Kinesics: The exciting science of body language


What your gestures say about you

By Chitwan Khosla, Features Editor

Kinesics is an exciting yet complicated science of behavioural patterns in non-verbal communication. To understand the body movements and signs, experts need to take into consideration cultural and environmental differences. Anyone who is unfamiliar with the cultural nuances of the body language has every chance to misinterpret what they see.

We convey more messages, consciously or subconsciously, through our body than with our words. In fact, we convey more than 60 per cent of our thoughts during any conversation through body movements and very little, sometimes less than 20 per cent, through verbal communication.

Dr. Ray Birdwhistell, the founder and father of kinesics, in his manual An Introduction to Kinesics,tried to put together an annotation system for body language. He attempted to break all the body movements into their basics, giving them symbols. The system is based on the assumption that every body movement has a meaning and none are accidental. Separating the significant from the insignificant gestures, the meaningful from the totally random ones, or the conscious from the unconscious are important factors to be considered in interpretation of body language. Starting with the eyes, as they are the most powerful and expressive source of communication in body language, Birdwhistell chose simple symbols such as a diamond for an open eye and a line for a closed one. Combinations of these symbols were used to interpret body language.

Eyes can transmit subtle hints, and the most important technique of eye management is the look or the stare. Over a period of time, researchers revealed some interesting facts about “stares.” When people speak a lot they look at their listener very little, and when they listen they look at the speaker a lot. When people start to speak they look away from their partners at first. There is a subtle pattern in speaking, listening, looking, and looking away. When someone looks away while speaking, it generally means they are still explaining themselves and don’t want to be interrupted. A locking of the gaze in such situation is a point to interrupt. If they give a pause but don’t look directly into the eyes of the listener, this means they are not finished yet or looking for a response. This is mostly observed during an interview when 27 to 92 per cent of the time people look away from their interviewer.

Sometimes during a semi-formal conversation if you look away and to the sides without turning your head, it may mean, “I am not certain about what am I saying.” If while listening you suddenly look straight into the eyes of the speaker, you are indirectly saying, “I agree with you and I am listening to you carefully.” When you look away with your head slanting in the direction you are looking, you convey to your speaker, “I do not want you to know my feelings and I am not very interested in this conversation.” It is particularly true when the speaker is critical or insulting—this is why kids often look away when you scold them.

Staring is a strong signal if we wish to treat someone with a contempt or ignore them. It can make or break a person by giving them human or non-human status. Generally we don’t stare at human beings and stares are reserved for non-human things only. We stare at a piece of art, a painting, a sculpture, scenery, and at the animals in the zoo, but we don’t stare at humans if we want to extend a human treatment toward them. Criminal investigators stare at suspects because they look at them as subjects for evidence and information—not humans. They add human character to the people only after talking to them.

Staring at strangers like this should be avoided in order to acknowledge their humanity, yet we must not ignore them. Look at the unfamiliar faces long enough only to make it clear that we see them and then immediately look away. This way we convey with our body language, “I know you are there but I would not intrude on your privacy.” If you pass someone in the street you might eye the oncoming person until you are about eight feet apart. Then you must look away, each looking briefly in the direction you are walking. Such brief daily encounters signal that we are not afraid of the people who walk with us on the streets. This look-and-look-away technique is used almost every second we are alive, often unknowingly. Some use it correctly and some don’t.

Marketing companies use the subconscious interpretation of body language that our minds do largely for their benefit. Studies show that the pupils of our eyes become twice as large when we see something pleasant or arousing. This principle is used to test the effect of the TV commercials and their likability. Our gestures of arms and shoulders show our willingness or unwillingness to buy the product. Our finger movements can suggest our interest in knowing more about the product or dissatisfaction from the product if used in past.

The study of these minute human non-verbal movements is a world of its own where we actually know that things are not as deceptive as verbal language. Yes, actions do speak louder than words.