Five body language myths you need to stop believing

The Body Language Trap

We like to think that we can tell a lot about someone’ s nature, intentions, meaning or state of mind from their body language.  And lots of TV shows, especially detective programmes, perpetuate this idea.  But is it really that simple? Here are five common myths:

  • 93% of communication is via body language.  You will often hear figures like these, especially on training courses about public speaking:

Your words 7%

Your tone of voice 38%

Your body language 55%.

They are taken from a study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, and are not true. Or at least not in the way they are presented.  This is what he had to say about it:

‘I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise. (31 October 2002)’

He couldn’t be clearer, could he? But you still hear this wrong interpretation of his work trotted out all the time, and it’s very misleading.

  • If someone doesn’t look you in the eye, they’re shifty or they’re lying.  Probably not. People don’t look you in the eye for lots of reasons – they may be naturally submissive or wishing to show respect.  They may have cultural reasons for not looking you straight in the eye. Or they may just be nervous.  Practised liars are perfectly capable of looking you right in the eye and lying to your face.  Has that never happened to you? Don’t be fooled by the open direct look.
  • Other habits are also often thought to be signs of deceit – touching the face or neck while speaking, wringing hands.  They’re far more likely to be signs of stress.
  • While you’re speaking, someone in your audience is sitting with their arms folded. Are they closed to what you’re saying? Do they disagree with you? Probably not. Again, people cross their arms for lots of reasons, it’s calming, soothing, and it’s definitely comfortable.  It can also project power (especially when standing), or the person may just be cold! Don’t read too much into it, unless there are other signs to indicate that your words aren’t hitting home.
  • The famous ‘power pose’ will let you dominate the room because it triggers the release of testosterone. This is based on one small study.  No one has replicated the results and it’s been rather discredited.  Still, standing that way helps with breathing and confidence. So, if you’re nervous about standing up and speaking, just power pose your way through it. But check it out in the mirror first – you don’t want to end up looking like this:

Do these myths mean that body language is no help in figuring out how someone is really feeling and what they’re thinking? Not at all, when applied by experts, it can give a great deal of insight. But if you think that you with just a quick glance at someone, you can understand their innermost thoughts and motives, then read my lips – ‘No, you can’t’.

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