Wherever you are — work, the grocery store, waiting in line at the movie theater — people- watching is inevitable. Also inevitable is the nonverbal clues we use to communicate with people, whether it’s a wave when someone lets us onto the ramp on the highway, or a raised eyebrow to a coworker. While most of these things might seem intuitive, some of it isn’t. Psychology Today compiled these five findings on what we know about nonverbal communication, as well how you can become better at reading body language.
1. Body Language is not a language
Nonverbal cues are heavily contextual, so that raised eyebrow to a coworker can mean a lot of different things to different people. But other gestures—like the wave—are called emblems. Emblems are universally acknowledged signals that mean the same thing across context. A wave means thanks, making a circle with your thumb and forefinger means ok, and of course, the middle finger...well, you get what I’m saying now.
2. Invading personal space causes arousal
This goes back to the ‘bubble’ of our personal space. When someone intrudes in on our bubble, it incites arousal. Yes, it can be of a sexual nature, but more commonly, it arouses feelings of anger, or fear, or other emotion depending on the individuals and the situation. If you have a good read on people, you understand the dynamics of personal space.
3. Certain facial expressions have universal meaning
Studies have shown that there are universal facial expressions that express emotions across culture. Anger, happiness, sadness, fear, we can recognize these emotions everywhere we go (one of the first things I learned backpacking through Europe is that a smile can get you farther than even an attempt at the language). The problem is being able to distinguish a genuine smile from a fake smile.
4. It takes one to know one
Guess what? Different nonverbal clues are different for different people. Shocker, right? This is a huge part of gauging emotional intelligence. Some people are excellent at expressing themselves non-verbally; some are good at decoding the messages; and there are others who are good at both. Generally speaking, someone who is good at sending messages is good at receiving them, too.
5. Lie detection is almost impossible
If you watch Lie to Me or the World Series of Poker, you might not believe us on this one, but it’s nearly impossible to tell if someone is lying simply through body language. Deception can cause arousal, but people have different arousal displays. In defense of Lie to Me’s entire premise, scientists do believe that there may be a few select folks who can detect lies beyond the odds, but they cannot do it so consistently as to be considered always correct.
To get better or hone your own ability to send and receive nonverbal communication, Psychology Today recommends four key elements to focus on: awareness, motivation, feedback and practice. The research shows that it is a skill that can be trained and improved upon as well as measured. There’s no Rosetta’s Stone software just yet but one never does know what the future holds.
Do you consider yourself someone who can easily decipher body language? How so?