Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Adam lay in the Garden of Eden with Eve by his side, enjoying paradise with barely a thought of serpents, apples, fig leaves or the like. Sadly, as we all know, Adam’s moment of bliss didn’t last and the two were given their marching orders. Masaccio’s 15th century painting of Adam and Eve being expelled from the heavenly garden provides a golden opportunity to look at mankind’s most basic form of communication: body language.
Upon closer inspection, what does the portrait really show us? Some might see distress, embarrassment, shame, anguish, guilt, or maybe all of the above. In actual fact, it’s hard to tell exactly how Adam or Eve felt, for reasons I’ll get to later. For now, let’s imagine our condemned counterparts were teleported to what some consider another paradise: Bondi Beach.
It’s quite a segue from Eden to Bondi, but what better place to look at body language then on that famous stretch of sand and its surrounds. It’s a fact that people watch people all the time – people watch you, you watch people – and Bondi certainly offers a plethora of opportunities to look at non-verbal communication in all its glory.
Non-verbal communication is an ever-present form of expression. People make inferences about you all the time, and vice versa, based on non-verbal behaviour. It is commonly believed that non-verbal messages are the primary way we communicate our feelings and attitudes to others, and they are usually considered more believable. The old saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” springs to mind, and with good reason.
Now let’s get into some body language basics. Perhaps the best place to start is physical appearance. Bondi Beach in summer is a smorgasbord of people wanting to see and be seen. Indeed, what better place to show off your rig? It’s all on display in many different forms, and one’s appearance sends a powerful message to the observer.
In general, there is ample evidence that attractive people have an easier time persuading others. They are perceived as more credible, happier, popular, social and prosperous. Your shape and size affects how others see you. The more muscular and more athletic you are, the more you are perceived to be good-looking and adventurous. Body movement, posture, eye contact and facial expression are all ways of expressing interest in the opposite sex.
Personal space is a big one when claiming your spot on the sand. Four metres is generally the minimum distance unless you know the person. Clothing, or lack thereof, can also affect how others perceive you. How one dresses sends a clear message. A suit for work or a bikini on the beach; it’s all a form of communication.
But let’s go back to our biblical couple, who have recently arrived at Bondi. For starters, their appearance for the modern beachgoer may not seem too far from the ordinary, but how would this beachgoer interpret the expressions and gestures of our evictees? One theory that helps explain how and why we interpret body language the way we do is known as the ‘Expectancy Violations Theory’, which suggests that we interact with others with a preconceived expectation about their behaviour. In other words, we often interpret body language based on how we expect others to behave.
With the above theory in mind, there is a trap when reading body language. The reality is that reading body language tells you little, if anything, about a person. It is not a precise science by any means. In fact, there is no research-based evidence that proves one can read non-verbal expression or feelings based on body language.
The truth is, the more you know someone, the better your chances of interpreting their non-verbal signals. This is not because you’re reading them, but because you know them. Familiarity is the key to interpretation.
So, back to our banished couple at Bondi. Adam, with his face in his hands, may simply be shielding his eyes from the glare. Eve’s perceived cry of despair might just be the result of a bluebottle sting. The truth is, we really don’t know what they are thinking or feeling.
We should interpret body language at our own peril. There are dictionaries to interpret words but nothing of the sort to help decode non-verbal messages, including body language. If you really want to know what someone is thinking or feeling, just ask them.