On 'Body Language' -- a Rant!

I am amazed that so many sensible people seem to think that 'body language' offers some infallible guide to what people are really thinking. It has become a cliche, among educators as well as football commentators and journalists, businessmen, spin doctors, quacks, hacks and pundits to assure listeners that crossed legs means the person is being defensive, or, in slightly more scientific guises like the fashionable NLP ( Neuro-Linguistic Programming), that if people raise their eyes in answer to a question they are recalling 'facts', while if they look to the top left, they are recalling 'imagined examples' (or whatever it is).

It is more than an academic issue to me, in fact. I was once accused of bullying and harrassing one of my leaders (and subsequently acquitted), but much of the 'evidence' turned on my 'body language'. My written and spoken communications were insufficient to convict me but I had 'entered a room aggressively', and 'indicated by my body language that I opposed my leader'. I had not kicked open the door, roaring drunk, spat on the floor and challenged anyone inside to a fight, when I had 'entered a room aggressively', apparently, but had opened the door and come in hastily. I had not squared up to my leader, grabbed her by the shirt front and drawn back my fist, or sneered and stormed out, muttering "bollox" derisively under my breath -- I had sat opposite her in a committee meeting.

I argued then, and now, that these estimates are bound to be loaded with social judgements about 'normal' bodies or behaviour, stance, body shape, posture, and what Bourdieu calls 'bodily hexis' ( which includes things like how people stand in relation to each other, and whether they feel at ease in their bodies). I strongly doubt if there is an 'agreed' body language of universal applicability -- there must be cultural variants, and , of course, variants produced by bodily dis-ease of various kinds (short-sightedness makes you seem to lean forward and peer at people? deafness means you have to keep asking people to repeat themselves, or you cut across those with quiet voices who are trying to speak? a bad back makes you look stiff and formal? cartilage problems in the knees or migraines can make you shift very uneasily in your seat?). Even the excellent (and sometimes hilarious) on-line Dictionary of Non-Verbal Gestures ( see link) acknowledges that different people have different starting points and that the observer should try to see what is 'normal' body posturing before jumping to any conclusions.

The same piece also mentions ( rather casually I thought), that certain ambiguities are well-known to the skilled -- that a person expecting to be disbelieved can exhibit the same 'body language' as a person trying to lie. This seems a really important point to make to me! As this section suggests as well, the study of 'body language' gained some force initially from psychological studies on lying, an important issue for those interested in social control. I think this appeal haunts the work still. I know teachers who think that the body cannot lie, and who use 'body language' especially to counter the most feared opponent -- the knowing liar, the prole kid who has learnt some of the bourgeois techniques of calm lying, denial and bluff, and who cannot be tricked or 'tied up in knots' any more by linguistic manouevres.

While I am at it, the Dictionary acknowledges the importance of clothing, which covers and conceals the body for most of us most of the time. The authors describe wearing a business suit, especially a Brookes Brothers one, apparently, as an aggresive act ( since it accentuates the musculature of the male body). Interpreting 'body language' in practice must contaminated by the disguises of the body that we all use - -and here we get very close again to the old skills the bourgeois have of judging a chap by his clothes, especially in terms of some minute detail (like the 'cut' of his suit or the shoes he wears). Any modern user of designer clothing is playing that game too, of course. If we are to have a pure body language, it should be based on a nude body?

Of course, the most 'scientific' end of the whole bandwagon stresses involuntary movements of actual body parts -- eyes or limbs -- which are allegedly detectable beneath the clothes. I have mentioned NLP, and I should say that my contact with it has come solely through staff developers, rather than the orginators of the approach or any researchers. I am interested in knowing what research there actually is, and how reliable it is -- how can you actually distinguish between 'factual' and 'imaginary' recall for example? I suspect that there have been rather strange, isolated and weak experimental studies -- I'll bet on a sample of student volunteers -- when people have been asked about simple facts,about their age or their postal address or whatever. In real life, it is very hard indeed to isolate the 'factual' in an actual memory, say of a road traffic accident or a conversation at a party, as we all know.

In my staff development session I was amazed at the simple behaviourism of the approach too. Apparently, in the strong version, some sort of unspecified studies had noticed a correlation (of what strength?) between eye movements and types of recall. This was not a trivial observation or correlation ( using what test of significance?), and was even supported by some theory connecting eye movements to functions of some zones of the brain which included memory (I'm very sceptical about this sort of reseach on brains as well -- but we'll pass on). Doubts of this kind were met with a weaker version (as usual) -- this sort of correlation might not be that well established in theory or research but 'it works in practice', and has apparently helped social workers and teachers make judgements about their clients and the stories thay have told them. The wrong sort of eye movement might lead you to suspect that someone is making up an incident and not recalling a fact, say, an incident of child abuse, and you can then go off and check. There was also a more trivial 'practical' outcome -- you could improve people's memories by getting them to look in the right direction!! To recall things, the best students looked upwards -- therefore the poor students should also look upwards to activate that part of their brain which accesses factual recall

Again I had doubts though, of course. Surely eye movements could never be decisive in serious cases like child abuse? Surely therapists routinely check these stories regardless of eye movements? I can imagine the 'practical' uses being far more trivial in practice -- the technique is far more likely to be used to help form a snap judgment of someone, one which never gets checked,one which fits into all sorts of other snap judgements like the cut of a chap's suit again. I asked my presenter if he could see a use for this technique in police or military interrogations? door-to-door selling? time-share selling? I was making a point about the ethics of the practice, of course.

As for  the 'study skills' application -- it seems highly doubtful again. If involuntary eye movements are an indication that a zone of the brain is being engaged and energised, I am afraid that the reverse need not apply at all. The knee reflex is a sign of bodily health, but it is NOT the case that you can improve your overall body health by hitting your knee with a hammer and then swinging your leg. This is really magic or superstition -- rather like a goalkeeper who makes a great save one week while wearing a green jersey, and then thinks that wearing the jersey next week will somehow cause him to make another great save. 

Anyway, the two weak arguments contradict each other. If people can train their eye movements to enhance their recall, they can also certainly train their eye movements to help avoid detection when telling porkies. Once we all know about eye movement as a sign of different types of recall, we can start faking and disguising again. I shall make sure I always wear large impenetrably dark shades if I ever suspect someone of trying to use NLP on me, or just shut my eyes when answering questions, or stare at my interrogator's eyes to see how they like it! 

Of course, we all now know NOT to cross our legs or fold our arms as well -- people train other people (politicians, PR spokespersons) in the cliches of body language just as in the cliches of the English language. It is amazing how many spokespersons come on TV in the dark suit and white shirt, answer questions with a sound-bite, angle their head towards the interviewer, adopt an 'open' sitting position, look up and smile with every answer and so on. Nixon was very good at using all of those techniques on TV -- I rest my case.

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