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Body Language

Four Mistakes We Make Reading Body Language

We only think we know what those glances and verbal tics mean.

It's a common misperception that body language, or nonverbal communication, is a true "language"—that certain nonverbal cues have clear, specific meanings and definitions.

It's much more complicated than that. Here are four common mistakes people make in interpreting body language:

Misunderstanding When a Smile is Not a Smile. Research has shown that people—women in particular—cover discomfort with a smile. In one study, women were subjected to mild sexual harassment in a job interview, and a common response was to give an uncomfortable (and fake) smile. The problem was that some men interpreted this positively—as a seductive invitation. Research on facial expressions has distinguished between true smiles of enjoyment (called "Duchenne smiles") and fake smiles. The key is in the eyes, where true smiles include narrowed, squinting eyes that produce "crow's feet" at the corners. (I discussed this in a previous post.)

Andrey Arkusha/Shutterstock

Believing We Can Tell Lies From Truths.

Research has shown that very few people can detect lies at levels above chance. We are simply not very good at reading complex nonverbal communications—and lies are typically complex interactions—due to misreading of cues and our stereotypes about what deception looks like. Consider: In one of our studies we found that people actually engaged in more eye contact when lying than truth-telling, presumably because they knew the stereotypes about liars avoiding eye contact, and so they over-compensated.

Andrey Arkusha/Shutterstock

Believing We Can Tell Lies From Truths.

Assuming That Touch Means Affection. We believe touching others is a sign of affection, but touch can communicate many things. Studies of gender and touching suggest that at times men may touch women as a sign of dominance. Also, in some very interesting studies, it was found that waitresses who touch their customers—just a light touch when delivering the bill—get larger tips. There are other individual differences in touching, with some people being "touchers" and others generally avoiding contact. A toucher may hold your arm to keep your attention, but not necessarily have positive feelings for you.

Thinking "Uhs" Suggest Nervousness. What your middle-school teacher told you is wrong: Filling pauses with "uhs" while giving a speech does not necessarily indicate nervousness or forgetfulness, but can actually be a way to improve the flow of communication. Our research found that the incidence of "uhs" was associated with more positive ratings of speakers, presumably because the "uhs" filled in the dead space between words or phrases and made the speech seem more fluid and uninterrupted.

We can become better readers (or "decoders") of nonverbal communication, but it takes a lot of time and practice. One wise strategy is not to rely on "common sense" and simply make assumptions about what a particular nonverbal cue actually means.

There is no dictionary for nonverbal communication.

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