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Body Language

Page history last edited by Jeff Martinek 8 years, 8 months ago


The King of Body Language


"For as your majesty saith most aptly and elegantly, “As the tongue speaketh to the ear so the gesture speaketh to the eye.”

~ King James the First



The gestures, movements, and mannerisms by which a person or animal communicates with others. [1]  



Body language is the most basic, fundamental form of expressing emotions used by humans to communicate with one another. At the same time, body language is culture specific and considered highly sophisticated.  Every culture has its own set of coded signals which play bodily and facial movement play just as significant to communication as does its verbal counterpart.[2]  Many scientists consider the concept of body language as such a broad statement which covers most everything in the realms of Kinesics.  "Kinesics is defined as a systemic study of the relationship between nonlinguistic body motions (as blushes, shrugs, or eye movement) and communication."[3]


Body language can be intentional or unintentional and is considered to be a more powerful commumicator than words. It can be something as simple as touching ones hand during a conversation or an eyebrow raise. It is commonly described as 'talking with your hands'. Understanding non-verbal communication is very important when trying to decipher what message or signal the sender is trying to transmit.  For instance, if someone is looking away from you during a conversation or trying to avoid eye contact that may indicate that they are not interested or they are not telling the truth. 


Expressions like waving, slouching, touching and pointing are all forms of nonverbal communication body language. Unconscious gestures are movements made unintentionally such as: an eye rub, blinking, nose itch, crossing arms, ear or head scratching and chin resting.  These unconscious gestures have been found to convey most important information in stipulated context. Body language reveals the feeling and also inner meanings of the content or message put forward to others. There has been extensive research conducted on body language to help people control unintended expressions in order to make them successful in all aspects.[11] 


Body language accounts for almost 70 percent of communication, and you can almost always tell what a person really means by paying attention to body language cues. You can use these cues to decipher anything, from someone lacking confidence to a person being nervous around you, despite what their words may say. [6]


It is assumed that body language has been observed since the creation of animals and human life but not identified as a form of communication until thousands of years later .  However, the fascination with body lanuage among scientists did not present itself much before the early 1600's with Francis Bacon, a British statesman and philosopher who is said to be the father of experimental science being one of the first to conduct experiments and studies on emotion and expressions.  Charles Darwin is a notable pioneer in the research and study of body language.  Darwin reviewed the work of Bacon, and continued researching, conducting studies, experiments and proving theories.


Body language is seen everyday and is used everywhere, from small children to businessmen. When someone of power uses their posture to "look down on" people of lower power it is an example of body language. A study was performed in a Columbia University lab, by researchers where they put a person in a slung over posture and directed to spit into a straw, then the same person was put into a power posture pose and directed to spit into another straw. The results were then sent off to a lab and the results indicated that people who were in the power posture pose had higher levels of cortisol and testosterone. Posture has a way of speaking for you without you having to say a word. It just shows that the way one presents themselves through something as simple as the way they stand, it provides them with more confidence and a feeling of authority. 


Body language is introduced at a very young age and continues to be developed throughout life.  In the classroom, teachers unconsciously express nonverbal communication to their students by eye contact, gestures and touching. Children absorb everything they see and when their teacher, who sees them about seven hours a day, communicates with them through nonverbal communication children imitate what they have seen the teacher do with gestures. Teachers need to watch what they say to children nonverbally and learn to teach them that way.[7]


The study of body language is a more modern field of study.  It has caught the attention of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, behaviorists and many more.  Bookshelves are full of books on how to read body language, how to tell when a person is lying, what body language really means and so on.  People have built their entire careers on developing strategies to interpreting body language.  The world wide web is host to thousands of videos and websites that claim to teach you how to read body language.  Some people use it as a form of entertainment through people watching, even going further by making people watching a career.  An example is the book Peoplewatching.  It is described as "Peoplewatching is the culmination of a career of watching people – their behaviour and habits, their personalities and their quirks. Desmond Morris shows us how people, consciously and unconsciously, signal their attitudes, desires and innermost feelings with their bodies and actions, often more powerfully than with their words." [10] 

Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language

Many argue about the origination of body language.  But, body language is the most primative form of communication that exists.  It is not a language specific to humans, although humans have the capability to perform more meaningful movements and gestures due to anatomy; animals use it to.  For instance, two male Elk will take on a powerful stance facing each other, position their bodies in a "fighting" position, flare their nostrils and maybe even circle the other male.  If these gestures and movements (body language) do not detour the other male then a fight for power will follow.  Apes for example pound their chest.  This is a form of body language that communicates meaning amongst their clan.  Animals, like humans, have unintentional body language such as blinking, nose scratch, rubbing the ears and licking their lips.  Before the spoken language, the human species used facial expressions, pointed their fingers, etc.  Yet, body language was not really considered a form of language until people began realizing the impact of body language and that body language in itself held meaning. 

Non-Verbal Dictionary - A resource tool and detailed information on gestures, signs and body language cues ~ By David B. Givens, Ph.D




Flirting and Dating Tips - Body language expert, Craig-James Baxter, discusses body language and its role in attraction in this MP3 auditory interview.





Meaning Behind Specific Body Language 


Open Palms- (when you can see the palms of someones hands) suggests openness, honesty, and a weakness. [2] 

Closed palms - when you see someone who puts their hands in their pockets may symbolize that they are 'closed' and do not want to talk [2]

Arms Crossed over Chest- the is a universal signal meaning that the person does not agree with what is being told to them, or they are uncertain, or that they do not like the circumstances. [2]

Eyebrows- our eyebrows involuntarily go up, people tend to raise our eyebrows when we are surprised or suddenly called to attention [3]

Posture- The way people stand says a lot about them, when someone is hunched over they seem like they are not very interested. Or if a person has a very power posture they put off a very confident look.  

Legs- Crossing ones legs and tapping their leg may show that 





Connection to Media Ecology

The introduction of the television allowed the viewers to acquire a better understanding of what people were talking about through the perception of their body language. For example, prior to the television, during the 'radio era' the listeners only heard a voice.  They could not see the emotion that was linked behind it.  With the television, the viewer is able to see the exact expressions that the person talking portrays during the conversation, every eye roll, eyebrow raise, smile or shoulder shrug. The movie "A Face in the Crowd" is a great example of this.  As a radio voice, Lonesome Rhodes was only a voice; leaving the listener to use their imagination to conclude the true message being relayed.  Later in the movie, Lonesome Rhodes makes his debut on television.  He is very animated, dramatic and uses many forms of body language during his show.  In one clip he comes into a meeting where a meeting of executives are discussing the Vitajex sales.   His character becomes crazy with emotion and dramatic body language.  Through his body language he shows excitement, high sex drive, lust, desire and a whole lot more emotion.  The executives love this and he becomes the spokesperson for Vitajex and sales soar.  Based on his body language, the viewer believes the product works miracles and wants what he has; just by his body language. [12]



The advancement of technology has interfered with face-to-face interaction.  More and more people are communicating through email and text messages.  With this change in society, while body language is still important, it is not visually expressed as often.  Since this change in communication, symbols to express emotions have been created to include in messages.  Some examples are the smiley face =) to signify happiness or ;( to signify unhappy or crying.  As technology evolves so does the form of language.  No matter how advanced technology becomes, body language will still remain one of the most powerful communicators in face-to-face interaction.


Multiple forms of media use body language to express ideas, emotion, thoughts and feelings; even provoking an action by the recipient.  Body language can be seen in movies, photographs and even advertisements.  Each trying to express an emotion or evoke an action without speaking or in conjunction with the spoken word.   Movies are similar to talk shows because they usually use language along with body language but they literally show it to you by having people act it out which makes it easy for everyone to comprehend what is happening. But when looking at a photograph it forces you to think about what the emotions captured in the image are trying to say. It is not as difficult as the radio which provided no image, requiring all forms of imagination whereas a picture provides us with a snapshot of what is happening.  The photography allowed for the first time to freeze a moment in time and really show how people were expressing themselves throught, posture, facial expression and posture.  On television the person is moving and sometimes the message they are trying to express is hidden by the "motion" aspect whereas a photograph can be examined multiple times because it doesnt change.


When looking at the article The Lord of Creation by Susanne Langer, she discusses the use of symbols in comparison to how animals use symbols. When looking at it, body language is a symbol that we use everyday because it expresses how we feel without even talking. If one looks at animals they use their form of body language as well, a tail wag indicating happiness, "puppy dog eyes" indicating sadness or begging, everyone uses body language even animals. [9]



[1]"body language." Merriam-Webster.com.  Merriam-Webster, 2012.  Web.  14 Novermber 2012.


[2]"Body Language : What Hands and Arms Say About People." Personal Development for a Perfect Life. 22 Mar. 2011. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. <http://www.egodevelopment.com/body-language-what-hands-and-arms-say-about-people/>.


[3] Bowers, Kathleen. "The History of Body Language." Plastic Surgery News. 21 Apr. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. <http://www.body-philosophy.net/history_of_body_language>.


[4]  Cloud, John,  "Strike a Pose" Time, 0040781X, 11/29/2010, Vol. 176, Issue 22


[5] COLIN BLAKEMORE and SHELIA JENNETT. "body language." The Oxford Companion to the Body. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. 14 Nov. 2012 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.


[6] Hagy, Chad. "The Importance Of Body Language | Lifescript.com." Women's Health Issues | Women's Health Questions & Answers | Women's Health Articles | Lifescript.com. 22 Aug. 2007. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. <http://www.lifescript.com/Soul/Self/Growth/The_Importance_Of_Body_Language.aspx?gclid=CO6574rQrKgCFYEUKgoduielJA>.


[7]Hansen, Jacqueline. "Teaching Without Talking." Phi Delta Kappan Sep. 2010, Vol. 92 Issue 1, p35-40, 6p


[8]"How to Detect Lies - body language, reactions, speech patterns." Boredom Relief. Learn Something New or Stimulate your Mind with BrainTeasers, Games, Magic Tricks and more.. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. <http://www.blifaloo.com


[9]Langer, Susanne.  “The Lord of Creation.”  Fortune, Vol. 29, No. 1, January 1944


[10]"Peoplewatching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language by Desmond Morris-Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists." Share Book Recommendations With Your Froends, Join Book Clubs, Answer Trivia.N.p.,n.d. Web.28.Apr.2011. <htto://www.goodreads.com/book/show1187815.Peoplewatching


[11]"Using Body Language." Changing minds and persuasion -- How we change what others think, believe, feel and do. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. <http://changingminds.org/techniques.>


[12]Griffith, Andy, Patricia Neal, and Walter Matthau, perf. A Face in the Crowd. Writ. Budd Schulberg. 1957. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1985. CD-ROM.

Comments (3)

Jeff Martinek said

at 7:09 pm on Apr 27, 2011

Anna: This looks like a good start, but I think it needs more fleshing out and completing of the references to be a fully successful article. See my article in General Semantics and Kathy Rodine's article on Motion Pictures for models of the length and depth we are shooting for here.

I do find it curious that you claim under the history section that "There isn't a lot of research when it comes to body language." How did you arrive at that conclusion? Is it possible that you simply did not look the right way or in the right places or that you didn't formulate your research questions in a productive way? I'm surprised to read this because you did propose the subject yourself and I assumed that picked it because you were aware of the resources available.

Jeff Martinek said

at 5:01 pm on Apr 29, 2011

1) A more historical overview---historical in the sense of giving some account of the emergence and evolution and purpose of "body language" amongst humans. In what ways is human "body language" just like what animals (especially higher primates) do? In what ways is it different?

2) More specific citations regarding the important work done by researchers on the topic. You cite a study done in "a Columbia lab," but it's a very vague reference. Who did this study? When? What do you mean by "Columbia"---"Columbia University"? Was it done by a psychologist A cognitive scientist? A behavioral scientist? Does the Desmond Morris book cite names and specifics about important studies/experiments/papers? Have you checked that books bibliography and/or index?

3) For implications for Media Ecology I like what do with TV and really you can go further: film and even photography did a lot to bring back "body language and "the body" into our awareness. I can recall one of the photograph experts in the "Genius of Photography" documentary saying that photography (expecially candid "street scenes"---not posed portraits) showed us, for the first time, in a "frozen" medium what we really looked like when we walked or stood or slouched, etc.

Jeff Martinek said

at 5:02 pm on Apr 29, 2011

Another thing: look back on the articles from Susan Langer and S.I. Hayakawa. Part of the point they are making about human beings as "symbolic animals" is that even our "body language" gets caught up in the game of symbolic activity. The way we walk, the look on our face, gestures, etc. are for human beings subject to the same burning question: "what does that MEAN?" We interpret people's body language and gestures, looking for clues about "what they really mean" or "how they really feel about us", etc. Do other animals do this? If not, what exactly is it that is different in terms our species? There's an old saying about the difference between "a blink and a wink" --- the first one is simply an automatic "animal" reflex of the body. It is not considered to "carry intentional meaning." But a wink is entirely different. If, in other words, we perceive a person to be "winking" at us rather than just "blinking" we suddenly feel like we are being "communicated" with and we are left with the same old problem of language: "what does that MEAN?"

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