What Every Body is Saying

By: Joe Navarro
Published by: Harper Paperbacks, April, 2008

I'm a big fan of the TV series, Lie to Me. It stars Tim Roth (a plus all by itself), and it's about a brilliant guy who is an expert at reading body language and micro-expressions. And it is based on the book, What Every Body is Saying, by ex-FBI agent, Joe Navarro.

Reading body language isn't new, exactly, in fact waaaaay back in 1988, Julius Fast wrote a best seller called, what else? Body Language, and it was all about how to interpret the signals people give off just by the way they sit, stand, move and gesture. Everybody, no pun intended, was talking about that book. It was taken mainly as a way to score with the opposite sex, but in truth it had a lot more to say than how to pick up signals that your date was "willing."

This latest entry into the read-em-and-weep category is clear, concise, has excellent photos, and interesting case studies. But honestly, it's nothing new. If you've read one of these books before, you'll probably not get much new out of this book, other than a refresher course. If you've not read one, this isn't a bad book for beginners, as Navarro does a really good job of explaining the science behind this type of interpretation, and more usefully, practical applications of this knowledge.

For example, one type of body language display is dominance and territoriality. This is an important one to know as it can be a good signal to you what the dynamics of a business meeting are, for example.

Let's back up a second: much of what we assume about human body language is based on animal behavior, particularly primate behavior. I have a few arguments with that, which I'll get to in a moment, but for now, just know that that's where much of our so-called "knowledge" of body language come from.

Back to our example: in the animal kingdom, and certainly among primates, when an animal wants to exhibit dominance, it will make itself bigger. In human terms, this can result in behaviors like puffing out the chest, splaying the legs, or even taking up lots of space with possessions. So when we see a person come into a meeting, grab a chair at the head of the table, spread his papers out into the "space" of those seated next to him, sit back with his arms over the back of the chair and his legs apart, we can assume that this guy either thinks he's king of the world, or desperately wants us to think so, or both. By contrast, the fellow who slinks into the meeting gripping his notebook close to his chest, who sits in a chair far from the head of the table, and who keeps his hands in his lap, his shoulders hunches, and his legs tightly together, probably doesn't want us to know he's there at all.

I remember being at a meeting in which two men were vying for control of a function within the company. They were at odds philosophically, as well. During this meeting, the two started to disagree verbally. After a few minutes of back and forth, and voices getting louder, one of them stood up and walked to the front of the room to make his point. Within seconds, the other man was on his feet, as well. It was clear that neither was going to let the other get "bigger."

A more subtle, almost passive-aggressive version of this: a woman complains that at work, she shares table space with a co-worker. She has drawn an imaginary line down the middle of table: her "territory" is constantly being invaded by his stuff - papers shoved over, books pushing into her space. Her co-worker is quietly dominating by commanding more than his "share" of the shared space.

As an actor, I've always been tuned into macro-expressions - physical gestures, postures, that convey meaning. We actors need a big physical vocabulary. I recall working with another actor on a commercial; she was telling us how wonderful the product she was touting was. But as she was telling us how much we needed the product, she was shaking her head. So her words were saying, "Do it," but her body was saying, "Don't!"

And by now most of us are familiar with a variety of telling postures: a woman chatting up a guy flips her hair, or licks her lips. Yep, she likes him. A guy scuffs his toe and looks up coyly while he's chatting up a girl. He's saying, "Trust me, I'm cute and harmless." (Yeah.) A boss sits at all meetings with one leg crossed over the other and his chair noticeably back from the table: "I'm too important to be here, I'm in charge and not really "one of you." Two guys are arguing and one of them is clenching and unclenching his hands: this is heating up and could get physical.

While we are familiar with it, since I have been reading the book I've been reminded of the many clues we can get to the dynamics of a situation just from being alert to the signals people are giving off - and more importantly, that we can use these signals to take appropriate action. I was in a tense conversation with someone recently and he was licking his lips frequently. Dry mouth - very significantly heightened tension. It was a good idea to bring the conversation down a notch.

Or suppose you were at a meeting with a prospective client. If the person crosses his legs toward you and away from your business partner, what's being said? He favors you. If both you and your business partner are aware of this, your partner can let you take the lead. You see your prospect nodding slightly as you speak: ask for the deal now, he's feeling agreeable. Or he's sitting back in his chair and crosses his arms. Well, if his hands are clutching his arms, it's time to back off and let him be - he's feeling defensive. If his hands are relaxed and resting on his arms, he's thinking - contemplating. This is a good time to slow your pace and maybe ask, "What do you think?"

One of the problems with macro-expressions, of course, is that they can be faked relatively easily. As Ii noted, good actors can express all kinds of false emotions and statements with their bodies; they've been trained to do it, and while not as a science, the study of body language has been around since at least the 1800s when actors were shown specific body positions to use to convey particular emotions.

Navarro urges us to look for clusters of gestures, not just a few grand ones that a person can adopt to knowingly influence our perception of him. (You've heard the expression "glad-handing," the patently phony hand-shaking-back-slapping greeting in which one person wants to act as if he's "damned glad to see you," whether he is or not.) So Navarro says, watch for a while, and mentally chart everything the person does. Look for patterns, or look for a gesture that doesn't fit with the others - it might be telling you something!

Navarro also tracks micro-expressions - those fleeting looks and gestures that are much harder to recognize, and that often happen so quickly we might not notice them. But they can tell us huge amounts about what a person is feeling.

Take the eyes, for example. Raised eyebrows are a universal sign of "I'm glad to see you." The body is accommodating a welcome sight by opening wide and letting more light in - more of the thing we're happy to see. Conversely, narrowed eyes are trying to shut out something we don't like, and rapid blinking might be a sign of denial or conflicting emotions, or downright lying.

Strong eye contact is not, Navarro assures us, a sure sign of a liar. In fact, most liars know that people expect eye contact as a sign of honesty, so they go out of their way to make eye contact. All by itself, that doesn't tell us much. Moreover, eye contact is very culturally linked, and is considered inappropriate in many cultures. Navarro also suggests that a person who is, for example, recollecting something, may very well look away as he contemplates that memory.

The mouth will also register many fleeting expressions: narrowing the lips can usually be read as anger; parted lips express interest; pursing the lips reflects uncertainty or doubt.

There is so much more - hands and fingers, legs, torso... Navarro basically takes the body apart and explains how our brain uses these various body parts to express inner thoughts and feelings, and how we can learn to spot these signals and understand their meanings.

Just as a side note, I'm reading this book using my Barnes and Nobel eReader, an iPhone app. It's surprisingly easy to read with it, and it's available whenever and wherever you want once your book is downloaded to your phone (you don't need a WiFi or 3G connection). Most books run around $10.


Tiki said…
Not sure I want to know what everyone is thinking but I agree with the Tim Roth thing - that man is brilliant.

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