Body language: Science or pseudoscience?

Body language has always been around, of course. From prehistoric times. Humans have always been using non-verbal cues to communicate before language.
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 23:44 IST
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 23:44 IST

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Bestselling author and social psychologist Amy Cuddy has this to say in her book: “At least half of communication is through non-verbal signals, and that includes vocal cues like your pitch and how quickly you’re speaking and how much range you show.” 

She should know. As a psychologist, she has spent years researching the science of non-verbal communication — or, more popularly, body language. Her 2012 TED Talk went viral, garnering more than seven million views. People started to use her “power pose” in meetings. In boardrooms. Before difficult conversations.

Body language has always been around, of course. From prehistoric times. Humans have always been using non-verbal cues to communicate before language. But it’s only now, in an increasingly connected world with disparate and varied communication mediums, that we have been compelled to look beyond language. We are seeing more. We are looking at how our body speaks.

Social media-led interest

“Everything has meaning,” says Delhi-based Gaurav Gill, a psychologist and master body language expert. Gaurav has spent more than a decade working on body language as a therapist and body language coach. His foray into truly learning and applying the science of body language started when he noticed a client constantly rubbing their face whenever he asked a question in therapy. “I started wondering what it really is. Is it some incongruency that I’m seeing with words and the non-verbals? And then I started seeing that as a repeated behaviour in others.” Gaurav’s curiosity to understand more about what his clients weren’t telling him led him to study body language formally.

Although we have used our body to communicate, consciously or unconsciously, for thousands of years, it was only in 1952 that the term body language officially came into being. Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell coined the term kinesics to describe non-verbal communication. Birdwhistell wrote that we make and can recognise about 20,000 facial expressions. His research showed that over 65 per cent of face-to-face communication is done non-verbally. Before him, Albert Mehrabian, who pioneered much of the early work around body language, found that the total impact of a message is only about 7 per cent via what is said and 38 per cent through tone and voice. The majority, 55 per cent, was through body language.

In the 1970s, Julius Fast wrote the classic bestseller Body Language, which discussed the interpretation of body movement and gestures. That book was a runaway hit, and people now realised they had a new language at their disposal. However, current interest in body language has been fuelled by the rise of social media, especially reels, admits Gaurav. “Because of social media, people have started making reels to talk about what kind of body language cues you should have when you’re appearing for an interview, when you’re going for a date, or when you’re looking for a potential partner, or when looking for deception.”

And understanding non-verbal cues, of course, is useful anywhere. For Shaina Ahluwalia, a young marketing professional, interest in body language arose partly from her work as a journalist and mostly from her desire to understand the art of communication. “My interest started quite early on, in college, when I realised the massive difference in getting the message across when working in-person versus virtual communication,” she explains. Pretty soon, she realised there was a frenetic world on social media, primarily reels, on everything from power-posing to girl-bossing that promise to decode all our body’s signals.

So, is our body saying anything at all?

Kanan Tandi, a psychotherapist based in Goa, has delivered three TEDx talks on her favourite subject, body language. Our body is talking all the time, she says. It’s not just movement or facial expressions that capture her attention but also something she terms ‘micro-expressions.’

“Micro-expressions are particularly noteworthy, as they are fleeting facial expressions lasting as short as 1/10th to 1/25th of a second,” she explains. Tandi delivers body language training sessions to actors, politicians, and, of course, corporates. In India, there’s no formal certification to be recognised as a body language expert. “The most recognised formal education is through a multi-national company, where I received my training. They offer an MSc Degree in collaboration with the Manchester Metropolitan University.” For Gaurav, a lot of his learning came from courses he took with American Army interrogators. Working as a consultant on law enforcement cases also gave him deeper insights into the science. And these insights can be applied anywhere, he avers.

Where does one start?

So where does one start? By analysing facial expressions? Not at all, says Gaurav. “The face is that part of the body that can be easily controlled because your face and my face have a social contract. I can control my face when I want to smile if I know it’s inappropriate. So, the most reliable part of the body that needs to be looked at is the feet.” This is based on the principle that the part of the body further away from the brain is the toughest to control. Ever started tapping your feet while listening to music without consciously thinking of it? Or jiggling your feet nervously while waiting for an important meeting? It’s often an unconscious movement that indicates deeper signals. “So if somebody is really interested in talking to you, both the feet will be pointed towards you,” he says, and points out that disinterest would show in someone’s feet pointed away from you and toward the exit.

As a therapist, Vaishnavi Madarkal relies on many non-verbal cues. Her cues range from posture, gesture, and facial expressions to gaze, appearance, and speed. “These signals can reveal underlying emotions, discomfort, or areas of resistance, providing valuable insights into the client’s internal world and guiding the therapeutic process,” she explains. For Vaishnavi, these cues can aid her understanding of clients, but complications exist where individual idiosyncrasies can’t fit into universal interpretations. For example, neurodivergent people may avoid eye contact.

Importantly, non-verbal cues can’t be interpreted in a vacuum. They require context, and as Gaurav says, everyone has a baseline of body language. We respond differently to stress, and understanding this baseline reaction is important before applying universal cues. But if you do understand, then the possibilities are immense — from improving our interpersonal relationships to how we present ourselves at work or in a gathering.

A switch you can’t turn off

Mumbai-based Ami Nhakwar, a consultant at an NGO, took an online course in body language because of her interest in criminal behaviour analysis. As her instructor told her, once you start looking at body language, it’s a switch you can’t really turn off.

“I started noticing symptoms of discomfort and other things in myself. I recall a particular instance where I was conducting a college interview. Following the interview, the interviewer used a technique known as “gesturally reiterated,” which is when I realised I would not be accepted into the college.” But it’s a long and deliberate practice, she says. Gaurav also pitches in to note that gender differences play a role in interpreting a person’s body language. Men may typically touch their face when under stress. Women may feel their collarbone, neck, or what he terms the suprasternal notch, which is in the hollow dip in between the neck and the collarbones above the sternum.

Fake or real?

But how accurate a science is body language? Psychologists agree that emotional states can find an outlet in body language, but there is no complete scientific evidence for many of body language’s claims.

Yet, the interest in body language is so high that thousands of YouTube videos exist with millions of views. An entire industry of coaches has sprung into existence. Is this science or entertainment? High-profile body language coaches and trainers are often in demand, interpreting politician statements on live TV, for example.

Recently, more than 2.8 million people watched a YouTube video of a body language analysis of Amber Heard’s domestic abuse case against Johnny Depp. There is tremendous interest, yes, but with no regulation, misinformation can be high. Myths even more. For example, gaze aversion has long been considered a reliable indicator of lying. The reality is that cultural background can influence gaze aversion, as can neurodivergence. Nervousness and hesitation are not uniform indicators of a lie either. No one dictionary has been scientifically validated to understand what people are saying.

The result is that body language or reading non-verbal signs is not an exact science. Remember Ray Birdwhistell, who wrote about 20,000 facial expressions? However, recent research says that facial expressions of emotion may be only 21. And remember Albert Mehrabian, who is known to have said that 55 per cent of our communication is non-verbal? Mehrabian himself noted that his findings have been “misquoted.”

In such a scenario, it borders on the presumptuous to claim accuracy in assumptions about one’s behaviour and communication.

However, many studies and peer-reviewed research on non-verbal communication show that a lot of non-verbal behaviour can be a sign of underlying emotional states. It doesn’t mean that you can ‘read’ a person confidently.

“People may consciously or unconsciously mask their true emotions, leading to discrepancies between verbal and non-verbal communication. In this case, it takes significant experience, working under supervision, and reliance on other key factors, such as evidence-based assessments, to get a wholesome picture,” explains Vaishnavi. Intercultural differences also play a role. Which is why Gaurav says he spends a lot of time interacting with a person and setting the context before offering an interpretation.

Where does that leave the layperson wanting to understand non-verbal cues better? There are no absolutes, Gaurav suggests. Consider totality: context, cluster, and culture before jumping to conclusions, he says. (Cluster refers to taking more than just one non-verbal indicator.)

Up your cue game

Mirror Neurons: Use the concept of mirror neurons to your advantage. When interacting with someone, subtly mirror their body language to establish rapport and convey empathy.

Spatial Awareness: Pay attention to your spatial awareness. Avoid invading others’ personal space or standing too far away, as both extremes can affect communication dynamics negatively.

Posture check-ins: Conduct regular posture check-ins throughout the day. Ensure your spine is aligned, shoulders are relaxed, and feet are grounded to project a confident and attentive demeanour.

Eye contact variability: Practice varying your eye contact. Avoid staring intently, but also don’t constantly look away. Maintain natural eye contact to show interest and engagement.

(Inputs from Kanan Tandi)

Published 08 June 2024, 23:44 IST

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