It’s not all wink, wink, nudge, nudge
Watch TV detective shows and body language often features. Our hero often reflects on something about the way the suspect talked or acted that doesn’t quite match the content of what was said.
Most of us use such cues in our communication with others. We listen with our eyes as well as our ears and sometimes with our heart. We get a “gut level feeling” about what is being communicated. Do we think it’s true? Perhaps there might be other issues underlying what we’re being told?
We all become subconsciously aware of tone in another’s voice, pauses, little flicks of the eyes, body movements associated with key words, avoidance, shuffling and so on.
In fact, research tells us that we pick up around 4-5000 such cues each second – most of which aren’t things we can label then and there or that we’re consciously aware at the time, but they’re things we can recall later on.
Obviously, there will be times when we stuff up body language interpretations and attach meanings that weren’t intended.
For instance, an acquaintance recalled his uneasiness some years ago with someone who kept winking at him at certain points in their conversation.
It went something like this: “I don’t have any partner at present (wink!). Wish I did (wink!). It’s not easy living by yourself (wink!), going home to bed alone (wink!)….
This really threw him. He thought: “Whoa. What’s happening here?”
As the conversation wore on, it gradually dawned on him that the repeated wink was nothing more than an involuntary tic. The person couldn’t help it, and therefore nothing covert was meant. This chap could have really messed up things by misinterpreting what turned out to be someone’s innocent action.
Sometimes, you can also be really thrown in other ways – for example, when visual cues are so overwhelming they distract you.
For instance, a couple interview proved a total disaster for one man.
The woman was extremely cross-eyed, so that as the fellow looked into her face, his eyes felt like they were going the same way.
Trouble was, he didn’t get any respite by switching gaze to the male partner, because that person also unfortunately had a different disability in that his eyes turned outwards as much as hers turned inwards.
The net result was that this chap didn’t know who was looking at whom because their eyes seemed to be looking everywhere. (Often, you follow another’s gaze.)
In the end, he only ever knew that someone’s eye must have been looking at him when the conversation stalled and therefore that person must have directed something specifically at him.
His replies typically turned out to be mostly irrelevant as it turned out because he hadn’t been able to follow who’d been talking with whom in the first place.
Obviously then, focusing too much on others’ body language can distract or mislead just as much as deliberately misconstrued phony content can. The best idea is to hold everything as possibilities until substantiated or disproved.