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nverbal cues create conversations
By DEBD1 SYKES
. told Mark she didn't want him to walk her home from the
But as she spoke, Jill playfully brushed her hair from her face
and cast him a long, sideways look.
Mark agreed, but her smile didn't reach his eyes.
Do you trust their words or their actions?
We can use body language as a valuable source of informa
tion. It often supersedes what a person says. Through observa
tion we can learn more about others and perhaps enhance the
impressions we give them.
Scientists have studied body language for more than 30 years,
but there are no absolute rules. Mannerisms vary widely, espech
ally across cultures, and they do not fit into neat categories. Cir
cumstances, can not be disregarded either.
What if Jill crosses her arms? Some people might say she is be
ing defensive. But maybe she is chilly or that is a comfortable
position for her.
What is important is the impression that we give others. Peo
ple perceive nonverbal cues subconsciously. Without realizing
it we converse about ourselves.
Body language researchers have observed rules common to
many social situations, such as on buses and sidewalks and
while courting and conversing.
In the United States) touching is not considered socially ap
propriate, so people in crowded buses tense their muscles and
avoid rubbing against other passengers. When people do touch
accidentally, they smile as if to apologize.
Bus riders regulate their eyes as carefully as their arms and
legs because staring is taboo. They usually look at an advertise
ment on a wall or stare blindly out the windows never at pas
sengers. If a person does look at someone, he must do it furtively
and be prepared to look away quickly.
Sidewalk situations have their own rules.
When people approach one another they may look at one
another until they are about eight feet apart Then they look
away because.staring is rude. When passing, people usually look
in the direction they are walking, as if to signal which way they
are going. This way, they avoid the embarrassment of sidestep
ping the dance that takes pJace when two-people can not
decide which route to take around one another.
When students stop to chat on a sidewalk, the area becomes
their territory temporarily. Others seem to recognize this by low
ering their heads as they walk by.
Courting behaviors reveal interest in someone.
Let us look at Mark and Jill again. When they smooth their hair,
adjust their clothing and stand straighter, they are showing that
they are attracted to one another. When they sit together to talk,
they cross their legs toward one another and lean in the other's
Through observation we can team
more about others and perhaps
enhance the impressions we give
What if Jill toy with her necklace while they are talking? Body
Janguage researchers. might say she is unconsciously using the
necklace as a substitute for Mark. What does it mean if Mark
shows his palms a lot in gesturing? These experts would say it is a
sign of his attraction for Jill.
Julius Fast an expert on body language, believes that attrac
tion can even cause the glow that supposedly comes from love.
During courting, people straighten their posture, tighten their
muscles and their faces flush, making appear more attractive.
Dr. Adam Kendon, a psychologist notes a similarity between
human and animal courtship. At first the partners flaunt their
sexuality to attract the other and then, after succeeding, act coy
ly like a child, or the young. Kendon thinks this may be a way to
reassure the partner that he won't hurt him.
But we must view these body language cues cautiously. Some
times people seem to be courting in nonsexual situations such as
with teachers or parents. Flora Davis, a journalist who has written
about body language, points out that people use disclaimers
when they are truly courting. For example, a person may tap his
wedding ring while talking or two people may turn slightly away
when sitting together.
The body language of conversation is fairly simple to detect
When two people talk, the speaker usually looks away frequently
while the listener looks at him. Fast thinks the speaker looks
away to avoid being distracted and interrupted. But the speaker
does glance at his listener occasionally to make sure he is listen
ing. When he finishes talking, he looks at the listener to signal
that it is his turn to talk. '
A good cue to follow when you want someone to talk is to
look toward him frequently. Eventually this should encourage
him to say something. When you imitate the body language of a
speaker while listening, you reassure him by showing your agree
ment Conversely, you can also avoid interruptions by looking
There are even gender differences in the body language of
conversations. Davis mentions experiments conducted by Ralph
Exline, a psychologist at the University of Delaware. Exline
found that women do more looking at their listeners when talk
ing, while men do more looking when they are listening. Davis
speculates that it is more important for women to see the emo
tional responses to what they say than it is for men. Women talk
less when they can't see their partner, while men talk more,
Where you sit in classrooms also reveals something about
you. Students feel possessive about their seats after the first days
of classes. Students who sit at the back and the ends of a class
room want to be anonymous. Fast says. These students may be
shy or may resent having to take the course. Those sitting in the
front center and back usually participate more. Students "sitting
in the front really are better students, he says.
But classroom body language needs qualification, too. Just
because the students in a small class are clustered near the door
doesn't mean they are anxious to leave. They may have been too
embarrassed to cross the room and spread out in the first days of
Body language researchers also study the variations in
space that people keep between themselves. This study,
proxemics, has shown that everyone seems to have an
imaginary bubble of space around him. Trespassers who
intrude its boundaries make him feel uncomfortable. This
bubble ranges tremendously in size.
For example. Fast notes that Arabs generally enjoy be
ing close to others, while Britons prefer to keep greater
distances. People who don't understand these differences
may be insulted. -
Individuals within the same culture can vary as well.
Women seem to enjoy crowding more than men do,
Davis says. While men may become combative in a
crowd, women become more friendly, she says.
This space bubble also varies over time for each per
son. Your need for space shrinks when you are in love or
go to a bar or nightclub expecting to find crow
Alcohol can exaggerate these spatial needs.
People also have different ways to order their sp
Arab tends to withdraw into himself when he wan
with his thoughts, a European often retreats into i
Fast says. An American typically goes off by him
Body language also varies with geography. For
South is a high-smile area compared with the No
says. A Southerner who seldom smiles is as suspe
erner who smiles a great deal. Regions also affe
learning body language. Research has shown that
dren learn gender signals about age 4, while thos
Northeast learn theni later. An example of a gend
ting positions. American girls learn to sit with theiif
gether. while boys learn to sit with their legs farth
propping one leg on the other knee.
It is important to remember these variations if
and to be sensitive to what body language can con
an important tool for deciphering the unspoken
hind words. Body language can't tell us everythin
liA mictinn a vfko If K rt c ilont r-1 1 idc if uia MArlv!
f Mark had watched Jill's body language, hi
known that Jill really was attracted to him. If Jii
Mark more closely, she would have realized that sh
With body language, maybe they could find a
Debbi Sykes is a staff writer for The Daily Tar
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