How much talking does your body do?

Obama, Romney, debatesThe phrase “body language” or nonverbal communication often gets tossed around. From public speaking to a first date, our movements and facial expressions say a lot about our feelings and intentions. Now, as we enter into political debate season, politicians’ body language will be under just as much scrutiny as their remarks, and if the candidates aren’t careful, they might misspeak without saying a word.

Most researchers conclude that human communication is only 30 to 40 percent verbal and 60 to 70 percent of our interactions are composed of paralinguistic cues, or silent signals we give off unintentionally. Think of it as a speaker or listener’s personal interpretation of what they’re saying or hearing. We can all relate to the experience of yawning when we’re bored or (conversely) making direct eye contact when a conversation interests us, but these movements are just as much a part of the conversation as the words said.   

The study of body language is known as kinesics, a branch of anthropology developed by Ray Birdwhistell in the mid-20th century to de-verbalize human communication. Birdwhistell believed that no movement of the human body is accidental and that all of our gestures, down to the tiniest blink, are subject to a grammar that can be studied and analyzed, much in the same way that we pore over semicolons here at Dictionary.com.

To illustrate a few kinesic touchstones, the most overt sign a person can conjure without making direct physical contact is to cross their arms in front of their chest. This gesture implies that for whatever reason, the person wishes to put a barrier between his or herself and others. Granted, the movement could simply mean that the person’s arms are cold, but there’s a chance it means they feel threatened. Unfocused eyes or tilting of the head can show disinterest or a lack of understanding. Though in situations where people feel comfortable, perhaps when they are among friends or family, tilting of the head can imply trust because it exposes the neck, a comparatively vulnerable part of the body.

In the upcoming debates, President Obama and Governor Romney will be trying to use body language that implies power and confidence. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy emphasizes the importance of expansive postures that show dominance and command by opening the frame. Politicians often hold the sides of the podium when debating, not only to show passion for their argument but to open their shoulders as well. One of the riskiest gestures a debater can make is to touch their face. Unnecessary attention drawn to the face suggests that a person might be lying or withholding information, excessive blinking or an unblinking stare can also have the same effect.

According to Cuddy, the opening handshake between the candidates will set the tone for the presidential debate tonight. Whoever initiates the handshake will subconsciously start the debate in a position of dominance, and it will be up to the candidates to either hold that lead or fight their way back to the front.

Based on what you’ve read here, share your reactions to the Obama-Romney debate. Do you notice body language in your life? What paralinguistic gestures affect you and why?

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