evidence to support either hypothesis.
Say that the person is crossing his arms in order to create a psychological barrier between him and me. In this case, it’s unlikely that the arms crossing will be the only behavior that exemplifies this. It will probably be accompanied by other efforts to create barriers, or at least gain some distance from me. The person may move farther away from me, or may align some of his body (usually feet, btw) toward the nearest exit. His facial expression may show signs of disgust or disapproval. Any of these behaviors would help to confirm our interpretation of the “meaning” of the crossed arms. The more similar behaviors we find being used, the more confident we can be in our initial hypothesis. It’s always a little dangerous to assume that one, discreet behavior has a specific interpretation. When we see clusters of similar behaviors we can be more certain.
Now it may seem that this is a lengthy process. In practice it actually goes very quickly. This is because your mind is always making these kinds of analyses without you being aware of it. A significant part of your brain power is devoted to interpreting other people’s intent. All we’re doing is taking some of that processing and moving it from an unconscious to a conscious level. And we’re doing this so that we can avoid errors and reconsider our judgements in light of further evidence. Moving this analysis into the conscious mind allows us to be strategic rather than merely reactive in the way we interact with people. The more you study the possible reasons behind common behaviors, the faster your analysis will be. Eventually, it will get to the point where you hardly have to consider it at all.