Like any other language, body language consists of words, sentences and punctuation. Each gesture is like a single word and a word may have several different meanings. It is only when you put the word into a sentence with other words that you can fully understand its meaning. Gestures come in ‘sentences’ and invariably tell the truth about a person’s feelings or attitudes. The ‘perceptive’ person is one who can read the nonverbal sentences and accurately match them against the person’s verbal sentences.
Figure 5 shows a common critical evaluation gesture cluster. The main one is the hand-to-face gesture, with the index finger pointing up the cheek while another finger covers the mouth and the thumb supports the chin. Further evidence that this listener is critical of the speaker is seen by the fact that the legs are tightly crossed and the arm crosses the body (defensive) while the head and chin are down (hostility). This non-verbal ‘sentence’ says something like, ‘I don’t like what you are saying and I disagree with you.’ Congruence
If you, as the speaker, were to ask the listener shown in Figure 5 to give his opinion of what you have just said and he said that he disagreed with you, his non-verbal signals would be congruent with his verbal sentences, that is, they would match or be consistent. If, however, he said he was enjoying what you had to say, he would be lying because his words and gestures would be incongruent. Research shows that non-verbal signals carry about five times as much impact as the verbal channel and that, when the two are incongruent, people rely on the non-verbal message; the verbal content may be disregarded.
We often see a high ranking politician standing behind a lectern with his arms tightly folded across his chest (defensive) and chin down (critical or hostile), while telling his audience how receptive and open he is to the ideas of young people. He may attempt to convince the audience of his warm, humane approach while giving short, sharp karate chops to the lectern. Sigmund Freud once noted that while a patient was verbally expressing happiness with her marriage, she was unconsciously slipping her wedding ring on and off her finger. Freud was aware of the significance of this unconscious gesture and was not surprised when marriage problems began to surface.
Observation of gesture clusters and congruence of the verbal and non-verbal channels are the keys to accurate interpretation of body language. Gestures in Context In addition to looking for gesture clusters and congruence of speech and body movement, all gestures should be considered in the context in which they occur. If, for example, someone was sitting at a bus terminal with arms and legs tightly crossed and chin down and it was a chilly winter’s day, it would most likely mean that he or she was cold, not defensive. If, however, the person used the same gestures while you were sitting across a table from him trying to sell him an idea, product or service, they could be correctly interpreted as meaning that the person was negative or defensive about the situation. Throughout this book all gestures will be considered in context and, where possible, gesture clusters will be examined.
Other Factors Affecting Interpretation
A man who has a ‘dead fish’ hand shake is likely to be accused of having a weak character and the chapter on hand shake techniques will explore the reason for this popular theory. But if a man has arthritis in his hands, it is likely that he will use a ‘dead fish’ hand shake to avoid the pain of a strong one. Similarly, artists, musicians, surgeons and those in vocations whose work are delicate and involve use of their hands generally prefer not to shake hands, but, if they are forced to do so, they may use a ‘dead fish’ to protect them. Someone who wears ill-fitting or tight clothing may be unable to use certain
gestures, and this can affect use of body language. This applies...