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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.