ONE MOVE DOES NOT A MESSAGE MAKE (NECESSARILY)
In my early days of consulting, one of the most requested seminars I offered was about body language. Although I stressed the importance of looking at the whole person, people would still ask ” What does it mean when someone crosses her arms when she’s talking to you?” Or, “Doesn’t it mean a person is dishonest if he doesn’t look at you when he’s talking?” How much easier life would be if we could look at the way people hold their arms, or cross their legs, or use eye contact, and instantly know what they are thinking! The Big, Bad Body Language Myth is the idea that if you know the secrets behind decoding, you can look at a person and know exactly what she’s thinking. Our thoughts are far more complicated than to think we can read another person solely by one movement.
BIG GENDER AND CULTURE DIFFERENCES
It has been said that crossing your arms suggests closed mindedness. Keep an open mind about this, please. I notice in the dozens of programs I present to business men and women each year that women often cross their arms because they’re cold, or more comfortable like that, or merely out of habit. Since I ask for evaluations after every program, I can tell they weren’t tuning me out, or worse, bored! Different cultures use eye contact differently. So, if you’ve read that you must look someone in the eye or be perceived as dishonest, you may misunderstand Asian cultures who consider bold eye contact to be disrespectful, especially if you are gazing into the eyes of your elder or someone who outranks you. If the big, bad myth is that one gesture is not enough to read a person, what’s the real message that will give us insight into what another person is thinking?
CHECK OUT THE BIGGER PICTURE
Rather than look for one gesture to understand a person, notice any sudden, more involved changes. For example, if you approach someone who has his hands in his pockets and is jiggling change, don’t assume he’s cheap. (Yes, that has been a common assumption of this single gesture.) He could simply be feeling for his car keys, wondering if he has enough for the parking meter, or just jingling out of nervous habit.
WE HAVE NON-VERBAL ACCENTS
Each of us has our own body language idiosyncrasies, influenced by our upbringing, what part of the world we were raised in, even our cultural customs or religious beliefs. So, our body language has unique patterns, a kind of non-verbal accent, so to speak. Is it possible to tell then, if we have lost the attention or goodwill of someone with whom we’re speaking if we can’t rely on a few movements here and there? Well, yes. If you’ve been paying attention to that person’s nonverbal cues for several minutes. Again, you’ll want to notice any sudden, major change. Uncrossing or crossing the arms or legs can do without your concern. However, if people suddenly change their body position, turn their head, avert their eyes, and (the kiss of death for you) heave a heavy sigh, you’ll know that you’ve lost them.
Your take home messages: first, make sure you’re sharing the conversation as much as possible so others don’t suddenly zone out on you. Second, keep the message in context and people will reveal much more to you than your trying to force meaning on a single isolated action.
Hi, I’m Crystal Jonas,
As a former academic advisor and assistant professor at the United States Air Force Academy, I know what it takes to make college students more successful, and enjoy school whole lot more.
Ask about speaking or coaching for your students or faculty. Call me at 719- 291-0366.