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 nonlinear
- 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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- The Uses of Empathy
- Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good
and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
- Ethical Influence: II
- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can
we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- When Change Is Hard: I
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— and there are many methodologies available — difficulties can arise. When change is hard,
what's happening? What makes change hard?
- Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how
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See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
- And on December 14: Straw Man Variants
- The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.
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