Body speaks

Scores of articles and books have been written about decoding body language. Advocates and specialists in this field claim that they could almost precisely match different movements, postures, gestures and facial expressions with actual psychological states of individuals at any given time. Their strong arguments for this precision influence the general public to attempt to understand others through a series of diagnostic-analysis aimed at matching what they see with what they think others are like.

Examples

For instance, body language experts say that when somebody displays brisk, erect style of walking, the individual is confident. When someone sits with legs crossed and foot kicking slightly, he is showing boredom. When someone crosses his arms on chest, he is displaying defensiveness. Touching, slightly rubbing nose indicates rejection, doubt and lying. Tilted head is indicative of interest in a person or subject. Biting nails indicates insecurity and nervousness.

Caution

While popularly accepted as useful in variety of settings, body language and its interpretation should be treated with caution at school and home. Before generalizing and applying what one reads about body language, it is appropriate to consider the following characteristics of body language to avert the irresponsible interpretation of the same.

Origin

Body language was popularized during the 20th century, at a time when efficiency defined success in industries. People were pre-occupied with doing as much as possible in as little time. Driven to saving time and increasing productivity, people took a shortcut in everything including their approaches to understanding people.

In a typical fast-paced industrial setting, a manager does not take too much time to determine who he wants as a line-supervisor. He relies on what he knows about body language and interprets candidates’ behaviors by the book. He does not spend time going through an elaborate process of truly understanding someone before appointing him or her.

It was behind this backdrop that body language became a popular topic along with concepts like time management and personal development in the 20th century.

Characteristics

The existing store of knowledge in the field of body language is not completely empirical. As such, there are rooms for relativity and subjectivity. The general population must remember that this is the underpinning truth about all psychological discoveries. Judgment about people’s psychological experiences should be reserved until the time when one has a complete picture of what is really happening.

Additionally, body language experts recognize that it is partly instinctual, partly learned. If this is so, body language could change without any warning. Matching it with specific interpretation could be misleading. It is highly possible that we may not be able to completely understand the unique meaning behind such instinctually driven behavioral nuances to the extent of making universal generalizations.

This is supported by the fact that body language is a subconscious reflection of an individual’s mental-emotional condition. It carries a myriad of conflicting meanings that are unique to individuals, their experiences and the context of such happenings.

Every individual reacts or behaves differently in different situations, under diverse mental-emotional conditions. In such cases, body language has to be interpreted within the framework of the context in which it is taking place. However, the context may not always be clear. Interpretation in this case would be difficult, if not misleading. On top of this, body language could reflect conflicting emotions or a progression of emotions. In all such cases the conventional diagnose-and-match method would not work.

Implication

Affective teaching and parenting require us to spend quality time with the younger generation to understand them better, instead of relying on literature about body language and generalizations about people and what they are like. Taking shortcuts may have worked in factories, but it would lead to utter failure if applied inconsiderately at school and home.

Stop labeling!

An age-old inspirational words of wisdom reads, “Don’t expect clean water from a well that was just dug up. It takes time for the dirt to settle before one could enjoy the freshness of clean water.”

Teachers and parents are always confronted with situations that require them to decide on whether or not a child or student needs to be assisted right away or given more time before he/she displays behaviors and attitudes that comply with the norm. In a typical school setting, non-compliance with status-quo (or norm) is shunned and almost immediately labeled.

Quick solution

Having worked with teachers and school counselors, I recognize such eagerness on an adult’s part to engage in systematic diagnosis and labeling of a child. Usually, adults in the helping profession such as teaching and counseling do not delay or reserve their judgment for a later time when it comes to dealing with perceived behavior, academic or social-emotional differences.

In close examination, I realize that adults do so to reduce the stress involved in constantly dealing with out-of-norm experiences of students. In other words, dealing with an “unknown” (or not-yet-labeled) out-of-norm behavior, performance and emotion of a child is more stressful and frustrating than dealing with a tentatively known or labeled condition.

In such cases an adult feels less apprehensive about a child’s condition and hence is more comfortable to deal with the crisis at hand. As erroneous as this sound, adults are able to discount their roles and responsibilities for the out-of-norm experience of a child when he/she is labeled as having significantly different experiences from his/her peers.

Believing that a child has an inherently imposed condition which adversely affects his/her academics allows teachers and parents to excuse themselves for failing to remedy the condition and/or situation. This allows them not to be too harsh on themselves. In this sense, labeling is and has been used for the convenience of adults more than to help any child to improve and develop holistically.

Rationale

There are many arguments against labeling children at school, home or even outside of the learning context. Two arguments deserve our immediate attention!

When we label someone, our sight, foresight and insight about that person become notably limited. For example, when we label someone as hyperactive, we look at the person from a narrow point of view and we expect him to behave in ways that typically characterizes a hyperactive individual. We do not care to pause and think of that person as being an individual with different talents, preferences, aspirations and strengths. All we choose to see is the features represented by the label itself.

The moment we label someone, we fail to see anything beyond that label. We deliberately close ourselves from exploring everything else about the individual. In the process of doing so, we miss all the more important and meaningful information that makes up the person’s true identity, experiences and potential.

Labeling creates a barrier in the minds of adults dealing with children/students. And most often, these barriers exist only in the mind of an adult (teachers and parents) and may not be present in the child’s mind. This explains why sometimes children unexpectedly surprise us with their tremendous capacity to create, innovate and problem-solve, especially when our biased expectations dictated otherwise.

Taking right action

Professionals argue that labeling is important to facilitate efficient communication among themselves in an effort to assist an affected child. At the same time, they also acknowledge the ill-effects of labeling. My personal take on this would be to stop labeling because the damage it causes outweighs the proposed benefit, added to the fact the so-called benefit is more for the convenience of adults rather than helping children/students.