Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 19;   May 12, 2004: Hot and Cold Running People

Hot and Cold Running People

by

Do you consider yourself a body linguist? Can you tell what people are thinking just by looking at gestures and postures? Think again. Body language is much more complex and ambiguous than many would have us believe.

Spoken language is confusing. We have words that sound alike but mean different things; we have different words that mean the same thing; and we have pauses and tones that can negate the meaning of any string of words. Still, somehow, we do tend to catch the meaning enough of the time to keep our families and relationships — and many of our major corporations — humming along. Though there is some doubt about Congress.

As confusing as spoken language is, body language is even more confusing. Here are some reasons why.

It's non-linear
Hot and cold faucetsSpoken language is largely linear. It has at least a partial time ordering, and the order greatly simplifies message extraction. By contrast, we execute the gestures and postures of body language in parallel, using different parts of our bodies and faces.
We can't turn it off
We can stop speaking, but we can't stop body language. We're always in some kind of posture. We're always sending signals, but the signals don't always mean anything.
There is no OBD (Oxford Body-language Dictionary)
Body language can be
even more confusing
than spoken language.
Interpret body language
with care.
Although spoken language has dialects and accents, the words mean more or less the same thing to anyone speaking a given language. But we learn our body language from those who rear us, and beyond the universal basics, we have no idea what our gestures and postures might mean to the outside world.
It's out of our awareness
Even when we try to control it, or try to read it in others, we miss a lot. We have a recurring experience of suddenly realizing that we're gesturing a certain way, or that we've adopted a certain pose. And the gestures and postures of others trigger responses within us before we become aware of them.
The meanings of the "words" are very dependent on context
Some people run cold; others run hot. Someone with arms and legs crossed might just be cold, not "closed off." Someone with flushed face and brow glistening with beads of sweat might just be hot, not "nervous." You can't tell by looking. Any one indicator just isn't enough information to make a meaning we can rely on.

Even when we've learned to read a little body language, we often see contradictions. Without realizing it, we sometimes reject contradictory interpretations, and settle on one meaning — often the one we want to see. We reach conclusions with more certainty than accuracy.

Controlling our own body language is no simpler. Trying to convey confidence and openness, a typical result is rigidity of posture and flatness of facial expression, which conveys rigidity and control, not openness or confidence. To convey how you want to feel, focus on feeling it. Your body will figure out how to tell everyone else about it. Go to top Top  Next issue: Give It Your All  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Prof. Tom PettigrewComing February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.

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