The Body Is the Message
A Science Called Kinesics
Within the last few years a new and exciting science has been uncovered and explored. It is called body language. Both its written form and the scientific study of it have been labeled kinesics. Body language and kinesics are based on the behavioral patterns of nonverbal communication, but kinesics is still so new as a science that its authorities can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Clinical studies have revealed the extent to which body language can actually contradict verbal communications. A classic example is the young woman who told her psychiatrist that she loved her boyfriend very much while nodding her head from side to side in subconscious denial.
Body language has also shed new light on the dynamics of interfamily relationships. A family sitting together, for example, can give a revealing picture of itself simply by the way its members move their arms and legs. If the mother crosses her legs first and the rest of the family then follows suit, she has set the lead for the family action, though she, as well as the rest of the family, may not be aware she is doing it. In fact her words may deny her leadership as she asks her husband or children for advice. But the unspoken, follow-the-leader clue in her action gives the family setup away to someone knowledgeable in kinesics.
A New Signal from the Unconscious
Dr. Edward H. Hess told a recent convention of the American College of Medical Hypnotists of a newly discovered kinesic signal. This is the unconscious widening of the pupil when the eye sees something pleasant. On a useful plane, this can be of help in a poker game if the player is in the "know." When his opponent's pupils widen, he can be sure that his opponent is holding a good hand. The player may not even be conscious of his ability to read this sign, any more than the other person is conscious of telegraphing his own luck.
Dr. Hess has found that the pupil of a normal man's eye becomes twice as large when he sees a picture of a nude woman.
On a commercial level, Dr. Hess cites the use of this new kinesic principle to detect the effect of an advertising commercial on television. While the commercial is being shown to a select audience, the eyes of the audience are photographed. The film is then later carefully studied to detect just when there is any widening of the eye; in other words, when there is any unconscious, pleasant response to the commercial.
Body language can include any non-reflexive or reflexive movement of a part, or all of the body, used by a person to communicate an emotional message to the outside world.
To understand this unspoken body language, kinesics experts often have to take into consideration cultural differences and environmental differences. The average man, unschooled in cultural nuances of body language, often misinterprets what he sees.
How to Tell the Girls Apart
Allen was a small-town boy who had come to visit Ted in the big city. One night, on his way to Ted's apartment and a big cocktail party, Allen saw a lovely young brunette walk across the street ahead of him and then start up the block. Allen followed her, marveling at the explicit quality of her walk. If ever Allen had seen a nonverbal message transmitted, this was it!
He followed her for a block, realizing that the girl was aware of him, and realizing too that her walk didn't change. Allen was sure this was a come-on.
Finally, at a red light, Allen summoned up his courage and catching up to the girl, gave her his pleasantest smile and said, "Hello."
To his amazement she turned a furious face to him and through clenched teeth said, "If you don't leave me alone I'll call a cop." Then as the light changed, she churned off.
Allen was stunned and scarlet with embarrassment. He hurried on to Ted's apartment where the party was in progress. While Ted poured him a drink he told him the story and Ted laughed. "Boy, you got the wrong number."
"But, hell, Ted--no girl at home would walk like that unless--unless she was asking for it."
"This is a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. Most of the girls--despite outward appearances--are very good girls," Ted explained.
What Allen didn't understand is that in a culture, such as that of many Spanish-speaking countries, in which girls are chaperoned and there are strict codes of social behavior, a young girl can safely flaunt her sexuality without fear of inviting trouble. In fact, the walk that Allen took as a come-on would be considered only natural, and the erect, rigid posture of a proper American woman would probably be considered graceless and unnatural.
Allen circulated through the party and slowly forgot his humiliation.
As the party was breaking up, Ted cornered him and asked, "See anything you like?"
"That Janet," Allen sighed. "Man, I could really go for that--"
"Well, swell. Ask her to stay. Margie's staying too, and we'll have dinner."
"I don't know. She's just--like I couldn't get to first base with her."
"No. She's had the 'hands off' sign out all evening."
"But Janet likes you. She told me."
"But--" Bewildered, Allen said, "Then why is she so--so--I don't know, she just looks as if she didn't want me to lay a finger on her."
"That's Janet's way. You just didn't get the right message."
"I'll never understand this city," Allen said still bewildered, but happy.
As Allen found out, in Latin countries girls may telegraph a message of open sexual flirtation, and yet be so well chaperoned that any sort of physical "pass" is almost impossible. In countries where the chaperoning is looser, the girl will build her own defenses by a series of nonverbal messages that spell out "hands off." When the situation is such that a man cannot, within the rules of the culture, approach a strange girl on the street, a girl can move loosely and freely. In a city such as New York where a girl can expect almost anything, especially at a cocktail party, she learns to send out a message saying "hands off." To do this she will stand rigidly, cross her legs demurely when sitting, cross her arms over her breasts, and use other such defensive gestures.
The point is that for every situation there must be two elements to body language, the delivery of the message and the reception of the message. Had Allen been able to receive the messages correctly in terms of the big city he would have been spared the embarrassment of one encounter and could have avoided much of the uncertainty of the other.
To Touch or Not to Touch
Body language, in addition to sending and receiving messages, if understood and used adroitly can also serve to break through defenses. A businessman who was trying a bit too hard to wind up a very profitable deal found that he had misread the signs.
"It was a deal," he told me, "that would have been profitable not only to me but to Tom as well. Tom was in Salt Lake City from Bountiful, which isn't far away geographically, but is miles away culturally. It's a damned small town, and Tom was sure that everyone in the big city was out to take him. I think that deep down he was convinced that the deal was right for both of us, but he just couldn't trust my approach. I was the big city businessman, way up there, wheeling and dealing, and he was the small-time boy about to get rooked.
"I tried to cut through his image of the big city businessman by putting my arm around his shoulder. And that darn touch blew everything."
What my businessman friend had done was violate Tom's barrier of defenses with a nonverbal gesture for which the groundwork had not been laid. In body language he was trying to say, "Trust me. Let's make contact." But he only succeeded in committing a nonverbal assault. In ignoring Tom's defenses, the overeager businessman ruined the deal.
Often the swiftest and most obvious type of body language is touch. The touch of a hand, or an arm around someone's shoulder, can spell a more vivid and direct message than dozens of words. But such a touch must come at the right moment and in the right context.
Sooner or later every boy learns that touching a girl at the wrong moment may turn her off abruptly.
There are people who are "touchers," compulsive touchers, who seem completely impervious to all messages they may get from friends or companions. They are people who will touch and fondle others when they are bombarded with body language requests not to.
A Touch of Loneliness
However, touching or fondling in itself can be a potent signal. Touching an inanimate object can serve as a very loud and urgent signal, or a plea for understanding. Take the case of Aunt Grace. This old woman had become the center of a family discussion. Some of the family felt she would be better off in a pleasant and well-run nursing home nearby where she'd not only have people to take care of her but would also have plenty of companionship.
The rest of the family felt that this was tantamount to putting Aunt Grace "away." She had a generous income and a lovely apartment, and she could still do very well for herself. Why shouldn't she live where she was, enjoying her independence and her freedom?
Aunt Grace herself was no great help in the discussion. She sat in the middle of the family group, fondling her necklace and nodding, picking up a small alabaster paperweight and caressing it, running one hand along the velvet of the couch, then feeling the wooden carving.
"Whatever the family decides," she said gently. "I don't want to be a problem to anyone."
The family couldn't decide, and kept discussing the problem, while Aunt Grace kept fondling all the objects within reach.
Until finally the family got the message. It was a pretty obvious message too. It was just a wonder no one had gotten it sooner. Aunt Grace had been a fondler ever since she had begun living alone. She touched and caressed everything within reach. All the family knew it, but it wasn't until that moment that, one by one, they all became aware of what her fondling was saying. She was telling them in body language, "I am lonely. I am starved for companionship. Help me!"
Aunt Grace was taken to live with a niece and nephew, where she became a different woman.
Like Aunt Grace, we all, in one way or another, send our little messages out to the world. We say, "Help me, I'm lonely. Take me, I'm available. Leave me alone, I'm depressed." And rarely do we send our messages consciously. We act out our state of being with nonverbal body language. We lift one eyebrow for disbelief. We rub our noses for puzzlement. We clasp our arms to isolate ourselves or to protect ourselves. We shrug our shoulders for indifference, wink one eye for intimacy, tap our fingers for impatience, slap our forehead for forgetfulness. The gestures are numerous, and while some are deliberate and others are almost deliberate, there are some, such as rubbing under our noses for puzzlement or clasping our arms to protect ourselves, that are mostly unconscious.
A study of body language is a study of the mixture of all body movements from the very deliberate to the completely unconscious, from those that apply only in one culture to those that cut across all cultural barriers.