August 06, 2007

Wikihow on body language

In a recent post I hinted about a future post on body language, not to be confused with bawdy language. For the latter, you can read posts by Mark and Arnold.  Wikihow has two links on body language, one about how to read it and another about how to understand it. I'm not sure what the alleged difference is, because last I heard, reading and understanding seem to have a lot in common.

From the Bureau of Apparently Unresearched Information at Wikihow's  How to read body language, we find the following curious statements about this topic. This piece looks like an example of what Mark called "wisdom vs. ignorance in networked crowds." Warning: the comments in parentheses are mine ...  and I promise to say nothing about "someone" taking a plural pronoun.

  • "The closer that someone is to you, the warmer his or her opinions are of you." (Is this why Mediterraneans are thought to be better lovers? Should we avoid talking on the telephone? Where does bad breath come in?)
  • "Overly tilted heads are a potential sign of sympathy." (Unless there are other reasons for "over-tilting," such as a bad  case of strabismus or simply being perplexed. And just how overly is "overly?")
  • "Lowered heads indicate a reason to hide something." (Some of the time, maybe, but how about when you're tired or when you're tring to remember something?)
  • "Look into their eyes ... you can actually learn ... how to observe behavior to judge whether someone is lying ... it's easy to spot a confident person, they will make prolonged eye contact." (Oh no, not that old eye aversion thing again!)
  • "People who look away ... are thinking about something else." (But have you ever noticed how some males tend to talk to each other while standing side-by-side rather than face-to-face?)
  • "If someone mirrors or mimics your appearance, this is a very genuine sign that they are interested in you." (Well, unless they're making fun of you, of course.)
  • "People with crossed arms are closing themselves to social influence." (Except when it's habitual, or when they're shy and reserved, or when they have a soup stain on their shirt.)
  • "If someone rests their arms behind their neck, they are open to what is being discussed and are interested in listening more." (But how can we be sure that they're not just stretching?)
  • "If someone brushes their hair back ... their thoughts are about something  conflicting with yours." (So always keep your hair combed neately, or use lots of hair spray, or wear a head-band, or shave your head entirely.)
  • "If someone is biting their lip, they are anticipating something." (Or they're nervous, or they have a suddently itchy lip. And what about prominent overbites?)
  • "A confident person ... will have a strong posture." (Among other things maybe, but   what about all those confident slouchers out there?)
  • "If people laugh excessively, they are just trying to wheedle their way into your good graces." ( Avoid excessive pleasantness, keep the conversation serious, and don't tell jokes.)
  •   Wikihow adds few disclaimers at the end:

    • "Unfortunately, there are always exceptions." (Lots of them, I'd guess.)
    • "There are wide cultural differences." (You got that right.)
    • "Don't isolate yourself by constantly examining body language." (Ignore this list?)

    As Mark points out, "the key problem is that no single source ever gives us 'all the information,' much less all the interpretation," and even Wikihow seems to acknowledge this. We have to wonder though whether it's worthwhile to give readers only part of the information, along with some misleading interpretations. There is a growing research literature on non-verbal communication that Wikihow doesn't seem to take note of. And it's not that hard to find. For example, anyone can go to Google, type in "Paul Ekman," and find a bunch of recent research reports written by him and his associates.

    Posted by Roger Shuy at August 6, 2007 08:48 AM