- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Movement analyst Karen Bradley teaches her students that understanding body language will help them increase their range of expressivity and get into the character they want to portray onstage.

Yet, body language — including body movement, posture, gestures, facial expression and oculesics or eye movement — is relative to a person’s culture and varies with the individual, she says.

“We don’t believe every movement has the same meaning in all situations,” says Ms. Bradley, director of graduate studies in dance and professor of theory of dance and movement at the University of Maryland at College Park. “We have personal patterns and cultural patterns that are immediately recognizable to those who know us well.”

As such, understanding body language, known in academic circles as nonverbal communication, is not an absolute science. Nonverbal communication is viewed by some as absolute in definition and by others as relative to culture and context, according to those who analyze body language as part of their sociology or anthropology studies.

Research shows that 65 percent to 93 percent of communication is nonverbal. Nonverbal communication includes things such as proxemics, or the distance or space between speakers; vocalics, or the nonverbal elements of voice, such as tone, cadence and volume; and personal appearance along with anything else, besides words, that communicates.

“Body language has been proven by research to be more accurate than the spoken word,” says John Boe, president and founder of John Boe International, a Monterey, Calif., company that helps companies recruit, train and motivate salespeople. “People are going to show how they feel more easily than they will tell you how they feel.”

Mr. Boe teaches his clients how to read body language.

“We already understand 100 percent of body language — that is the good news — but at the subconscious level,” Mr. Boe says. “I teach people to understand these gestures consciously, the meaning behind key body-language gestures consciously, so they can use them consciously in relationships and in the sales environment.”

Speech coach Fritzi Bodenheimer tells her clients and students to be aware of body language at the podium. She encourages them to make eye contact, speak at a normal rate and pitch, keep a good posture without being too rigid, and use few gestures, all of which will make them appear confident and competent, she says.

“If you have to stop and look at your notes too much, if you’re a little stiff and seen as reading, that’s not going to do it for your audience,” says Ms. Bodenheimer, associate professor of speech at Montgomery College in Rockville.

Awareness of body language can help identify dishonesty, says Gregory Hartley, co-author with Maryann Karinch of “How to Spot a Liar: Why People Don’t Tell the Truth … and How You Can Catch Them.”

“When people deviate with words from what their brain is saying, their body is still punctuating,” says Mr. Hartley, a decorated military interrogator and business consultant living in Atlanta.

People emphasize, or punctuate, what they mean with body language, and as a result express two sets of languages, Mr. Hartley says. An incongruity results when the spoken word does not match up with the nonverbal communication, he says.

“It takes a skilled person to punctuate appropriately when lying,” Mr. Hartley says.

To detect dishonesty, Mr. Hartley recommends establishing a base line by determining how someone acts in a stress-free environment. Base-lining allows the questioner to learn about the other person’s natural communication style and, from that point, detect stress, such as a change in cadence, tone of voice and choice of words, he says.

“Body language doesn’t tell me if you’re lying. It tells me if you are under stress,” Mr. Hartley says. “You can learn to mask a bit, but most likely, you’ll leak under stress.”

For instance, hand movements can become glitchy and will not punctuate in the same places as under normal circumstances, and micro gestures might appear, Mr. Hartley says. Micro gestures are fleeting gestures that typically cannot be seen and are a way for the brain to register an emotion, he says.

Research shows that women are better at reading body language or nonverbal signals than are men, Ms. Bodenheimer says. Women are socialized to express themselves and taught to read emotions, she says.

“That’s our role in society, in a way, and in relationships,” Ms. Bodenheimer says.

In addition, women are more intuitive than men, says David Givens, director for the Center for Nonverbal Studies, home of the Nonverbal Dictionary, a nonprofit research center in Spokane, Wash., focused on advancing the study of human communication in all forms apart from verbal language. The Nonverbal Dictionary defines more than 400 nonverbal communication phrases.

“Men can’t put together what they see and experience in words as well as women,” says Mr. Givens, who holds a doctorate in anthropology.

Gestures that are automatic and not easily controlled can be interpreted to have certain meanings, Mr. Givens says.

Lip compression, for example, occurs when the lip tenses up and rolls inward, creating a thin line, an expression of distress that monkeys and apes use when frustrated or angry, as do humans, he says. The Adam’s apple jumps when embarrassment or uncertainty is felt, he says.

“It tells you what’s going on inside the mind without them telling you the words,” Mr. Givens says.

“You need to establish a base line of what’s normal and what’s not,” Mr. Givens says. “Whatever differs from the base line has the potential to be an indicator of emotions and feelings.”

Reading body language is achieved, in part, through empathy, gained through experience with various emotions, Ms. Bradley says.

“We feel in ourselves what someone else is feeling,” she says. “We don’t know why they’re feeling that way. We have to ask them.”

Body language, though, varies across cultures. Americans, for example, prefer more distance between speakers than do Arabs or Italians, Mr. Givens says. The gesture of making a circle with the index finger and thumb and extending three fingers means “OK” in the United States and is a sexual insult in the Mediterranean, he says.

Learning to read body language can be difficult because gestures and expressions, besides being cultural, can be idiosyncratic or unintentional, such as squinting in the sun that is misread as displeasure, says Melbourne Cummings, professor of communications at Howard University in Northwest.

“We always make assumptions about people, but these assumptions are not always true,” says Ms. Cummings, who holds a doctorate in communications. “So much meaning comes from the way we talk rather than what we say.”

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