Reading Body Language

People talk not only with their mouths, but with their bodies. What do you watch as you interact with people?

By Fred Smith

   People talk not only with their mouths, but also with their bodies. I once had an associate whose eyes would slightly mist over when he was shading the truth. Babe Ruth unfortunately telegraphed his pitch by sticking his tongue out when he was going to throw a curve ball. I watched a ballplayer's shoulders slump as he made an error. Everything in his body expressed his dismay and disgust. The viewer didn't need words to know what he was thinking and feeling.

   Reading body language is an old subject, beat-up and often oversimplified by charlatans. I've attended seminars on the subject that defined specific body movements generically, applying to everyone equally. That is quackery at its worst. For example, I remember one speaker saying that when a person wraps his arms around himself he is being defensive. One of the most extroverted men I know does this when he gets excited, and I think he's hugging himself rather than defending himself. I have laughed to myself watching a seminar audience practicing packaged ways of reading body language. Have you every watched someone "mirroring" your motions to align with your body language?

Even with all of this misuse, body language is important and should be carefully observed, investigated, and verified in each specific instance.

   First, gestures and words should agree. When they are in conflict, there must be a reason. A psychiatrist pointed out that a prominent politician spoke constantly of how he loved people while using hacking motions, like rabbit punches. It was hard to catch his sincerity.

   One of the greatest salesmen I've ever known was the president of a jewelry company with genuine radar for people's thoughts. He told me, "Don't watch what a man can control. Watch what he isn't thinking to control." I once had an associate who when he became irritated patted his feet on the floor. It was important to notice that.

   Coaches, sports commentators, and competitors constantly read the opponents' body language. Tennis champion Chris Evert could put you inside the tennis player's mind, as could John McEnroe. Ken Venturi does this for golfers. Isaiah Thomas was expert in reading basketball players. For example, he once said a player was losing confidence because he passed off instead of taking the shot.

Advertising constantly uses our belief in body language to prove the efficacy of a product: the sag before the snap and go, the frown before the smile. Think of the before and after ads that show the badly defeated man who immediately is a world beater after the use of their magic product. One of the best examples of this is the campaign for the Charles Atlas body-building promotion. Remember the weak-kneed young man getting sand kicked in his face? His body language spoke of total defeat. After the course, he was then "king of the beach" with broad shoulders and military posture. Most capable executives can walk into a plant and read the work pace in the employees' body language. I can usually read a speaker's emotions, nerves, lack of concentration, lack of preparation, and his involvement with the subject through his demeanor, because I've been there so many times myself.

   Once I was invited by a friend to sit in on a conversation between a father and a son who were having a problem. I wasn't part of the conversation, so I concentrated on the boy's face to see if I could read any changing expressions. When one matter came up, he developed a tic in his face. Later the subject came up again, and his face repeated the tic. I joined the conversation and brought the subject by the boy again. Again his face showed the tic. The tic and the general feel of the confrontation made me assume he was lying, so I challenged him. He confessed.

   His father later told me that his son said, "I'm afraid of that guy. He can read your mind." I couldn't. I was simply observing his face, and it led me to a correct assumption. If his face had shown the tic randomly, I would not have known how to read it.