What Are You Really Saying?
For years, I've wondered why I've had such
a difficult time meeting people in passing.
It's rare that I meet someone for the first
time when I'm on my feet. Most of the time,
even when I look at someone and smile, I don't
get more than a polite hello.
Until just recently, I theorized that my
difficulty in getting a friendly response
was due to the fact that the way I walked
made people uncomfortable. For readers of
this blog who haven't seen me walk: picture
Frankenstein with convulsions. My gait is
the opposite of fluid; while some parts of
my body go in the right direction, others
are not on board. I generally get where I
want to go, but the trip is typically a struggle,
and I'm not comfortable or particularly happy
on my feet, even if I force myself to smile.
That's why I'm not a social magnet on my
feet. It's not that others have negative reactions
to my gait; it's that my body is telling them
to back off. I might think that I want social
interaction, but my body is over-ruling that
thought and saying something entirely different.
I recently listened to a seminar by ex-FBI
agent Joe Navarro. Navarro made a living by
interpreting not only verbal communication,
but non-verbal communication - what people
say with their body, not their words - as
well. His job was to get information from
people who generally didn't want to share
that information, and in many cases, actively
suppressed it. Helping him overcome those
obstacles was a finely honed skillset that
allow him to know what they didn't. He knew
that, no matter how good his subjects were
at telling lies, their bodies couldn't lie.
He watched to see which way subjects pointed
their feet when they sat down, what they did
with their legs and arms, and how they breathed.
If they touched their nose or ears, or rubbed
their elbows, he noticed. He observed their
pacifying behaviors, like tapping their feet
or fingers, or licking their lips. All of
these unintentional movements helped him understand
when a subject was under stress, and how much
stress they felt. He used that knowledge to
manipulate them into comfort, so they began
to let down their guard and reveal more than
Of course, Navarro devoted considerable effort
to develop these skills, and his conclusions
were based on validated scientific data. Most
people don't study body language to this degree,
but that doesn't make them ignorant.
From the time we are infants, unable to communicate
verbally, we learn to communicate with our
bodies. Watch a skilled mother pick up an
infant in distress. She immediately makes
eye contact, widens her eyes, raises her eyebrows
and smiles. The child recognizes comfort in
these gestures, and will return the expressions
in an attempt to bond.
This sort of communication is in effect between
grown humans as well, but we usually talk
right over it. When we approach our boss asking
for a raise, we subconsciously read his body
language, looking for cues to his mood. Typically,
we don't consciously interpret the body language
of others - we react at a subconscious level.
That's what's happening when I walk through
a crowded room of strangers. My thoughts are
focused on my destination, rather than the
opportunity to meet someone interesting, and
I'm worried about obstacles, some of which
are people. I might feign a smile, but my
body language is giving up my true thoughts.
Rather than saying, "this is a friendly
guy who is open to conversation," my
body is saying, "he isn't very comfortable
and really doesn't want to be bothered."
I realize this now, and don't even really
try meeting people when I'm on my feet. At
cocktail parties, I'll find a bar stool or
make myself as comfortable as possible by
finding something secure to lean against.
When I do this, I find that more people approach
me, and I have better conversations.
What is your body saying about you? More
importantly, are your thoughts consistent
with your intentions? If they're not, your
body is giving you up.
-- Mitch Arnold