Saturday, August 1, 2009

Body talk

Body talk
Mon, Aug 03, 2009
The Straits Times

By Janice Tai

When Leonardo Da Vinci put in that mystic smile in his Mona Lisa painting, he must have known a thing or two about body language.

Today, experts are sought after to explain what lies beneath our gestures.

Indeed, psychologist Albert Mehrabian shot to prominence in 1971 as a result of his research into the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages.

He found that as much as 55 per cent of what one intends to convey is done through body language, compared to

38 per cent from the tone of one's voice and 7 per cent from the actual words used.

Yet, not many of us know how to read body language signals, nor do we know how to let the right body language do the talking for us.

Professional speaker and Singapore-based corporate trainer Bob Feldman told Mind Your Body that the basics of body language lie in aspects like eye contact, facial expression, gesture, posture, touch, movement, personal space and appearance.

Steady eye contact signals self-confidence, interest and engagement and helps develop rapport with the other party. Looking down or shifting your eyes weakens your self-presentation, he said.

Facial expression is trickier, said Mr Feldman.

In both Asia and the West, a smile may denote a happy agreement, although in Asia, it might also be a cultural display rule, meaning that a smile may be a mask for what a person is truly feeling.

Ms Elisabetta Franzoso, a trainer with the Singapore Institute of Management Professional Development, agreed. 'A smile may not just be a sign of acceptance, humour or pleasure but may also be a way to compensate for inner insecurity or discomfort, like when we feel angry, stressed or annoyed,' she said.

Gestures are another telling aspect of body language.

There are more nerve-endings on our hands than on any other part of the body, so gestures reflect what we are thinking, said Mr Feldman.

Gestures have various categories. Emblems are gestures that replace speech, like the okay gesture in which the thumb and index finger make a ring and the other three fingers point outwards.

Illustrators are gestures that enhance our speech by emphasising and illustrating what we mean.

Physiological movements are distracting movements, as when you fiddle with a pen or shake your leg. They weaken your message's impact.

Dr So Wing Chee, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore's department of psychology, pointed to growing evidence that speakers gesture even when they do not see the listeners.

The gestures aid the speakers by helping them organise the message before it is spoken, so they help make speech more fluent, said Dr So.

If you feel nervous during public speaking, you can try to move your hands more often. This action not only helps facilitate your speech-making, but also helps the listeners understand the message better.

Our body posture also tells a story. A person who is slumped may be signalling boredom or a lack of confidence.

Leaning forward may signal interest while leaning backwards may either mean the person is feeling relaxed or withdrawing because he does not agree with what you are saying, said Mr Feldman.

Psychologist Daniel Koh of Insights Mind Centre said that when one mirrors another's movement - in terms of gestures or body posture - it may mean one likes or agrees with the other party.

He added that touch can also be used to show intimacy, domination or friendship - depending on where and how it is used.

For example, a handshake should usually be firm but equal; if the other party has a loose handshake, you ought to loosen your grip too, suggested Mr Feldman.

The idea of personal space - the area around you - is also important. When others intrude into this space, you will feel uncomfortable. This space varies with culture, gender and status group.

For most of Europe and Singapore, this space is about one arm's length, said Mr Feldman.

While we ought to observe the various components of body language, most psychologists and corporate trainers emphasise the crucial need to recognise signals from all parts of the body as a whole rather than just interpreting individual elements.

Hence, if the signals are mixed and incongruent with one another, the person may be lying or further interpretation may be required, said Mr Feldman.

The experts said it is also important to read body signals in the context of the situation. Ms Franzoso shared a personal experience. 'Once at a restaurant, I was approaching someone for some information I needed.

'As I walked towards her, I saw that she was crossing her arms and legs and frowning. I thought that she must really be worried or not available for a discussion.

'But when I approached her, I learnt that she was simply freezing. She was friendly and gave me all the information I needed. I would have misread her had I relied only on her body language,' she said.

This article was first published in Mind Your Body, The Straits Times.

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