Gestures more powerful than words | Sunday Observer

Gestures more powerful than words

27 February, 2022

In order to learn any language you need a teacher. However, there are no teachers to teach body language. You have to learn it by yourself. If you are really interested in learning body language, you have access to a wealth of literature. Even the mere reading of such books may not make you a body language expert. Body language calls for long years of experience in moving with the people and understanding their diverse gestures.

Most of us communicate with one another using words. You can speak to a person or write a letter to him to convey your ideas. However, when we meet someone for the first time, we should be able to understand what type of a person he is. This can only be done using body language.

Sometimes we are not conscious of what we are doing. We gesture with our eyebrows or hands. When we meet a stranger we look at him for a fraction of a second and look away. You may consider such actions as random or incidental. However, researchers have discovered that there is a consistent and comprehensible body language.

One problem connected with body language is that it differs from culture to culture. Children absorb its nuances along with spoken language. For instance, an Englishman will cross his legs while talking. An American is apt to end a statement with a droop of his head or hand. He will also lower his eyelids. Most Americans wind up a question with a lift of the hand, a tilt of the chin or a widening of the eyes. When they use a future-tense verb they often gesture with a forward movement.

Last word

Nobody seems to have spoken the last word on body language because it is still a growing science. However, it is worth knowing non-verbal cues and signals in order to understand how people communicate with each other not using the language. When you master body language you will get a greater insight into communication with your fellow human beings. You will also have a deeper understanding of other people and therefore of yourself. Understanding how it works will make living with it easier, whereas lack of understanding and ignorance will promote fear and superstition and make us more critical of others.

Learning body language is something like bird-watching. In order to become a bird-watcher you do not have to kill them and dissect their bodies. You have only to study how birds behave from a distance. In the same way, the acquisition of knowledge and skills in non-verbal communication serves to make every encounter with another person an exciting experience.

There are regional idioms connected with body language. For instance, raising of eyebrows during conversation will differ depending on your sex, ethnic background, social class and personal style. Some people are bilingual as far as body language is concerned.

New York’s well-known Mayor, Fiorello La Guardia politicked in English, Italian, and Yiddish. When films of his speeches were run without sound, it was not difficult to identify from his gestures the language he was using. One of the reasons Sinhala dubbed foreign films often seem flat is that the gestures do not match the language.

Biological animals

Charlie Chaplin was one of the pioneers of non-verbal communication. He used body language to communicate his feelings effectively. However, when talking films became popular, movie actors like Charlie Chaplin faded into obscurity. We have to accept the fact that we are still biological animals with advanced brains. Biological rules control our actions and gestures. Unfortunately, we are not aware of our postures, movements and gestures.

Let us consider some of the basic actions and gestures we make unconsciously. The shoulder shrug is a universal gesture used to show that you do not know or understand what you are talking about. The shoulder shrug is usually accompanied with exposed palms, hunched shoulders, and raised eyebrows.

Similarly, if everything goes well, you give the ring or OK gesture which is easily understood in English-speaking countries. The thumb up gesture, on the other hand, says, “No worries.” The wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill popularized the ‘V’ for victory sign.

If you are a beginner, you are likely to make mistakes in interpreting gestures. For instance, scratching the head can mean a number of interpretations such as dandruff, fleas, sweating, uncertainty, forgetting or even lying. Therefore you should not interpret a gesture in isolation of other gestures.

You may have seen students with hand-to-face gestures with the index finger pointing up the cheek while another finger covering the mouth and the thumb supporting the chin. Usually, such a listener is critical of the speaker. In other words, he seems to say, “I don’t like what you say.”

Wedding ring

One day I was on a panel to recruit English teachers at a private institute. A pretty little woman who had a stack of diplomas and testimonials said she was happily married and was looking for a part-time job as a teacher. On the surface, she had the right qualifications.

During the interview we noted how she was unconsciously slipping her wedding ring on and off her finger. According to Sigmund Freud, it was a clear gesture of marriage problems.

Body language has something to do with personal space. Most animals have a certain air space around their bodies that they claim as their personal space. Like other animals, man too has his portable air-bubble. Four zones have been identified by behavioural psychologists.

They are: Intimate zone (15-46 cm); Personal zone (46 cm-1.2 m); Social zone (1.2-6m) and Public zone (over 3.6m). Only those who are emotionally close to you are permitted to enter your intimate zone. This includes lovers, parents, spouses, children, close friends and relatives. When we attend a party, we keep to the personal zone. Social zone is meant for strangers. For instance, you do not get very close to workers who come to repair your house. When we attend a seminar or public meeting, we maintain the public zone.

Experts in kinesics – the study of communication through body movement – are not prepared to spell out a precise vocabulary of gestures. For instance, when a student in conversation with his teacher holds the latter’s eyes for a little longer than is usual, it can mean respect and affection. It can also be a subtle challenge to the teacher’s authority. On the other hand, if a young man practises this gesture in the presence of a girl, it can mean that he is interested in building up a romantic relationship.

Eye behaviour

One of the most potent elements in body language is eye behaviour. In our normal conversation, each eye contact lasts only for about a second. If you look searchingly into another person’s eyes, your emotions get heightened and your relationship is tipped towards greater intimacy. Therefore, most women avoid such eye contact with strangers.

The eyes can give clues to a person’s thoughts. We have heard expressions such as “She has big baby eyes; He has shifty eyes; She has inviting eyes;” and “He had that gleam in his eyes.”

An old cliché says, “Look a person in the eyes when you talk to him.” It is only when you see eye to eye that a real basis for communication can be established. When some people look at us, we feel comfortable. However, we feel ill-at-ease with others. When a person’s gaze meets yours for more than two thirds of time, it can mean two things: He or she may find you interesting or appealing. On the other hand, he is hostile towards you and may be issuing a non-verbal challenge.

When you meet a superior person you lower your body a little. Whether you believe it or not, tall people command more authority than short people. The modern salute is a relic of the act of body lowering. The more humble or subordinate an individual feels towards another, the lower he stoops his body. What do you do if a police officer signals you to stop your vehicle? Get out of your vehicle immediately and go over to him. Stoop your body a little and thank him for pointing out your irresponsible behaviour. You might be able to leave without a fine!

George du Maurier once wrote, “Language is a poor thing. You fill your lungs with wind and shake a little slit in your throat and make the air shake a pair of little drums in my head … and my brain seizes your meaning in the rough.

What a roundabout way and what a waste of time.” This confirms the fact that communication would be dull if it were all done with words which are often the smallest part of it. [email protected]