A Sideways View

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Body Language at Work

Can you detect people lying to you at work?

 Body language At Work

Nearly all management courses in the business world deal with non-verbal communication or body language. In negotiation skills courses trainers emphasize how to "read" one’s opponent; in selection skills courses, instructors emphasize how one may detect dissimulation in applicants; in appraisal workshops consultants point out how video feedback indicates how pleased or disappointed appraisees are with particular feedback. And, of course, no sales course is without advice on how and what to watch in customers to maximize sales.

Body language may be coded in verbal language. Consider the following examples taken from the different areas of non-verbal communication:

Body state expression: Emotions are often expressed in terms of body language. We "shoulder a burden," "face up to issues," try to "keep our chin up," "grit our teeth," in the face of pain we have a "stiff upper lip," "bare our teeth," on occasion "catch the eye" of another, and "shrug off" misfortune.

Eye contact: "I see what you mean." "Seeing is believing." "I can’t see any other solution." "He has an eye for colour."

Gesture: "He gave me the cold shoulder."

Posture: We have "well balanced," "take a firm stand," "know where you stand on this." When uncomfortable people shift their weight from one foot to the other they can be seen to be "shifty characters."

Odour: "I like the sweet smell of success." "He has a nose for where the money is." "Yet she still came up smelling of roses." "He is always sticking his nose in other people’s business." "She always sticks her nose in the air." "I will ensure that I rub his nose in it."

Orientation: "I dislike people who are always taking sides." "I feel diametrically opposed to everything he does."

Territory/distance: "I feel close to him." "She is very stand-offish." "Back off from me, buster!" "I prefer to keep her at arm’s length."

Touch: "I touched her for a fiver." "I felt touched by his concern." "Her plight touched me."

Verbal and non-verbal communication are pretty intertwined.

Enthusiasts and advocates of body language are eager to see symbolism in small gestures. Playing with hair, fluff removing and fiddling with cufflinks can all be interpreted with crypto-Freudian glee. They often say that body language is much more powerful than spoken language, but fail to point out why charades is both an amusing and difficult game. What trainers like to point out is that a knowledge of body language makes one more insightful, even intuitive, which helps one to read others like a book. But books are passive objects, and people are not. In most business scenarios both interlocutors are simultaneously trying to read the other while concealing certain information about the self.

As adults, we are all skilled dissimulators. Many people are shocked to discover that weeping parents seen on television calling for the return of their children in fact murdered them the day before. Kim Philby lied blatantly on the BBC soon before his flight to Russia as a quisling. And the current US president, Bill Clinton, has provided excellent data for body-language watchers.

There are a few extremely important points to bear in mind with respect to body language. First, it is not random but follows certain rules. In short, it is law-like behaviour. Take eye contactor mutual gazefor example. This is in part determined by physical distance (stand too close in lifts and mutual eye gaze drops), topic of conversation (shame and embarrassment are signalled by reduced eye contact), interpersonal relationships (we look more at those we like), co-operative tasks (we look more at co-operators than competitors), and personality (extroverts look more than introverts).

The following are reasonably good cues for lying, given that the people involved are from the same culture and speak the same language.

Verbal cues

Response latencythe time elapsing between the end of a question and the beginning of the response. Liars take longer and hesitate more than when not lying. They have to think through the lie more.

Linguistic distancynot saying 'I,' 'he' or 'she' but talking in the abstract even when recalling incidents in which he or she was involved. The incidence of personal pronouns drops.

Slow and uneven speechthe individual tries to think while speaking but gets caught out. He or she might suddenly speak fast, implying something less significant or more exciting. It is the sudden change in pace in response to a particular question that gives a clue that something is not right.

Over-eagerness to fill silencesto keep talking when it is unnecessary. Liars overcompensate and seem uncomfortable with what are often quite short pauses. Good investigators learn this trick and hold silences longer, watching for what their interlocutor does.

Too many ‘pitch raises’that is, instead of the pitch dropping at the end of a reply, it rises like a question. It may sound like "Do you believe me now?"

Non-verbal cues

Squirming/shifting around too much in the chair, indicating that they would rather not be there.

Having too much eye contactliars tend to overcompensate. They know that liars avoid mutual gaze so they ‘prove they are not lying’ through a lot of looking. But this may let them down as it occurs simply abnormally too much.

Flickers of expressionsof surprise, hurt, anger. These are difficult to see unless the frames of the video are frozen, but occasionally they can be spotted by observant onlookers.

An increase in comfort gesturestouching his or her own face and upper body. Often fiddling with the hair or, more often, folded arms.

An increase in stuttering, slurring and, of course, ‘Freudian slips’, where people say exactly what they mean quite inadvertently. Generally, an increase in speech errors and clumsy phrases.

A loss of resonance in the voiceit becomes flatter, less deep, and more monotonous because of the anxiety.

Second, body language is primarily learnt. With few exceptions (such as facial expression), many specific non-verbal features such as gesture and posture are learnt as part of growing up. In Naples, gesture capital of the world, five to six times as much routine, interpretable gestures are used to communicate ideas than in London.

Third, gesture, posture, touch and dress send clearly interpretable messages. Body language can complement and contradict verbal language. It can be used to restate and hence reinforce messages (the size of the fish caught). It can substitute for language (the slightly raised eyebrow at the dinner party). But often it functions to regulate and co-ordinate all communication. Body language helps to let people know when it is their time to talk, when yes means no (and vice versa), when things are getting rather embarrassing, and so on.

Fourth, neither sender nor receiver may necessarily be aware of messages sent. When people are angry, frightened, or sexually aroused their pupils dilate. Women knew that when they put bella donna in their eyes, it dilated their pupils and men found them more attractive....although the men did not know which signal theory they were responding to. Work on odour and pheromones has shown equally surprising results. In one study, a female applicant for a job was judged more technically competent simply as a function of the perfume she was wearing.

Fifth, and related to the above, non-verbal cues give a reasonably good indicator of the emotional state, particularly at extremes. Sweating, trembling, and fidgeting are all known signs of anxiety which ‘break out’ whether the person wants them to or not. And it is this guide to the emotional state of the sender of body language messages that renders it most interesting.

But all this fascinating research by anthropologists, psychologists, physiologists, and zoologists should not lead one automatically to conclude that communicating with body language (that is, face-to-face, video-linked) is necessarily better than using a more restricted medium such as the phone, e-mail, or old-fashioned snail mail.

Take two examples. Imagine dividing a large group of people randomly into three smaller groups. One reads a message from the CEO; another hears a broadcast of exactly the same message; a third group watches a video presentation, again with the same message. They all have exactly the same amount of time in which to receive exactly the same message but through different media: print; audio-only; audiovisual. Afterward, you test their memory. Who remembers most? The print group remembers most, the audiovisual group least. Why? First, reading requires more mental effort and processing of the material, which results in better memory. Second, readers go at their own pace, not that of a possibly idiosyncratic CEO. Third, the picture of the CEOthat terrible tie, the awful glasses, that orthodontic treatment requiredcan interfere with concentration on the story line. In this sense, the two thingspicture and soundare not synchronized. Forget the power of television if you want to remember facts.

The second example is that, rather surprisingly, it seems that it is easier to detect people lying through verbal cues only (that is, on the telephone) than in face-to-face communication. Verbal cues include response latency (taking longer to reply to questions because of having to think through the answer); verbal distancing (saying ‘one cannot be said to’ rather than ‘I’); slow but uneven speech; an over-eagerness to fill silences (because liars overcompensate for silences); and too many pitch rises instead of pitch drops at the end of a sentence (which sounds like ‘Do you believe me now?’).

Of course, there are good body language cues about lying: increased squirming/shifting around in the chair; a decrease in hand gestures; a loss of resonance in the voice; and an increase in face (particularly nose) touching. The last occurs supposedly because the hand is brought up to cover the mouth (unconsciously) to prevent the lies escaping, but also because increased nervous system arousal often leads to the nasal cavity tickling.

Liars get caught because it is difficult to lie about feelings rather than facts. It is difficult to fake powerful emotions even about long past events. Also, old-fashioned guilt means that some people still feel bad about telling serious (as opposed to white) lies. There is also the old problem of fear about getting caught, called detection apprehension. And, finally, liars get caught with ‘duping delight’the relief shown after the lie, believing they have got away with it.

But beware your new-found ability to catch liars. If one is speaking in a second language all the verbal cues may look like lying when they are nothing of the sort. And anxietyoften found in the job interview, or appraisal, or even public performancecan make a person seem to be lying when they are not. This is the whole problem with lie-detector machines, which are more likely to judge the innocent guilty than vice versa.

Certainly, an understanding of body language helps people in business to be better communicatorsboth senders and receivers. If this were not the case it is doubtful whether politicians, diplomats, and spin-doctors would spend so much time and money on communication skills and body language courses.


Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.


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