The words aren’t the problem

Oct. 20, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

More than 90 percent of communication comes from non-verbal clues, which means that only a small part comes from the words we use, according to a television program I watched last weekend.

The show featured clips of a number of current and former political candidates and elected officials, coupled with analysis by experts who study body language.

I was shocked to learn that the body language exhibited by some of these politicians indicated that they were not telling the truth.

The people who study this kind of thing place an awful lot of importance on small details such as how people shake hands and who goes through a door first and who goes last.

Evidently, these situations are actually mini-power struggles.

The presenters suggested that if a politician starts sweating profusely under questioning, or touches his hands together in a self-reassuring gesture, or crosses his arms in front of him or answers a question and then quickly steps back as if to distance himself from the answer, we should be on the alert, because these are clues that indicate he is nervous and his discomfort may suggest that he is being less than honest in his responses.

Of course, these days, most candidates have teams of advisors to tell them how to walk and talk and act so that they probably know more about body language than the average observer and can deliberately change their behavior.

The really slippery ones are pathological liars anyway, and can look one in the eye and spin outrageous lies without any trouble at all.

Body language can also be quite entertaining if one stops to think about it.

Some body language is downright absurd.

We all use this king of non-verbal communication it to some extent, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.

A co-worker recently told me she was going to the orthodontist and as she said this, she prominently displayed the dental work in question and pointed to it for emphasis.

Now, I am an adult, and have a reasonably comprehensive vocabulary, so I understand what an orthodontist does, and I really didn’t need the visual clues to get the message.

I suppose I should consider myself lucky that she wasn’t on her way to see some other sort of doctor. There is no telling what sort of gestures might have been used to indicate other areas of specialization.

People talk with their hands all the time.

When a guy asks for the time of day, he will often point to the part of his wrist where a wristwatch would be if he was wearing one.

Why is that? If we are skilled enough to be able to tell time, we probably understand the question without the wrist-pointing.

If a co-worker stops by one’s office and sees that we are on the phone, she might mouth the words “Call me,” while at the same time making the “call me” gesture by putting her hand to her ear with the middle three fingers curled in and the thumb and pinky finger extended, miming holding a telephone.

We all know how these things work, so why do we need the charades?

Perhaps it goes back to the days before our language skills became fully developed, when we needed extra clues to convey meaning because we didn’t have so many words to use.

Not all non-verbal communication is bad. It can be quite useful in the right circumstances.

Bartenders are among the most skilled interpreters of body language.

Many is the time I have found myself holding down a stool in a crowded public house, and been overcome by a powerful thirst.

All that has been required to obtain another libation is to make eye contact with the skilled artisan behind the planks.

By a simple raising of the eyebrows, she has inquired if I would like another pint, and by the slightest inclining of the old melon, I have responded in the affirmative.

The transaction is completed without any words being exchanged, and without my having to break the flow of the story I was telling.

This is communication at its finest.

There is a downside, though.

All this non-verbal communication can also make a person self-conscious.

If one starts to think about it too much, one can end up avoiding eye contact and sitting or standing rigidly with one’s hands at one’s sides for fear of accidentally “saying” something through the use of body language.

It seems that anything one does these days can somehow be construed as a sexual advance or a rebuff, a gesture of domination or submission, or an insult to other cultures.

We can get into all sorts of trouble without even knowing it, and some of us don’t need any help to do that.

Studying body language can be worthwhile for all of us because it can help us to better understand the people we encounter every day.

It can be especially important when observing our friends the politicians. We should remember that when dealing with elected officials, it is often not what they say, but what they don’t say that can hurt us.