Don’t be afraid to let your body talk

One of the first things I noticed when I came to the University is the sheer number of face-to-face encounters facing students each day. Each interaction is a chance to learn better techniques in interpersonal relations.
When walking down any of the University’s crowded streets, each party must choose whether to acknowledge the other person and for how long to maintain eye contact.
Often called the most potent tool of communication, the eyes are used for a variety of purposes, including searching for information, showing attention, inviting interaction, revealing attitudes and even dominating or controlling another person. Because the eyes carry so much information, mistakes in eye-contact timing and expression can be disastrous.
“Eye contact maintained for even a fraction of a second longer than the individual looked at considers appropriate can even lead to a reaction of physical aggression or, in another context, be taken as an indication of sexual attraction,” writes Gordon Wainwright, a body language researcher.
Research has shown the first five minutes are very important for building a relationship. Later behavior will then be judged, not objectively, but based on those first impressions.
Julius Fast indicates in “Body Language” that when two people encounter each other in public, they are faced with the choice between acknowledging the other, which could lead to boring conversation, or avoiding eye contact altogether.
When two strangers do accidentally catch each other’s eyes, Fast writes, they both “look away, as if to say, ‘I am sorry we have looked, but we both know it was an accident.'”
Another technique is dubbed the “look-and-away,” which is often used to show the other person we don’t mean to stare. Researchers have found decreased eye-contact time when people look at those with disabilities, people of color and others. Unfortunately, although this avoids staring, it probably also avoids meeting that person.
Interestingly, this technique is also used when dealing with children, wait staff and others in the service industry. Fast says that this could help keep things running smoothly, for it would be time consuming to grant waiters, for instance, the same amount of social acknowledgment we give to a friend.
The eyes can also show interest, by dilating, which, incidentally, is also more attractive for the recipient of the gaze. When in doubt, Wainwright says, look directly at the other person, and they will see it as a sign of honesty.
“On most occasions, a direct, open gaze is preferable to any hint of avoidance of eye contact or a tendency to look quickly from one thing to another,” Wainwright wrote.
But the eyes are only one of a number of nonverbal communication tools that are present whether the sender is aware of them or not. Thus, people can improve their communication skills and ensure that they send the message they want by studying body language skills.
Charles Darwin is credited with the first Western book on reading expressions. In 1872, he wrote, “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” This research helped him tie together the theory of evolution by comparing similar emotive traits in several species.
As part of his research, Darwin sent questions to more than 30 colleagues from around the world. He asked if people in each region showed similar traits for certain emotions. Based on his work, psychologists now recognize several “human universals,” which include smiling and the raising of eyebrows to indicate recognition.
The six major facial expressions are: happy, sad, disgusted, angry, afraid and interested. Some of them have a physical reason for their evolution, like the wrinkling of the nose, which shuts out a disgusting odor.
Clues to people’s attitudes and personalities can also be gleaned from their gestures and movements. This area of study, called kinesics, analyzes shoulder-shrugging, temple-scratching and nervous foot-tapping. Being conscious of movements in others and oneself is the first step toward a better understanding of these nonverbal messages, which can often be ambiguous.
For example, a slouch in a chair could show exhaustion, but a more exaggerated slouch could demonstrate a total lack of respect for authority. And those who dislike each other might lean forward less when conversing, or they might cross their legs and their arms in a closed posture, physically shutting out the other person.
Another area of study is proxemics, which focuses on the use of space in communication. Most of us have had an experience in which a person stood too close to us. In other cultures, of course, there are differing values concerning the proximity of conversation.
Timing in conversation is also quite important. At the end of one speaker’s idea, he or she will slow down, make more physical gestures, and perhaps indicate with an open hand the willingness to pass the torch. The listener also has a role in capturing some speaking time.
During a conversation, good listeners match body movements with the speaker, give one or two nods to indicate their understanding and move to the next point. When the listener wishes to speak, he will begin shifting, making more individual body movements and perhaps nod quickly three times, which means, “Hurry up; I understand and have something to say.”
At this point, if the speaker wants to continue talking, he can raise his voice or keep a hand gesture going to indicate his desire to continue.
The volume of speech, along with its tone, pitch, voice quality and delivery rate are all characteristics included in the area called paralinguistics.
Those who have trouble with delivery of speech face confusion in their relations with people, as these nonverbal clues actually pass more information than the words. In fact, current research shows that 55 percent of information and understanding is delivered through facial expressions, 38 percent by other nonverbal aspects of speech and only 7 percent by the actual words.
An interested listener mirrors the movements and expressions of the speaker, showing his empathy for how the speaker is feeling and through expressions that indicate he understands the context and meaning of what the speaker says.
Greetings and goodbyes are quite difficult to master, and each has a certain ritual to perform. I have found my skills in these, as well as other areas of emotional intelligence and interpersonal communications, improving with practice and evaluation.
In romantic encounters, it is often difficult to strike up a conversation. Using body signals, the players can avoid an unpleasant situation.
For example, a man and woman see each other across the dance floor. After several glances, they lock eyes and face a critical decision. When the man smiles, the ice is broken, and the woman smiles back. Now, with just a glance, he can ask her to dance. A nod signals “yes.” Then he can go over and lead her onto the floor.
As Wainwright writes, “With hardly a word before success was assured, he has surmounted the biggest barrier in human communication: the invitation to interact in the initial encounter.”
There is good reason to smile, keep your chin up and throw your shoulders back. You will probably find your spirits rising with your improved posture and your attitude brightening with your smile. Then your face will portray someone to whom people want to talk, and this will probably make you happier and improve your appearance in a positive feedback loop.
As Confucius once said, “A child can do nothing about his face, but an adult is responsible for his own appearance.”
The facial record of your emotions can show prospective friends or lovers your personality. Could this be the reason people fall in “love at first sight?” Perhaps.
Good luck out there, and please, quit staring at the ground.

Brian Close’s column appears on Thursdays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]