Body language is a Pseudo-science, I’ll be the first to say it. It is an art based off Generalizations, and all generalizations are lies. Then Why study it? because it is a lie that is effective to treat as the truth.
You see the generalizations are usually right(well 60/40) and they only serve the purpose of letting you know the typical response. After you observe somebody multiple times you establish a normal pattern of behaviors and mannerisms, a Baseline. The baseline has the purpose of serving as the default mode of being, by which you notice any variation from this behavior. Say for example, you have someone you are talking to who is very active with their hands. You start talking about a certain debt they owe and their hands land on their thighs. This is a deviation from the baseline behavior(and also an indication of high levels of stress if they are stroking their thighs or fear if they are completely still).
Many of the general interpretations of body language are correct, mainly because it’s a physiological response. People have three ways of responding to a threat. Freeze, Flight, and Fight in that order. People erect barriers in front of them either with their arms (folding the arms) or objects like purses or coffee cups because this protects the vital organs(at least to the subconscious mind). This is why people cross their arms when they are feeling defensive(or adjust their watch or cufflink if they are trying to hide it)(the other time they cross their arms is when they are in a position of authority). Another physiological response is distancing. You see examples of distancing in high stress situations, such as moments of hostility, lying, or anything that makes an individual uncomfortable. If say to your spouse “I love you” and they take a step back, or alternatively reply and then take a step back, you might want to check Okcupid out. This is an attempt for the individual to distance him/herself from a threat(in this case the lover who is more involved than is comfortable).You can see this in the famous Nixon I am not a crook speech.
There are other pieces of body language that are based off physiological response that aren’t based off the Fight/flight/freeze response. These include mirroring, dilation and contraction of the pupils(most of the time), flushing of skin, as well as some mating rituals(well, yes and no). Mirroring is the somewhat automatic response to building a rapport. Here try this, next time you are on a date and you are curious how well it is going, lean forward. If it’s going well she is like likely to lean forward as well(if she adjust her cup or puts her purse in front of her, thus creating a barrier you might want to call it quits. this also applies if she leans back.). This is why you often see people talking in the exact same stance, or seeming like they are in sync.
There are some drawbacks to the science. like I said at the beginning of this article it is a pseudo-science based off generalizations. sometimes these are initially wrong. what’s worse if you are not careful you(like I did the other day)may completely misinterpret what someone is projecting. it is wise to employ a system of checks and balances to make sure the information you are getting is accurate(list these in a minute). I feel though that if one is wise and not quick to jump to conclusions there is much to gain from studying the art.
Checks and balances:
Make no assumptions about the person’s body language until you have observed them on a number of different occasions.
If you have to use body language on a first meet basis(such as an interview) take into consideration that whatever you observe may be a baseline trait. you could jump to conclusions that could be based off false intelligence.
Take into account environmental factors, such as temperature and space… if it’s cold outside they may be trying to preserve heat rather than being defensive
Take into account the individual, Is he scratching his neck because he’s nervous or because he has a skin condition? Is she leaning back to distance herself from something you said or because she has a phobia of touch?
Body language happens in clusters, multiple signals going up at once. an Isolated signal my not mean anything(or it could if they are trying to suppress it). Though if the signals you are getting are highly incongruent(conflicting) you may want to be wary.
Over time of studying body language you will come up with your own rules of thumb that work for you as an individual.
Now you may be asking if it’s so faulty why study it at all? It’s has it’s learning curve. In the beginning you may interpret everything wrong. As you progress you will slowly start picking up more info and getting more right. You start out with a rigid manner of thinking that slowly develops more and more flexibly. There is also the benefit of knowing what you are projecting at any given moment. Even if people haven’t studied body language they still react to it on a subconscious level. Mirroring is testament to this. You can learn to mirror people without being obvious which will allow you to build a faster rapport with individuals. It’s also great for situations such as court cases and interviews( and any form of public speaking) because it helps you master what you are projecting, and how well the other party receives your message. If you are into NLP you can use it to develop an emotional trigger in another person. an example of this is in Neil Strauss’s The Game when one of the PUA made a waitress associate a certain cue with danger(with out her knowledge) and then throughout the conversation used this cue to make her associate him with danger, thus giving him a certain allure. I would even go as far as to say as mastering what you are projecting is the most valuable aspect of studying body language.
there is an aspect of body language that is completely Universal, Micro expression. Micro expression are those sometimes subtle(most of the time not) twitches in the face that lead to facial expressions. These are difficult to fake for most people, leading to a more honest display of their emotions than what they are saying. In this category is things like the flaring of the nostrils in states of arousal(sexual or hostile), the inward curve of the eyebrows in fear or sorrow. The asymmetrical sneer of contempt. this list goes on and on. For the sake of showing you how subtle these can be(and how much they can convey) I will list a clip from a recent interview on Fox news of Russel brand where he decides to completely fuck with their reality. If you pay attention to his face you can see how he progresses from interest to boredom to annoyance within the interview(at 2:08 he starts to get extremely annoyed and this is right before he just starts fucking with him)… there are only a few expressions that aren’t universal, one of them being surprise. In more tribal societies, they are unable to differentiate between surprise and panic though this is probably more to do with the lack of pleasant surprises in their life. The reason I say these are universal is because we evolved to use facial expression to convey emotions, so most of us on the planet(with the exception of those who have disorders like autism) have the same facial expressions, no matter how isolated from the rest of the world.
well that’s my argument. My reading was off yesterday due to a combination of impulsiveness and a pissy mood, not because the (pseudo) science has no merit.