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Body language is a broad term for forms of nonverbal communication using body movements or gestures instead of, or in addition to, sounds, verbal language, or other forms of communication. It forms part of the category of paralanguage, which describes all forms of human communication that are not verbal language.
Paralanguage, including body language, has been extensively studied in social psychology. In everyday speech and popular psychology, the term is most often applied to body language that is considered involuntary, even though the distinction between voluntary and involuntary body language is often controversial. For example, a smile may be produced either consciously or nonconsciously.
Voluntary body language refers to movement, gestures and poses intentionally made by a person (i.e., conscious smiling, hand movements and imitation). It can apply to many types of soundless communication. Generally, movement made with full or partial intention and an understanding of what it communicates can be considered voluntary.
Involuntary body language quite often takes the form of facial expression, and has therefore been suggested as a means to identify the emotions of a person with whom one is communicating.
Origins of body language
The relation of body language to animal communication has often been discussed. Human paralanguage may represent a continuation of forms of communication that our non-linguistic ancestors already used, or it may be that it has been changed by co-existing with language. Some species of animals are especially adept at detecting human body language, both voluntary and involuntary: this is the basis of the Clever Hans effect (a source of artifact in comparative psychology), and was also the reason for trying to teach the chimpanzee Washoe American Sign Language rather than speech — and perhaps the reason why the Washoe project was more successful than some previous efforts to teach apes how to dance.
Body language is a product of both genetic and environmental influences. Blind children will smile and laugh even though they have never seen a smile. The ethologist Iraneus Eibl-Eibesfeldt claimed that a number of basic elements of body language were universal across cultures and must therefore be fixed action patterns under instinctive control. Some forms of human body language show continuities with communicative gestures of other apes, though often with changes in meaning. More refined gestures, which vary between cultures (for example the gestures to indicate "yes" and "no"), must be learned or modified through learning, usually by unconscious observation of the environment.
Understanding body language
Although they are generally not aware of it, many people send and receive non-verbal signals all the time. These signals may indicate what they are truly feeling. The technique of 'reading' people is used frequently. For example, the idea of mirroring body language to put people at ease is commonly used in interviews. It sets the person being interviewed at ease. Mirroring the body language of someone else indicates that they are understood.
Body language signals may have a goal other than communication. Both people would keep this in mind. Observers limit the weight they place on non-verbal cues. Signallers clarify their signals to indicate the biological origin of their actions.
- One of the most basic and powerful body-language signals is when a person crosses his or her arms across the chest. This can indicate that a person is putting up an unconscious barrier between themselves and others. It can also indicate that the person's arms are cold which would be clarified by rubbing the arms or huddling. When the overall situation is amicable, it can mean that a person is thinking deeply about what is being discussed. But in a serious or confrontational situation, it can mean that a person is expressing opposition. This is especially so if the person is leaning away from the speaker. A harsh or blank facial expression often indicates outright hostility. Such a person is not an ally, and may be considering contentious tactics.
- Consistent eye contact can indicate that a person is thinking positively of what the speaker is saying. Individuals with anxiety disorders are often unable to make eye contact without discomfort. It can also mean that the other person doesn't trust the speaker enough to "take his eyes off" the speaker. Lack of eye contact can indicate negativity. Eye contact is often a secondary and misleading gesture because we are taught from an early age to make eye contact when speaking. If a person is looking at you but is making the arms-across-chest signal, the eye contact could be indicative that something is bothering the person, and that he wants to talk about it. Or if while making direct eye contact a person is fiddling with something, even while directly looking at you, it could indicate the attention is elsewhere.
- Disbelief is often indicated by averted gaze, or by touching the ear or scratching the chin. So is eyestrain, or itchiness. When a person is not being convinced by what someone is saying, the attention invariably wanders, and the eyes will stare away for an extended period.
- Boredom is indicated by the head tilting to one side, or by the eyes looking straight at the speaker but becoming slightly unfocused. A head tilt may also indicate a sore neck, and unfocused eyes may indicate ocular problems in the listener.
It should be noted that some people (e.g., people with certain disabilities, or those on the autistic spectrum) use and understand body language differently, or not at all. Interpreting their gestures and facial expressions (or lack thereof) in the context of normal body language usually leads to misunderstandings and misinterpretations (especially if body language is given priority over spoken language). It should also be stated that people from different cultures can interpret body language in different ways.
Body language is particularly important in group communications because for large groups it dominates the spoken word.
Body language is a factor in human courtship as a subconscious or subtle method of communication between potential mates. Researchers such as Desmond Morris have extensively studied and reported on courtship behaviour. (see also: Flirting)
Body language is now widely used in the field of selling, where sales personnel are trained to observe and read the body language of their potential customers. Sales personnel trained to read body language can now utilize this skill to read the subliminal cue exhibited by the customers to close a deal. Consequently, many companies such as insurance companies, direct-selling companies, international car-showrooms now engage body language experts.
- Eye contact
- Facial expression
- Albert Mehrabian and his 7%-38%-55% Rule.
- Neuro-linguistic programming
- Sign language
- Argyle, M. (1990). Bodily communication (2nd edition). New York: International Universities Press. ISBN 0823605515
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