First off, a disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m talking about; I’m completely discrediting myself. I did, however, watch a tv series called Lie to Me that was on for three seasons starting in 2009. It was a really good show, and I recommend you go watch it (it’s available on Hulu, if you’re into that sort of thing)*. From that series, I learned about things called “microexpressions,” which are a type of facial body language. Ever since then, my curiosity has been piqued when it comes to body language and its intricacies. It would seem that what we’re not saying can be just as important as what we are saying, and we can actually give ourselves away with our body language. It’s fascinating stuff.
He’s fascinated. (Roll with me here. It’s been a long week.)
So for the sake of this blog, I did some digging on microexpressions and body language at large so we could learn together about this body of research (ba-dum-tss).
First, microexpressions. These are short, involuntary facial expressions that are difficult to fake. Short, as in 1/15 to 1/25 of a second. To put that in perspective, we blink in 1/10 of a second. So to say these are short is a bit of an understatement.
Okay, not that fast, but you get the idea.
Dr. Paul Eckman did a lot of research on microexpressions – actually it was his work that the show Lie to Me was based on. His work uncovered that facial expressions are universal. It doesn’t matter who you are in the world, the seven primary expressions – disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt – are the same no matter what continent you’re on. Here’s a great video explaining in full detail what these microexpressions look like. Microexpressions – which a person can train themselves to read – can reveal a great deal about the subject. Most importantly for practical applications, reading microexpressions can be used to spot a liar. You can read more about microexpressions here.
Body language (If you don’t have Queen stuck in your head by now, we can’t be friends) speaks to the larger science of reading as a whole. This is something you *can* control. You’re really sending messages to others with your body, whether you realize it or not. This is important because sometimes it really matters what kind of message you’re sending out, like in an interview, or on a date, or anytime you want to leave a positive impression.
First of all, gestures – the motions people make with their hands while talking – are meaningless. So we can strike those from the conversation. Secondly, none of this is definitive. For instance, crossing your arms can mean that you’re in a defensive position, or it can mean that you’re cold. Or it can mean both. With interpretation of body language, it’s important to see the conversation or situation as a whole, rather than look at the individual pieces. Here are some notable emotions that our bodies portray:
The shoulder shrug – says I don’t know what’s going on
This kitten knows what’s up, though.
Pointed finger – an attempt at displaying dominance (you’ll notice it doesn’t feel great to be at the receiving end of a pointed finger, especially as an adult)
Don’t you point that thing at me!
Raised eyebrows – a sign of discomfort
Intense eye contact – they might be lying
It’s. Looking. At. Me.
Crossed legs (while sitting) – can be a sign of resistance and low receptivity
Repeatedly touch face or hands – nervous
Yep. Just like that.
Shaky leg – shaky inner state
Clenched jaw, tightened neck, or furrowed brow – stress
Mirror your body language – your conversation is probably going well
Lack of wrinkles around the eyes while smiling – fake smile
There are a lot more really interesting, more nuanced sets of body language. For instance, a “cluster” of movements like a woman making eye contact, looking down, playing with her hair, then looking back up with her chin tipped can be a clear sign of interest.
Also, there is some very interesting research that body language can also have the opposite effect. If we intentionally make specific movements with our bodies, it can change our thinking. Here’s a link to a TED Talk I used to show to all of the communications classes I taught because I felt like it really unlocked some powerful tools for us.
All of this to say that there’s a lot of research out there that shows we’re saying a lot more than our words let on. Add some knowledge of body language to our personal bank, with a dash of salt, and I think we’re a lot closer to understanding each other and ourselves (*saves world*).
*The opinions presented on this blog are the author’s own. Phoenix Rising does not promote or condone any television show or possible violence, profanity, or triggering events that may occur on such show.