The Importance of Body Language

I think body language is the most interesting paralanguage to look at because it is always on display and it is natural. According to an oft cited study, “body language comprises 55% [of total communication], whereas verbal content only provides 7%,” the other 38% consists of intonation, tone, sighs etc. (Raudsepp 2002). People often form lasting opinions of others based on observing them because, “almost every facet of our personality is evident from our appearance, posture and the way we move” (BBC 2004). These impressions are strong in our minds because we see body language as being very honest and not something someone would manipulate. It is easy to lie with words but, “bias leaks [out] easily in non-verbal behavior because evolution has programmed our feelings to show,” as anthropologist David Givens writes. Body language is vital to presenting yourself in the desired way especially when making a first impression, which is why it is the only paralanguage that is the focus of many self-help books, articles, and websites. Most of these writings deal with how to gain the upper hand in work or in attracting the opposite sex and many suggestions are given on how to exude confidence or express sexual interest and worthiness.

These suggestions are sought out by many because, “we often lose our body language, or we lose our cultural awareness of it,” says Susan Quilliam, author of a recent self-help book on body language. Quilliam goes on to say if we become more aware of our body language and, “alter the way we present ourselves to the world -we stand a much greater chance of success.” However, body language is carried out naturally and it is difficult to alter a natural function. It takes focus to monitor your body language and most people only do so in very formal situations. It is disconcerting to think that we make such snap judgments of each other based on mannerisms we probably aren’t aware of. More evidence of body languages’ innate nature is the fact that it is engendered, “women tend to smile even when they are reacting to a perceived threat,” because the smile deflects the threat and protects them from it. Men are guilty of not making enough solid eye contact because, as Quilliam argues, they are more vulnerable to emotion and by dropping your eye contact you can remove yourself from potentially painful emotions (McQueen 2004).

The importance of body language can also be seen in the many phrases that have been incorporated into our language. These phrases are used daily yet many of us are unaware that they refer to body language. For example, the phrase ‘lying through your teeth’ refers to the tendency of clenching your teeth or covering your mouth when lying, this is especially true among children who haven’t learned how to tell a convincing lie yet. A more popular phrase, ‘pain in the neck’ is one that I can relate to, I often find myself scratching or clasping the back of my neck when I talk about an annoying person or I am stuck in a boring conversation. Sometimes it doesn’t even occur to me that I am uncomfortable until I catch myself clasping my neck. We can understand our feelings better, recognize them quicker, and even alter them by reading at our body language.

I will examine the body language tips concerning flirting with the opposite sex and compare them to what I observe in real life situations. I will also look at the effects of body language in the courtroom. There are plenty of chances on campus to observe male and female courting behaviors, specifically at fraternity parties where the participants are usually drunk and thus a little looser in their actions. It would be impossible to view real-life courtroom behavior for this paper so I will focus on two articles that discuss the issue.

Body language is an essential tool in the courtroom. The jury can be greatly influenced by the body language of lawyers, defendants, and the judge. Lawyers are very aware of their body language and attempt to use it to their advantage by showing doubt or disbelief during testimony, yet, is this fair? Using body language to express their feelings on testimony is picked up on, often subconsciously, by the jury which may ignore facts for feelings. Recently a lawyer was fined $2,500 for displaying exaggerated body language in court as “he shook his head in disbelief, waved his arms disgustedly at Dow’s attorneys and, during crucial defense testimony, looked at the jurors and laughed” (Schmitt 1997). To try to curtail this problem some judges have begun to require lawyers to stand at lecterns when making their case to cut down on influential body language. However, lawyers are not the only culprit in the court, judges, who are supposed to remain neutral during a trial, display body language of their own that is often picked up on by the jury, argues anthropologist David Givens. “If a judge’s opinion is clear [non-verbally], people will try to follow her lead,” says Givens who recently did a study on the impact of judicial mannerisms in the courtroom (Klahn ). Judicial bodies in a number of states have begun to incorporate body language into training materials for judges. Not only to control and be more aware of their own actions but of the other courtroom players as well. By understanding the body language of the accused the judge can better examine his own feelings and gut reactions and thus can recognize if his opinion is based on mannerisms rather than facts.

All the articles I read on flirting and body language highlight the importance of a first impression. “You need to get the body language right straight away or they won’t bother to stick around to find out how fascinating you are,” says an article from the BBC which continues, “the way you’ve walked and stood is more than 80 per cent of their first impression of you!” (BBC 2004). The article goes on to list the five major signals that can indicate sexual attraction, which are eye movement, mirroring, “the eyebrow flash”, pointing, and blinking.

When we are interacting with someone in a formal way, our eyes tend to make a zig-zag motion moving from one eye to the other. With friends this zig-zag becomes a triangle as we look from eye to eye and then to the mouth. This triangle gaze becomes larger and moves to include the body as we move into a flirting situation. The mouth, specifically lips, becomes a much more popular point of focus in flirting. I found focusing on the lips to be a common technique at frat parties, most likely because the pursuer is visualizing kissing the other person. Alcohol no doubt plays a large role in this since you lose self-awareness as you drink so body language becomes exaggerated and you often don’t realize that you’ve been staring at someone’s lips for an extended period of time.

Mirroring is an effective way to bond with your target by copying his or her body language which shows that you are on the same page as them and are a compatible partner. We generally like people who are like us, so mirroring can be quite effective. In my observations of flirting on campus I found this to be the most notable behavior, perhaps because it is the easiest to observe. The other flirting techniques are a lot more subtle. The male in one pair I observed copied practically every movement of his partner, even overly expressive body language. At one point she leaned back and threw her arms into the air, this was immediately mirrored by the male which made for a rather humorous scene. It is doubtful the male was aware that mirroring is a noted flirting technique, he was rather drunk and just wanted to express his interest in the girl and it came out naturally by mirroring her behavior.

The eyebrow flash is a quick signal of interest that often goes unnoticed. When we see someone we are attracted to our eyebrows quickly rise and fall. This is because raising the eyebrows opens the eyes more than usual which allows us to fully take in the object of our desire and makes that person feel more welcome. It’s use is quite common, I have noticed many people flash their eyebrows at others from across the room. I’m sure most of us have been in a position where a friend nudges you to get your attention, then raises his eyebrows to subtly send the message, “take a gander at that”, as he points his head in the direction of an attractive female. Raising the eyebrows is also a common greeting, especially at Union where most kids aren’t interested in putting forth the effort to say a full hello. It is used as a gesture in many cultures and some experts believe it is the most recognizable non-verbal greeting used by humans (BBC 2004). The fact that some of the same body language has the same meaning cross-culturally is more evidence of its innate nature. Because it often occurs in less than a second and it is commonly used as a greeting it is recommended that you prolong your eyebrow raise when making eye contact with the one you desire.

Pointing is a very subtle sign of interest that extends beyond the realm of flirting. The idea is that we unconsciously point with our feet, arms, shoulders, and hips towards the person or thing we are most interested in. I caught myself doing this earlier today as I was talking to a teacher in the doorway of her office. However, I was not displaying any sexual interest, I was instead indicating my desire to end the conversation and leave her office by pointing my foot towards the hallway. I realized it after a few seconds and aligned my feet towards her desk at which point I became slightly more comfortable. I think by changing my body language I altered my feeling of anxiousness to leave the office. I have noticed this with other body language as well, such as, crossing my arms in class. Often crossing your arms is simply a matter of comfort but it can also be used as a sign that you are not receptive to the person speaking to you. When I am particularly bored in class I usually find that my arms are crossed and I am slouched over. By sitting up straighter and uncrossing my arms I usually become more engaged in the class.

When we see something we like, whether it be another person or an appetizing meal our pupils dilate slightly and our blinking increases. It seems near impossible to notice a momentary dilation of someone’s pupils or to pick up on someone’s blinking habits unless they are extremely exaggerated which is why a BBC article recommends that you, “try increasing the blink rate of the person you’re talking to, by blinking more yourself. If the person likes you, they’ll unconsciously try to match your blink rate to keep in sync with you, which in turn, makes you both feel more attracted to each other” (BBC 2004). These tips all sound good but how much stock can we truly put into others body language, after all maybe they just had something in their eye which caused them to blink furiously or they are cold which led them to cross their arms. It can be easy to mistake body language which is why it is important to focus on many different signals, not just one. However, in the setting I have observed flirtatious body language, fraternity parties, everyone was intoxicated and had lowered inhibitions so body language was more unrestrained and exaggerated and easier to judge.

Body language has a large impact upon our lives whether it be in informal social situations, work, or the courtroom. Its impact can range from the noncrucial ability to pick-up chicks to the serious ramifications it can have on the outcome of a court case. By learning more about our own body language and that of others we set ourselves up to have more successful interactions and to better understand the origin of our feelings about someone.

Bibliography

Cox, Tracy
2004 Flirting and Body Language. Electronic document,
http://www.bbc.co.uk/relationships/singles_and_dating/techniques_flirting.shtml

Key, Mary Ritchie
1975 Paralanguage and Kinesics. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press

Klahn, Jim
2000 Judicial Body Language Can Speak to Juries. Associated Press.

Raudsepp, Eugene
2002 Body-Language Tactics That Sway Interviewers. The Wall Street Journal, December 5

McQueen, Ann Marie
2004 Picking Up the Signals. Ottawa Sun, October 31: L34

Murt, Jonathan
2004 Rise: Sit Up and Take Note. The Guardian, December 18, Pg. 4

Schmitt, Richard B.
1997 Judges Try to Set Some Limits On Lawyers’ Body Language. The Wall Street Journal, September 11

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