While we have been focusing on microexpressions, reading people often depends on identifying their body language as well.
Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto has done exciting work on the role of body language in human communication and the extent to which similar patterns span cultures. As we’ve noted, it is necessary to disentangle what expressions are universal from those that differ based on culture, and in this respect body language is no different.
A recent article in Discover Magazine dug well into some of Dr. Matsumoto’s past work on body language and posture. Specifically, author Teal Burrell discussed Dr. Matsumoto’s work on the postures of Olympic and blind Paralympic athletes from around the world. This research found that, regardless of sight, victorious athletes consistently made the same posture of triumph.
While powerfully demonstrating universals across cultures, this same research also pointed to the role of culture. For example, defeated athletes often slump their shoulders in shame, but this is less common for those from cultures which discourage outward displays of shame. However, blind athletes from those same countries slumped their shoulders regardless of culture.
This helps show both a tendency to slump shoulders in shame but also the ability of culture to teach people to avoid that form of expression.
Dr. Matsumoto’s research underscores the importance of body language in understanding people and the culture that influences them. As the magazine piece continues, we can leverage our body language to make positive impacts on our own mood.
For instance, smiling may help reduce our stress levels, while so-called “power postures” can improve our confidence. A power posture, as we have blogged on before, is when the chest is thrust out with arms crossed, in a way that Burrell aptly describes as a “Wonder Woman” pose. Research into power postures does find that they lead to a great sense of power, but still such correlations can be taken with a grain of salt.
Body language isn’t just about changing how we feel but can also shape people’s perceptions of us. Eye contact, though not really an indicator of deception, helps promote a perception of trust. Similarly, mirroring posture and facial expressions helps show that we are listening and feeling empathetic.
This helps show how important body language is for us, but like many universal expressions, humans are not alone in our use of such communicative tools. In fact, Burrell points out how critical body language is for bees to communicate, and similar sorts of communicative dances are present among fish. Similarly, the highly intelligent ravens use their beaks to point and gesture, helping to form interpersonal bonds.
Coming to grips with how universal and powerful body language is is as important as understanding how culture mediates it. By better understanding both determinants of behavior, we can learn how to read people better and communicate effectively.