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 they intended.

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