Understanding the Basics
Everyone knows someone who can walk into a room full of people and within minutes give an accurate description about the relationships between those people and what they are feeling. The ability to read a person's attitudes and thoughts by their behavior was the original communication system used by humans before spoken language evolved.
Before radio was invented, most communication was done in writing through books, letters, and newspapers, which meant that ugly politicians and poor speakers such as Abraham Lincoln could be successful if they persisted long enough and wrote good print copy. The radio era gave openings to people who had a good command of the spoken word, like Winston Churchill, who spoke wonderfully but may have struggled to achieve as much in today's more visual era.
Today's politicians understand that politics is about image and appearance, and most high-profile politicians now have personal body-language consultants to help them come across as being sincere, caring, and honest, especially when they're not.
It seems almost incredible that, over the thousands of years of our evolution, body language has been actively studied on any scale only since the 1960's and that most of the public has become aware of its existence only since our book Body Language was published in 1978. Yet most people believe that speech is still our main form of communication. Speech has been part of our communication repertoire only in recent times in evolutionary terms, and is mainly used to convey facts and data. Speech probably first developed between two million and five hundred thousand years ago, during which time our brain tripled its size. Before then, body language and sounds made in the throat were the main forms of conveying emotions and feelings, and that is still the case today. But because we focus on the words people speak, most of us are largely uninformed about body language, let alone its importance in our lives.
Our spoken language, however, recognizes how important body language is to our communication. Here are just a few of the phrases we use:
Get it off your chest. Keep a stiff upper lip.
Stay at arm's length. Keep your chin up.
Shoulder a burden. Face up to it.
Put your best foot forward. Kiss my butt.
Some of these phrases are hard to swallow, but you've got to give us a big hand because there are some real eye-openers here. As a rule of thumb, we can keep them coming hand over fist until you either buckle at the knees or turn your back on the whole idea. Hopefully, you'll be sufficiently touched by these phrases to lean toward the concept.
In the Beginning . . .
Silent-movie actors like Charlie Chaplin were the pioneers of body-language skills, as this was the only means of communication available on the screen. Each actor's skill was classed as good or bad by the extent to which he could use gestures and body signals to communicate to the audience. When talking films became popular and less emphasis was placed on the nonverbal aspects of acting, many silent-movie actors faded into obscurity and only those with good verbal and nonverbal skills survived.
As far as the academic study of body language goes, perhaps the most influential pre-twentieth-century work was Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, but this work tended to be read mainly by academics. However, it spawned the modern studies of facial expressions and body language, and many of Darwin's ideas and observations have since been validated by researchers around the world. Since that time, researchers have noted and recorded almost a million nonverbal cues and signals. Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer researcher of body language in the 1950's, found that the total impact of a message is about 7 percent verbal (words only) and 38 percent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds) and 55 percent nonverbal.
It's how you looked when you said
it, not what you actually said.
Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell pioneered the original study of nonverbal communication–what he called "kinesics." Birdwhistell made some similar estimates of the amount of nonverbal communication that takes place between humans. He estimated that the average person actually speaks words for a total of about ten or eleven minutes a day and that the average sentence takes only about 2.5 seconds. Birdwhistell also estimated we can make and recognize around 250,000 facial expressions.
Like Mehrabian, he found that the verbal component of a face-to-face conversation is less than 35 percent and that over 65 percent of communication is done nonverbally. Our analysis of thousands of recorded sales interviews and negotiations during the 1970's and 1980's showed that, in business encounters, body language accounts for between 60 and 80 percent of the impact made around a negotiating table and that people form 60 to 80 percent of their initial opinion about a new person in less than four minutes. Studies also show that when negotiating over the telephone, the person with the stronger argument usually wins, but this is not so true when negotiating face-to-face, because overall we make our final decisions more on what we see than what we hear.
Why It's Not What You Say
Despite what it may be politically correct to believe, when we meet people for the first time we quickly make judgments about their friendliness, dominance, and potential as a sexual partner–and their eyes are not the first place we look.
Most researchers now agree that words are used primarily for conveying information, while body language is used for negotiating interpersonal attitudes and, in some cases, is used as a substitute for verbal messages. For example, a woman can give a man a "look to kill" and will convey a very clear message to him without opening her mouth.
Regardless of culture, words and movements occur together with such predictability that Birdwhistell was the first to claim that a well-trained person should be able to tell what movement a person is making by listening to their voice. Birdwhistell even learned how to tell what language a person was speaking, simply by watching their gestures.
Many people find difficulty in accepting that humans are still biologically animals. We are a species of primate–Homo sapiens–a hairless ape that has learned to walk on two limbs and has a clever, advanced brain. But like any other species, we are still dominated by biological rules that control our actions, reactions, body language, and gestures. The fascinating thing is that the human animal is rarely aware that its postures, movements, and gestures can tell one story while its voice may be telling another.
How Body Language Reveals Emotions and Thoughts
Body language is an outward reflection of a person's emotional condition. Each gesture or movement can be a valuable key to an emotion a person may be feeling at the time. For example, a man who is self-conscious about gaining weight may tug at the fold of skin under his chin; the woman who is aware of extra pounds on her thighs may smooth her dress down; the person who is feeling fearful or defensive might fold their arms or cross their legs or both; and a man talking with a large-breasted woman may consciously avoid staring at her breasts while, at the same time, unconsciously use groping gestures with his hands.
The key to reading body language is being able to understand a person's emotional condition while listening to what they are saying and noting the circumstances under which they are saying it. This allows you to separate fact from fiction and reality from fantasy. In recent times, we humans have had an obsession with the spoken word and our ability to be conversationalists. Most people, however, are remarkably unaware of body- language signals and their impact, despite the fact that we now know that most of the messages in any face-to-face conversation are revealed through body signals. For example, France's President Chirac, U.S.A.'s President Ronald Reagan, and Australia's Prime Minister Bob Hawke all used their hands to reveal the relative sizes of issues in their mind. Bob Hawke once defended pay increases for politicians by comparing their salaries to corporate executive salaries. He claimed that executive salaries had risen by a huge amount and that proposed politicians' increases were relatively smaller. Each time he mentioned politicians' incomes, he held his hands a yard apart. When he mentioned executive salaries, however, he held them only a foot apart. His hand distances revealed that he felt politicians were getting a much better deal than he was prepared to admit.
Why Women Are More Perceptive
When we say someone is "perceptive" or "intuitive" about people, we are unknowingly referring to their ability to read another person's body language and to compare these cues with verbal signals. In other words, when we say that we have a "hunch" or "gut feeling" that someone has told us a lie, we usually mean that their body language and their spoken words don't agree. This is also what speakers call "audience awareness," or relating to a group. For example, if an audience were sitting back in their seats with their chins down and arms crossed on their chest, a "perceptive" speaker would get a hunch or feeling that his delivery was not going across well. He would realize that he needed to take a different approach to gain audience involvement. Likewise, a speaker who was not "perceptive" would blunder on regardless.
Being "perceptive" means being able to spot the contradictions between someone's words and their body language.
Overall, women are far more perceptive than men, and this has given rise to what is commonly referred to as "women's intuition." Women have an innate ability to pick up and decipher nonverbal signals, as well as having an accurate eye for small details. This is why few husbands can lie to their wives and get away with it and why, conversely, most women can pull the wool over a man's eyes without his realizing it.
Research by psychologists at Harvard University showed how women are far more alert to body language than men. They showed short films, with the sound turned off, of a man and woman communicating, and the participants were asked to decode what was happening by reading the couple's expressions. The research showed that women read the situation accurately 87 percent of the time, while the men scored only 42 percent accuracy. Men in "nurturing" occupations, such as artistic types, acting, and nursing, did nearly as well as the women; gay men also scored well. Female intuition is particularly evident in women who have raised children. For the first few years, the mother relies almost solely on the nonverbal channel to communicate with the child and this is why women are often more perceptive negotiators than men, because they practice reading signals early.
What Brain Scans Show
Most women have the brain organization to outcommunicate any man on the planet. Magnetic Resonance Imaging brain scans (MRI) clearly show why women have far greater capacity for communicating with and evaluating people than men do. Women have between fourteen and sixteen areas of the brain to evaluate others' behavior versus a man's four to six areas. This explains how a woman can attend a dinner party and rapidly work out the state of the relationships of other couples at the party–who's had an argument, who likes who, and so on. It also explains why, from a woman's standpoint, men don't seem to talk much and, from a man's standpoint, women never seem to shut up.
As we showed in Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps (Orion), the female brain is organized for multitracking–the average woman can juggle between two and four unrelated topics at the same time. She can watch a television program while talking on the telephone plus listen to a second conversation behind her, while drinking a cup of coffee. She can talk about several unrelated topics in the one conversation and use five vocal tones to change the subject or emphasize points. Unfortunately, most men can only identify three of these tones. As a result, men often lose the plot when women are trying to communicate with them.
Studies show that a person who relies on hard visual evidence face-to-face about the behavior of another person is more likely to make more accurate judgments about that person than someone who relies solely on their gut feeling. The evidence is in the person's body language and, while women can do it subconsciously, anyone can teach themselves consciously to read the signals. That's what this book is about.
How Fortune-Tellers Know So Much
If you've ever visited a fortune-teller you probably came away amazed at the things they knew about you–things no one else could possibly have known–so it must be ESP, right? Research into the fortune-telling business shows that operators use a technique known as "cold reading," which can produce an accuracy of around 80 percent when "reading" a person you've never met. While it can appear to be magical to naive and vulnerable people, it is simply a process based on the careful observation of body-language signals plus an understanding of human nature and a knowledge of probability statistics. It's a technique practiced by psychics, tarot-card readers, astrologists, and palm readers to gather information about a "client." Many "cold readers" are largely unaware of their abilities to read nonverbal signals and so also become convinced that they really must have "psychic" abilities. This all adds to a convincing performance, bolstered by the fact that people who regularly visit "psychics" go with positive expectations of the outcome. Throw in a set of tarot cards, a crystal ball or two, and a bit of theater, and the stage is perfectly set for a body-language-reading session that can convince even the most hardened skeptic that strange, magical forces must be at work. It all boils down to the reader's ability to decode a person's reactions to statements made and to questions asked, and by information gathered from simple observation about a person's appearance. Most "psychics" are female because, as women, as discussed previously, they have the extra brain wiring to allow them to read the body signals of babies and to read others' emotional condition.
The fortune-teller gazed into her crystal ball and then
started laughing uncontrollably. So John punched her on the
nose. It was the first time he'd ever struck a happy medium.
To demonstrate the point, here now is a psychic reading for you personally. Imagine you've come to a dimly lit, smoke-filled room where a jewel-encrusted psychic wearing a turban is seated at a low, moon-shaped table with a crystal ball:
I'm glad you've come to this session and I can see you have things that are troubling you because I am receiving strong signals from you. I sense that the things you really want out of life sometimes seem unrealistic and you often wonder whether you can achieve them. I also sense that at times you are friendly, social, and outgoing to others, but that at other times you are withdrawn, reserved, and cautious. You take pride in being an independent thinker, but also know not to accept what you see and hear from others without proof. You like change and variety, but become restless if controlled by restrictions and routine. You want to share your innermost feelings with those closest to you, but have found it unwise to be too open and revealing. A man in your life with the initial "S" is exerting a strong influence over you right now and a woman who is born in November will contact you in the next month with an exciting offer. While you appear disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be concerned and worried on the inside, and at times you wonder whether or not you have made the right choice or decision.
From the Hardcover edition.