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Debunking Body Language

Does "body language" deserve its current status as a hot topic? Not really. It’s just another example of useful analysis spun out of control.

By Merrie Spaeth |

Suddenly, body language is a hot topic. TV’s Bill O’Reilly has an expert on the show every week to interpret the body language of people in the news. A Google search shows hundreds of articles claiming that “93 percent of communication is nonverbal.” Is this true? If your arms are hanging at your side, does it mean you’re not interested? If you want to look powerful, should you keep your head movements to a minimum?

I say, false. Bunko. Fraud. Forget it. The body language craze is another example of useful analysis spun out of control. Sometimes, it’s true, body language does communicate. The morning after the last Pennsylvania debate between presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Obama was asked about Clinton’s repeated criticisms. He gave an exaggerated brush of imaginary lint off his shoulders. Message: he’s shrugging it off.

Culture commentators are quick to point out that certain gestures in one country, such as a “V” for victory sign, are offensive in others. One article says the way to order a second beer in Austria or Germany is to make your hand into a gun. This came as news to my German and Austrian friends.

Much of the research on body language turns out to have been done on graduate students or males. For example, one teaching manual, under the heading “Four Basic Modes of Body Language in the Work Environment,” lists “eager” as “open legs, feet under chair, learning forward.” While I realize pants have become ubiquitous, many women still wear skirts, and no woman in a skirt would sit with “open legs, feet under chair.”

One of the most prominent and often-quoted researchers is Paul Ekman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at San Francisco. But his serious work was done for another purpose entirely. He has spent four decades studying deception and demeanor, and now advises the Transportation Security Administration on how to SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques) potential terrorists.

Body language indeed can interfere with how a listener or audience hears what you’re saying. But if you don’t have something to say in the first place, where you hold your hands, how you place your feet, or whether to tilt your head won’t help you at all. And here’s a key point: having something to say will overcome most body language transgressions. One of my favorite examples involves Marc Shapiro, former CEO of Texas Commerce Bank and now retired vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase, who was chairing a meeting midway through a difficult restructuring and cost-saving initiative. During this meeting Shapiro, who is over six and a half feet tall, slumps. His hands don’t leave the podium. His eye contact isn’t good. But he takes the time to get the meeting started by setting up the topic and by making clear he’s heard the concerns from areas around the bank. He uses humor and pokes fun at himself. By the time he starts on the actual subject matter, the audience is with him, eager to hear more and willing to participate. Despite “crippling” body language flaws, this meeting is a success.

O’Reilly’s expert, Tonya Reiman, has written a new book titled The Power of Body Language: How to Succeed in Every Business and Social Encounter. It’s a good thing the Federal Trade Commission’s deceptive advertising rules don’t cover book titles. The book is actually much better than the title, although it’s filled with comments like: “When you place your hands on your hips, you’re like a peacock, spreading your feathers so you can make yourself larger.”

Most CEOs know they need to be careful not to give off the wrong signals. You cannot look bored at the employee meeting, even if you were up until 2 a.m. wrangling with lawyers. But the most sympathetic face and forward-leaning shoulders will not help if your message is that employee benefits are going to be cut, and you can’t explain convincingly why the workers have a vested interest in the company’s long-term survival. While Groucho Marx may have said, “Sincerity is key, and once you learn to fake it, you’re in,” audiences today quickly detect insincerity.

I’ll grant the proponents of the importance of nonverbal communication that a smile is the universal indication of welcome and friendship. When you turn to a person or recognize someone, remind yourself, “I like this person,” or, “I want to be here.” For almost everyone, this self-cue triggers an uplift of the face and lips. And with today’s camera-equipped cellphones, you may actually be on “candid camera.” Making sure you have a pleasant expression, or smile, may turn out to be a real survival technique.

Merrie Spaeth is one of the country’s leading communications strategists. After serving as President Ronald Reagan’s director of media relations, she founded Dallas-based Spaeth Communications in 1987. She is also a lecturer at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business.

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