The popular scientific and self-help publications widely advise us about our body language and what it tells us about our feelings, attitudes, and love. How valid are all these advices?
Subtle facial and bodily movements are often cited as giveaways in today’s media, whether it’s the tabloids or social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube. They claim that our body language says a lot about us, our partner, and our relationships.
Do these pop media messages about body language have any basis in reality or the science of nonverbal communication?
What the Science of Nonverbal Communication Reveals About Body Language
The group of researchers from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and their colleagues from other universities, YALAN J. FRIDLUND, MILES L. PATTERSON, AND CARLOS CRIVELLI, say about several misconceptions about nonverbal communication.
The authors summarize these misconceptions in their recent blog on the Character and Context Blog.
They say that unfortunately, distinguishing between science and pseudoscience can be challenging at times, and it is frequently the latter that garners greater attention and clicks. So, they used their discretion to rectify the situation.
The Concept of “Body Language” Lacks Empirical Evidence and Scientific Support
Are people’s true thoughts and feelings conveyed through their posture, gaze, touch, tone of voice, and faces? There is an entire industry that promotes the notion that “you can see it in their body language,” but “it” can refer to a variety of things, such as whether someone loves or hates us, whether they are potential clients, innocent defendants, or foreign terrorists.
Are there any reliable indicators? If there was true body language, it would function like a language! Words in language have fairly precise meanings. “Lava” refers to molten rock emitted by volcanoes, and “eat” refers to putting food in our mouths. The words can also be combined to form sentences, such as “Aardvarks are quadrupeds.”
However, things are different in the science of nonverbal communication. There aren’t the kinds of precise meanings we see in language outside of gestures like OK signs and extended third fingers. If you ask a friend about the weather outside and she scowls, it could mean one of three things:
- (a) It’s lousy outside;
- (b) It’s so lousy outside that it’s ridiculous to ask; or
- (c) She’s still upset from the argument yesterday and doesn’t want to talk to you, especially about the weather.
Which of these is it? We could look for other nonverbal cues, but the kicker is that we almost always have to use language—real language—to be sure: “Hey, what’s with the face?”
Our Personal Space Is Not Stable Across Time and Situations
It irritates us when people don’t “give us our space.” It’s a comforting notion that we have a secure, insulating personal space that we guard against outsiders, but we constantly violate it! Friends are allowed to be closer than strangers, and children are allowed to be closer than friends. It’s common to want no space at all with romantic partners. In some situations, a near approach can be intimate, but in others, it can be sexual harassment. You love being close to your children, but you’re also content to have them out of sight for a while when they misbehave. Furthermore, the boundaries established with other people are influenced by their gaze, posture, body orientation, and facial expressions, as well as their distance from you.
Electronic media makes it clear that emotional closeness does not imply physical closeness. What do you think of two individuals who are having video calls with people who are halfway across the world while seated a short distance apart in a coffee shop? To whom is closer?
Our Faces Do Not Reveal Our Inner Emotions
What about the posters on every preschool wall that show cartoonish faces with words like “Happy,” “Sad,” “Angry,” and “Scared” underneath? Everyone has been taught that certain expressions indicate that the people making them are experiencing specific emotions. But is that correct? Obviously not. It makes a difference whether the big smile is from a child at a birthday party or from a scammer looking for money. A person who approaches you with a tearful pouty face to announce, “My child has cancer,” may make the same face the following week and say, “She doesn’t have cancer after all!”
What do faces do if they don’t generally express inner emotion? If you ask someone, “How was the movie?” and he smiles, it is because of the movie. Faces are usually about things—things you know, things you want, and things you want from others. The “angry” face on the posters signals others to confess or leave; the “sad” face receives sympathy and hugs; and the “scared” face declares, “I give up.” People in different societies make different faces in ways that are very different from the preschool posters.
People’s Bodies and Faces Cannot Reveal Whether or Not They Are Lying
We’ve heard the expression “the body never lies”? That, of course, is a lie, but one reason people cling to it is that the truth about lies makes them feel so vulnerable. There are no telltale nonverbal signs of lying, as non-verbal communication research has demonstrated for decades. People may fidget, blink more or less, avert their gaze, twitch their lips or noses, stammer, and make fleeting facial “microexpressions,” but these are all symptoms of stress, not deception. People may exhibit these symptoms while lying, but it is not because of it.
And, contrary to popular belief, guilty people are often less stressed than innocent people. A habitual liar may be far less concerned about being accused again. Innocent people may experience overwhelming stress not because they are lying but because they are afraid of being wrongfully accused of it, resent the fact that they are suspected of it, or are simply nervous about being confronted with it.
In Real Life, Context and Culture Matter
So, what does nonverbal behavior indicate? It depends, as we hope we’ve made clear. You can only understand people’s nonverbal behavior if you know who the interactants are, where they are, what they’re saying to each other, and what culture they come from. When people succumb to the simplistic pseudoscience of “body language,” the stakes are high—in relationships, in the boardroom and courtroom, and in international affairs.
So, the reality of nonverbal communication is not so easy. It is more complex. It depends on the content, context, and culture in which people communicate their emotions and relationships.