Interpreting Body Language & Facial Expressions Like On TV
This is a continuation from my previous post, which is a response to my colleague Kare Anderson’s blog entry on body language. My concern with these kinds of lists is that the indicators they highlight can mean other things. Observing and hallucinating on their meaning may take a person out of authentic connection mode and into a mode of behavior that is offputting and unpleasant to be around. What kind of non verbal messages might that send?
So using the same list from her blog (and my previous post), I asked myself the question, “What else could it mean?” Here’s just a little of what I came up with:
- Sweating: Might indicate an increase in some emotional feeling. But it might also indicate the person dressed too warmly, or has a kidney or other physiological problem, or that raced to get to the meeting and outpaced their ability to adapt to moving that fast.
- Blinking more: Might indicate an increase in some emotional feeling. Or, might indicate trouble with contact lens, or something in the eye, or dry eye syndrome (quite common actually)
- Dilated pupils: Often indicates arousal or fear. Or hangover. Or drugs in the system (including legal pharmaceuticals – all too common these days, sorry to say)
- Blushing: Might signal embarrassment, shame, anger, or guilt. Or excitement. Or a niacin rush (it’s happened to me!)
- Talking louder and faster: Usually signals anger, fear, or other excitement. Or, might mean they are hard of hearing, or had too much caffeine (all too common!) or a sugar rush from the sweet roll they had with their caffeine.
- Talking slower and softer: Might signal sadness or boredom.
- Or it might mean that they are a slow talker, or have a soft voice. Or that they are thinking about what they are trying to say and want to get it just right. Or don’t want to be overheard. Or are unsure of the other person’s language skills.
- Body gesturing: Signals a negative emotion, usually fear or anger. Or could mean that they are magnanimous, or occupy a lot of space, or want to emphasize a point. Or that they modeled the behavior from their parents and have been doing this since they were very small.
- Breathing fast and shallow: Indicates the presence of emotion. Or poor breath control from a lack of exercise. Or the presence of pharmaeuticals in the body. Or just a bad habit. I’m amazed at how generalized stress is with so many people these days. This shows up in breathing patterns.
I could go on because I’m in a brainstorming mode, but the point I’m making is that reading body language may be a lot less valuable than other communication activities, like observing, blending and listening before talking! Worse, they may lead to a case of self fulfilling prophecy.
You know how that works, if you’ve ever had this experience. Someone asks you, “Are you mad at me?” and you say, “No, I’m not mad at you.” And you’re not. You’re thinking about something else, or concentrating really hard, or having abdominal discomfort. But they don’t know that, and they press ahead with the same line of thought. “Yes, you are, I can tell by that look on your face.” And you say, “No, I’m not, really.” And they say, “Yes, you are, what are you mad at me about?” And you angrily yell back, “Hey, I AM NOT MAD AT YOU!” That’s an exercise in self fulfilling prophecy for the one of you, and in frustration for the other of you.
Recently, I was mourning the loss of my Mom and this was going on in the background of every conversation I had with people. Pour coffee in my system and I become exaggerated emotionally. Stick needles (acupuncture) in me and I become sedate.
Have you ever had something going on and had someone misinterpret it? How did they approach you about it? How did you respond? I’ll be back in my next post with a conclusion to this series on reading facial expressions and body language. Until then, and long after, your comments are welcome. That’s no lie!
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.