Spoken language is confusing. We have words that sound alike but mean different things; we have different words that mean the same thing; and we have pauses and tones that can negate the meaning of any string of words. Still, somehow, we do tend to catch the meaning enough of the time to keep our families and relationships — and many of our major corporations — humming along. Though there is some doubt about Congress.
As confusing as spoken language is, body language is even more confusing. Here are some reasons why.
- It's non-linear
- Spoken language is largely linear. It has at least a partial time ordering, and the order greatly simplifies message extraction. By contrast, we execute the gestures and postures of body language in parallel, using different parts of our bodies and faces.
- We can't turn it off
- We can stop speaking, but we can't stop body language. We're always in some kind of posture. We're always sending signals, but the signals don't always mean anything.
- There is no OBD (Oxford Body-language Dictionary)
- Body language can be
even more confusing
than spoken language.
Interpret body language
- Although spoken language has dialects and accents, the words mean more or less the same thing to anyone speaking a given language. But we learn our body language from those who rear us, and beyond the universal basics, we have no idea what our gestures and postures might mean to the outside world.
- It's out of our awareness
- Even when we try to control it, or try to read it in others, we miss a lot. We have a recurring experience of suddenly realizing that we're gesturing a certain way, or that we've adopted a certain pose. And the gestures and postures of others trigger responses within us before we become aware of them.
- The meanings of the "words" are very dependent on context
- Some people run cold; others run hot. Someone with arms and legs crossed might just be cold, not "closed off." Someone with flushed face and brow glistening with beads of sweat might just be hot, not "nervous." You can't tell by looking. Any one indicator just isn't enough information to make a meaning we can rely on.
Even when we've learned to read a little body language, we often see contradictions. Without realizing it, we sometimes reject contradictory interpretations, and settle on one meaning — often the one we want to see. We reach conclusions with more certainty than accuracy.
Controlling our own body language is no simpler. Trying to convey confidence and openness, a typical result is rigidity of posture and flatness of facial expression, which conveys rigidity and control, not openness or confidence. To convey how you want to feel, focus on feeling it. Your body will figure out how to tell everyone else about it. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- When It Really Counts, Be Positive
- When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one.
We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal
meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
- When You Can't Even Think About It
- Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can
think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- Some entries from my personal collection of useful insights.
- Human Limitations and Meeting Agendas
- Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control
and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings
more productive and save us from ourselves.
- Quips That Work at Work: I
- Perhaps you've heard that humor can defuse tense situations. Often, a clever quip, deftly delivered,
does help. And sometimes, it's a total disaster. What accounts for the difference?
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.