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Bodytalk at Work
You can observe a lot by watching.
—Lawrence Peter (“Yogi”) Berra
The workplace is a wordy place. Telephones, e-mails, keyboards, written reports, text messages, memos, and meetings. Hundreds, thousands, millions of words—printed, spoken, whispered, and shouted—greet you and compete for your undivided attention. Hear me, read me, heed me!
Your Body at Work, however, is not about words but about what lies beneath them: unspoken feelings, emotions, and moods. It’s about what is left unstated—the hidden agendas, concealed plans, and covert schemes. There’s often a secret motivation, program, or design beneath corporate verbiage. Sherlock Holmes wisely taught us to watch for hidden meaning in commonplace items like shoelaces, thumbnails, and sleeves. In Your Body at Work you will learn to decode and decipher hidden messages given off by nonverbal cues and body language in the workplace—from the crown of a head to the calcaneus of a heel. What do hands, shoulders, faces, and eyelids say in the boardroom that memos and words do not? How do business clothes make you look stronger or weaker, and more or less competent on the job? What secrets do corporate cupboards, cabinets, common areas, and cubicles hold? There is meaning to be found everywhere in every office, in dress, décor, and demeanor.
In Your Body at Work’s subtitle, I introduce “sight-reading” to mean “intelligent observation.” English “sight” comes from the seven-thousand-year-old Indo-European root word sekw-, “to perceive.” Important senses of the English word “read” are “to anticipate through examination,” and “to determine intent or mood” (Soukhanov 1992, 1504). Thus, sight-reading is the act of anticipating intentions and moods through the perceptive examination of nonverbal cues.
Learning to decode office signals will help you become not just a better listener but a better employee and supervisor. Watching body language as you listen will disclose the emotions behind words. Through active watching you will become more empathic, persuasive, and collaborative on the job. Moreover, seeing beneath spoken words will help you gauge the level of trust, or mistrust, among colleagues. Trust can be affirmed by acts as simple as a level gaze and denied by the subtle wink of an eye.
Perceptive listening, empathy, persuasion, collaboration, awareness, and trust are traits of a management style known as servant leadership. Servant leadership is the prescriptive notion that a boss should lead not just for the sake of amassing power but for the sake of employee well-being advanced toward a company’s goals. Graduate students in my communication and leadership classes are often eager to apply servant leadership in their jobs. The goal is to lead less by edict than by example. By joining a last-minute envelope-stuffing session, for instance, a boss can show physical commitment to the project rather than simply dictating, “This mailing needs to get done right away.”
As an anthropologist who specializes in nonverbal communication, I study how humans communicate apart from spoken, manually signed, and written words. After teaching for five years at the University of Washington in Seattle, I moved to the other Washington, Washington, D.C. For twelve years there—in the city some have called the office capital of the world—I worked as an executive in association management. Upon returning to Washington State, I consulted professionally on matters of non-verbal communication for the U.S. Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and for corporations such as Masterfoods USA, Pfizer, Best Buy, Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, and Unilever. From fieldwork in diverse business habitats, I learned to decode the silent language of offices.
One of my favorite assignments was managing research for Unilever in the Language of Hands study. I knew that human hands had figured prominently in painting and sculpture, from ice age cave art to masterpieces by Michelangelo and Rodin, but I hadn’t realized how critical hand messages could be in the board-room. As colleagues discuss business face-to-face, they unconsciously monitor hands with a fine, albeit unconscious, eye.
What jumped out at me from the Unilever study was just how observant we are of each other’s hands and their emotional signals. Like artists, we’re acutely aware that wrists, palms, and digits have something important to say. Unlike artists, our own observations are often untutored, vague, and outside our conscious awareness. We get a feeling from a hand gesture, but can’t easily put that feeling into words. Unlike Michelangelo, who studied human anatomy, most of us can’t put a finger on the precise hand shape or position that made us notice that a mood shift had taken place. There’s an intellectual disconnect between the gesture and the feeling.
To learn how ordinary people who are not artists decipher hands, my research team showed twelve high-resolution photographs of hand shapes and gestures to one hundred subjects in the greater Los Angeles, Kansas City (Missouri), Chicago, and Boston metropolitan areas. Photos ranged from the manicured hands of an education administrator to the rough-hewn hands of a working electrician. We asked, “What do these hands ‘say’ to you?” “What physical traits do you notice?” “What features do you like or dislike? Why?” “What hand would you least like to shake? Why?” And last, “What do you like best about your own hands? Why?” The nonrandom, nonprobability sample included 47 percent men and 53 percent women, aged eighteen to sixty-six (mean age was thirty-seven), whose occupations ranged from physician to donut cook.
We were amazed by the quality and quantity of the verbal responses. Subjects noticed a lot and had more than a little to say about hands, their shapes, sizes, conditions, and gestures. Without any prompting from my team of trained field anthropologists, respondents volunteered a total of 4,025 descriptors (words and phrases) to describe the twelve hand photos.
What did we learn about the silent language of business from the Unilever study? At a business meeting, the more unattractive a hand, the less likely a colleague will be to notice its gestures. In the study, as a hand’s negative-appearance rating increased, the attention paid to its gestures and shapes decreased. Unsightly features competed for visual attention and simply got in the gesture’s—and thus in the gesturer’s—way. Participants were less able to read, interpret, and decode gestures made by the physically distressed hands. These were hands, again in the observers’ own words, that showed “lines,” “scars,” “spots,” “calluses,” “dirt,” “roughness,” “dryness,” “stains,” “dry cuticles,” and “ragged nails.”
Conversely, the more attractive a hand, the more likely coworkers will notice and decode its signals. In the Language of Hands study we found that as a hand’s positive-appearance rating increased, attention paid to its shape and gestures also increased. In short, participants were better able to see and decipher gestures produced by physically pleasant hands. Attractive hands were described as “clean,” “groomed,” “manicured,” “cared for,” “strong,” “not dry,” and “smooth.”
Who knew there could be so much significance in something we often don’t even know we’re perceiving? Perhaps anthropologist Edward Sapir put it best when he wrote, “We respond to gestures with an extreme alertness and, one might almost say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all” (Sapir 1929, 137).
On July 25, 2002, the Language of Hands findings were shared at a press conference on the rooftop garden of the Library Hotel in New York City. “Working with the Center for Nonverbal Studies”—the private research organization I founded in 1997 in Spokane, Washington—“we better understand how people feel about their hands and the hands around them,” said Unilever’s hand-cream brand manager, Pablo Gazzera (White 2002).
Research from the University of Chicago shows that speaking gestures aid in verbal memory and enhance cognitive thought. Nonverbal hand cues thus augment the persuasive power of vocal words. They’re key players in the silent language of business meetings, and your hands should be groomed for the parts they’ll play above the boardroom table. But they’re just one element in a whole language of nonverbal cues that you’ll soon be introduced to.
DECIPHERING BODYTALK IN THE BOARDROOM
Think of a board meeting as you would a poker game. As poker guru and former FBI profiler Joe Navarro explains: “The major purpose of observation at the poker table is intelligence gathering—you want to learn as much as you can about each of your opponents at the table” (Navarro 2006, 10– 11). At a card table or a conference table, the stakes are high, and in both games the player who watches body language has an edge.
From your swivel chair inside the boardroom, you watch as emotions flare above the tabletop. You see lips tighten, eyes roll, shoulders shrug, hands ball into fists. From these visible cues you’re able to gauge—without words—where board members stand on issues. Like silent poker “tells,” visible body movements tip hands.
As an anthropologist who studies body language, I’m sometimes invited to sit in on private meetings held behind closed doors. “We’d like you to tell us,” I’m asked, “what’s really going on in our boardroom.” So I enter as a guest, sit quietly, and fold my arms on the table. I mentally turn down the sound so the room’s constant chatter won’t break my concentration. I want to observe how meeting-goers behave rather than hear what they say. Known as “unobtrusive observation,” this is the method used by Jane Goodall to study wild chimpanzees in Africa. To better observe the chimps’ body movements and gestures, Goodall would momentarily ignore their distracting pant-hoots, waa-barks, and vocal screams. What the apes did in the rain forest often mattered more than what their voices said.
In the boardroom, I’d watch human hands, arms, and shoulders flex, extend, pivot, and dance above a conference table’s perfectly level playing field. In my role as visiting anthropologist, I imagined the tabletop the way Goodall might have seen East Africa’s Serengeti Plain. I pictured lions, jackals, and wildebeests competing for survival of the fittest. On the corporate flatland’s polished surface, colleagues shuffled papers, dueled with hand gestures, and conducted business face-to-face. Depending on the agenda item discussed, they gave each other pensive, quizzical, sheepish, or dogged eye contact. That each person would speak—loudly or softly, some more often than others—was the norm. Business meetings are nothing if not verbal. But what did lips, eyes, and fingertips say that words did not? What was the meeting’s unspoken agenda, its unwritten subtext? My job was to make sense of the drama by assessing bodytalk.
The Case of the Missing Gesture
A curious facet of bodytalk is that feelings, opinions, and moods may be expressed with or without movement. A hand that slaps a table, for instance, may show insistence or anger, while a hand that hides beneath the tabletop can show disengagement or withdrawal from the group. There is meaning, whether or not the hand actually moves.
I observed a telling case of “silent hands” at a twenty-minute meeting I videotaped in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1980s. The 1980s saw ever-increasing numbers of women entering the workforce, many finding themselves for the first time in serious, head-to-head competition with men. Barbara, one of the meeting participants, spent the entire time with both hands held in her lap under the table. Though she spoke up on issues, her hands remained invisble with nothing at all to say. From the videotape it was clear that Barbara’s six male colleagues paid very little attention to either her or her comments. They looked at each other but seldom even glanced Barbara’s way.
As I replayed the video for her, Barbara’s hand gestures seemed even more conspicuous by their absence. By not engaging others with her hands as she listened or spoke, Barbara’s demeanor suggested little interest in the meeting. More important, her behavior showed little concern for participants in the room. She seemed as unmoved by the meeting’s agenda as she was removed from the group. To human eyes, what cannot be seen appears not to exist, and Barbara had, without intention or awareness, turned herself into a nonentity.
When Barbara and I reviewed the meeting tape, Barbara told me she’d felt that none of her remarks were taken seriously by her colleagues. This contributed to her posture of disengagement—leaning backward in her chair, angling her upper body away from speakers (instead of orienting to them), and keeping her hands perfectly still. Since my role was advisory to the Seattle group, I recommended that in future meetings Barbara place both hands on the tabletop and reach out with them—gesture—to bring others into her personal space and sphere of influence. Since body movements attract eyes, moving a hand is enough to bring notice. It’s like waving to attract someone’s attention across a room: “Hey, look, I’m over here!”
Reaching an open hand across a board table adds immediacy by addressing comments to colleagues directly. The gesture proffers an unwritten invitation to connect. Adding personality and movement to spoken words makes them seem more personal and attention-worthy. While words themselves address the left-brain’s speech centers (such as Wernicke’s area), gestures appeal to emotional areas of the right-brain hemi sphere. Expressing emotion with gestures as you speak thus addresses both sides of a listener’s brain at once. This makes for a palpably stronger statement and testifies to your own firm belief in what you have to say. Hand gestures not only accent but stand behind words to validate them.
Moreover, hand movements reduce the physical distance separating you from listeners. Colleagues feel closer as you literally and figuratively reach hands out toward them. Their primate-inspired brains interpret your reaching as an implicit intention to reach out and touch. Above a boardroom table, an extended, opened palm emits the same positive message one sees and feels in a handshake’s preparatory reach. The reaching movement itself sends a powerful message of affiliation.
In chapter 4 we’ll thoroughly decipher the meaning of hand shapes and gestures in the workplace. But already, from Barbara’s case, we’ve seen how critical hands can be in a business meeting. They are certainly an important player in our nonverbal language at work—though they’re far from the only one.
Getting a Hand-on-Hip
Former game warden Jeff Baile’s workplace was once the great outdoors of Peoria County, Illinois. As a law officer employed by the Illinois Conservation Police, Baile held countless ad hoc meetings in the field with total strangers, men who worked in the illegal business of poaching. A student of body language, Baile would warily approach strangers in the bush and use sight-reading to assess their moods and intentions before meeting them face-to-face. One of Jeff’s most trusted body-language cues was what I call hands-on-hips, also known as arms akimbo (Morris 1994, 4).
“I’ve always been fascinated with the arms akimbo gesture,” Jeff wrote in an e-mail, “and use it all the time while on patrol. I’ve found that, in situational context, it usually means the person is in a negative state of mind. Thus, if an officer can see this, it’s a heads-up there may be trouble. And I’ve even caught myself doing it when I’m upset. I’ve found it quite reliable in determining state of mind, which is important for any law enforcement officer” (Baile 2000b, personal comm.).
Hands-on-hips is a worldwide gesture in which the palms rest on the hips, with the elbows flexed outward and angled sharply away from the body. As with words, hands-on-hips may have several meanings, but the most common one, as Jeff Baile notes, is that a person is in a defensive or negative frame of mind. Most often used while standing, I’ve also seen a distinctive one-armed version of the akimbo gesture given in staff meetings, from the seated position, when negative emotions and resistance run high.
One hand-on-hip case in particular stays etched in my memory. It was given by a large, heavyset, middle-aged man I’ll call “Dan.” Dan’s flexed right arm had locked onto his right hip as he sat listening to “Liz,” a young woman half his size with whom he sharply disagreed. His imposing upper body leaned forward over the meeting table, and angled toward Liz on the other side with his shoulders aimed squarely at her. Dan’s lips tensed and parted as he stared across the table into Liz’s face. His out-flung right elbow was in prominent view for all in the room to see. Like a cobra spreading its hood, Dan seemed poised to strike. His hand-on-hip clearly signaled an aggressive state of mind.
As Jeff Baile writes in “‘Bowing Out’ Means Trouble,” an article for International Game Warden, “It’s pretty hard to tell how people may feel about us as we approach them in the field. Is this going to be a run-of-the-mill check with no problems—or a confrontation? There is a [hands-on-hips] gesture that people make, though, that helps answer this question. It’s produced unconsciously when people are irritated about something and it can be seen from yards away if you’re paying attention” (Baile 2000a, 8). From just a few feet away, since all eyes were turned on Dan, his co-worker Liz and everyone around the conference table must have been aware of the man’s polemic mood. Dan’s hand-on-hip clearly registered his negative stance for all to see.
Excerpted from Your Body at Work by David Givens.
Copyright © 2010 by David Givens.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.