The Myth of Body Language

Image © Jenny Rollo

For the longest time, I thought the subject of body language was a bunch of BS. Then I talked to an expert and realized that it’s not body language that’s BS, but most people’s ideas about body language.

That is, the science is valid, but the interpretation of it is a mess, she explained.

If you listened to the conventional wisdom, you’d never cross your arms or put your hands in your pockets again. (Which for me would mean the end of comfort forever.)

The other night I was speaking to a group and asked them what it means when someone crosses their arms. They said, “defensive,” “closed off” and “negative.” So I crossed my arms and proceeded to talk for a moment and asked them if I seemed defensive, closed off and negative.

They said no.

“How can that be?” I asked. “My arms are crossed.” And they told me that I was smiling, upbeat, approaching them in an open, friendly way and with a positive tone of voice.

And that’s the point. It’s not any one isolated gesture that has meaning, it’s the whole picture, the context.

So if someone’s crossing their arms, it may just mean they’re cold. Or they’re comfortable that way.

And if you’re paranoid about ever crossing your arms in a meeting or when you’re giving a presentation, stop worrying about it. It’s the intention that counts. Control for that. Be warm, friendly and positive and nobody’s going to care about how you hold your arms.

Or as communication expert Nick Morgan puts it:

[I]f you’re going to give a speech, decide beforehand that you’re thrilled to have the opportunity to present to this great group of people … think first about what the purpose of the interaction is, what you want to get out of it, and what your attitude toward it is. If you focus your emotions in this way, your gestures will take care of themselves.

This all stems from a larger myth that 93% of all communication is nonverbal. That kind of thinking leads to the dangerous assumption that it doesn’t matter what you say, so long as you gesticulate just right.

And it gives outsized meaning to ordinary, everyday gestures. Which can lead to all kinds of crazy nonsense.

6 thoughts on “The Myth of Body Language

  1. Yeah, Tony, maybe I’m passionate about this because I personally cross my arms and put my hands in my pockets all the time! It’s comfortable. I also heard a long time ago that if you cross your legs, it should be toward the person you’re talking to, not away. I get self-conscious about that one. The more I read, I find the actual science of it all much more interesting than the misconceptions.

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