Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

What is body language?

Just as language is words and phrases combined in certain ways in order to create meaning, so body language is a combination of movements, gestures and expressions that together display and communicate the essence of our thoughts and attitudes to observers.

There are three categories of nonverbal communication, or body language:

  • Conscious (as in giving someone directions)
  • Semi-conscious – movements or gestures which help us express ideas; we are not always fully conscious of using them, yet, if asked, we can notice them
  • Unconscious – other nonverbal signals are micro-movements that are completely unconscious, such as subtle shifts in the expression of the eyes and face or the positioning of the body. These are impossible to fake, as they are generated by thoughts and mental attitudes without our conscious volition or control.

Body language is often a direct reflection of our mental thinking and attitudes. When we are relaxed and at our best – say, communicating with friends in a positive context – this is usually the case.

In business, body language is equally important for helping us to connect with and communicate well with those around us, yet we so often find ourselves hindered by mistaken ideas and fears. These may arise from past trainings on body language. For example, most of us have heard things like, ‘scratching your nose means you’re lying’, ‘folding your arms means your defensive’ and so on.

If we are expected to make much use of this very interesting field of study in business, however, or even in social situations, more information and deeper consideration is needed.

Unconscious signals

Every part of our body communicates, either consciously, semi-consciously or unconsciously. Conscious signals (such as standing to greet someone) and semi-conscious signals (like gesturing to illustrate a point) are obvious.

Unconscious signals are often not noted consciously by either the one giving them, or the other party. However, unconscious signals offer a strong indication of the mental attitudes in play at a given moment and in a particular context and as such they are read and interpreted, as well as transmitted (again, mostly unconsciously) by everyone.

Unconscious signals can include posture, eye contact, head position (yes, head positioning!) and positioning of the hands. These can also be altered consciously, for a time; however, because the mind and body act as one, the only way to ‘control’ the unconscious signals you send is to ensure complete congruence between your thoughts and what you are actually saying.

Other unconscious signals include micro-movements of the face and body – and these cannot be altered consciously. Often these cannot easily and consciously be seen with the naked eye – yet they are transmitted and received on an unconscious level. This often explains why you may have ‘mixed feelings’ about someone – their conscious communication, including body language, says one thing, while their unconscious says another.

Semi-conscious gestures, such as some descriptive and cultural gestures, can also be very powerful in communicating and/or illustrating thought and attitude.