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Some facts about body language

In 1967, psychologist Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues claimed that nonverbal expression or body language makes up 55% of communication, while tone of voice accounts for 38%, and actual spoken words only 7%. Though his studies were limited, Mehrabian’s 55-38-7 rule is often used — and misused — as proof of the huge impact of body language in society. Today, body language is used to decode celebrity interviews on YouTube, determine truthfulness in the criminal justice system, and predict presidential election winners. Here are some facts, and a few myths, about body language.

Darwin thought it was a product of evolution

Darwin’s 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, attempted to untangle the relationship between emotions and the involuntary actions associated with them. He examined classic examples of emotional expression, such as a person’s eyes widening in surprise, or someone blushingwhen embarrassed or flattered. Darwin proposed that these “serviceable habitsevolved in humans over time; later, anthropologist Margaret Mead counter-argued that body language was culturally determined. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that psychologists, including Mehrabian, began to define and quantify the functions of nonverbal expression, a field of study known today as kinesics. (The extent to which nonverbal expressions are learned or evolved is a subject of ongoing debate.)

Body language expressions can be incredibly quick

Body language is generally defined as nonverbal communication through conscious or unconscious movements. Conscious movements, like smiling, emphasize the emotion you feel (happiness or delight, say). Unconscious movements, in contrast, may be so quick or subtle that other people may not consciously notice them, but will recognize that something about your expression has changed. Body language expert David Matsumoto has said these “microexpressions” can be as fast as one-fifteenth of a second.

It can unveil your true feelings

Body language is generally defined as nonverbal communication through conscious or unconscious movements. Conscious movements, like smiling, emphasize the emotion you feel (happiness or delight, say). Unconscious movements, in contrast, may be so quick or subtle that other people may not consciously notice them, but will recognize that something about your expression has changed. Body language expert David Matsumoto has said these “microexpressions” can be as fast as one-fifteenth of a second.

Facial expressions are universal

According to Matsumoto, all humans demonstrate the same expressions for emotions the world over, because we have the same facial muscles and structure, regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, or culture. (However, culture helps determine what emotions are expressed when, and how those expressions are perceived.) Gestures, however, are defined by culture and other factors, and fall into two categories. “Speech illustrators” are hand movements that enhance what the speaker is saying, and can be more or less subtle according to cultural norms. “Emblems” are culturally specific gestures, like a thumbs-up to mean “OK” or “good.” Every culture has its own specific emblems, yet Matsumoto argues that some are becoming near-universal — for example, an up-and-down head nod for “yes.”

It’s not an exact science

Body language can mean different things depending on the context, but law enforcement and business entities often view itas more foolproof than it really is. Police officers may look for body language cues to determine if suspects are lying during interrogations, though some research has found that these cues are not correlated with deceit. Stereotypes about body language (like the aforementioned aversion to eye contact) can also affect court proceedings and verdicts. In companies, hiring managers may look for body language cues to choose job candidates based on their perceived honesty or attitude. These scenarios can end up with a person being unfairly judged based on an imperfect reading of body language.

It has torpedoed political candidates

One of the most popular uses of body language is to decode the performances of presidential candidates, especially during debates — and it doesn’t always work out well for the candidates. In 1960, Richard Nixon’s presidential hopes went up in flames when he sweated and fidgeted next to the cool and confident John F. Kennedy during the first televised presidential debate. The debate showed how important body language would become in voters’ perceptions of candidates; every prior debate had been broadcast only on radio.

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