5 Surprising Facts About Body Language

What we know about nonverbal communication and how it affects people.

Posted Dec 07, 2013

There are a lot of misconceptions about nonverbal communication. For example, there are a number of books (including one best-seller) that suggest that you can “read people like a book.” It’s simply not true. You can, however, become better at reading (and more clearly enacting) nonverbally through practice.

Here are 5 interesting research-based findings about nonverbal communication:

1. Body language is not a “language.” As mentioned, there is no dictionary for nonverbal communication. The meaning of a particular nonverbal cue, such as a certain gesture or eye movement, can depend on the context, the individual, and the relationship between the “sender” of the cue and the recipient. The exception are certain gestures, known as “emblems” – gestures that take the place of the spoken word, such as the “ok” symbol made with thumb and forefinger, or flipping someone the bird – the meaning of these emblems is clear!

2. Invading personal space causes arousal. We carry around with us a “bubble” of personal space (and some of us have larger bubbles than others). If someone enters our personal space bubble, it causes arousal, but the meaning of that arousal depends on who is invading our space and the context.

Understanding the dynamics of personal space offers certain advantages. In a positive encounter/situation a slight intrusion into someone’s bubble may trigger arousal that can lead to a positive reaction – liking, sexual interest, etc. In a situation involving a struggle for dominance, invading another’s space can lead to anger, or perhaps fear, in the other.

3. Certain facial expressions have universal meaning. There is good evidence that the basic facial expressions – anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear – are displayed similarly across cultures. We can recognize a happy face in just about anyone in the world. The problem is that it is very hard, without training, to be able to distinguish a “genuine” display of happiness from a “fake,” or posed, smile.

4. It takes one to know one. There are individual differences in people’s abilities to communicate nonverbally. This is a big part of the construct of emotional intelligence. Certain people are very skilled at clearly expressing themselves nonverbally – sending clear messages of emotions, liking, dominance, etc. Others are very good at reading, or “decoding,” others’ nonverbal cues. AND, these two abilities are correlated, such that a good sender is more likely to be a good receiver.

5. Lie detection is almost impossible. There is a belief that we can tell if a person is lying through body language – that a liar “can’t look you in the eye,” or displays nervous gestures. But it is nearly impossible to accurately detect lies simply through reading someone’s body language. Although deception can cause arousal, people have different “arousal displays,” so one person might look guilty, and another truthful, regardless of their veracity. There is some research that suggests that there are a few, rare individuals who are able to detect deception at levels above chance, but even these people aren’t all that accurate (this research was the basis for the TV show Lie to Me, although the show suggested incorrectly that these deception detectors were almost infallible).

 Read more about nonverbal communication here and here.

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