How Important Is Body Language?

Here’s a picture of me from a recent photo shoot for my site. I liked it and started to use it. But I decided not to, because nowadays lots of people misinterpret folded arms as defensive or not being open, even though I was just comfortably leaning on a wall for the photo.

An internet search about body language led to this interesting post by communication consultant Max Atkinson. I’ve boiled it down to save you some time; and because it’s chopped and changed I didn’t put it in quotes. Here’s my version of his post:

When I see people with folded arms sitting in my audience, I have, on many occasions, asked them if they are on the defensive. Usually, they say they’re feeling comfortable or that there’re no armrests on the chairs, or they’re feeling cool. Never has anyone said they are feeling defensive.

Also, sometimes several people will be sitting with their arms folded – what researchers call ‘postural echo’, referring to our tendency to reflect, subconsciously, postures similar to those around us.

On the other hand, folding our arms when confronted with an awkward question or threat, is a sign of going on the defensive. So, just like words in a language, elements of body language can have different meanings in different contexts.

The trouble is, many trainers propagate a more rigid doctrine, in which folded arms are assigned a single unvarying meaning in all situations. It’s so widely held, I recommend people not fold their arms when speaking and would like to make a good impression. There’s a high probability that someone in the audience believes it’s a sign of defensiveness.

Over the last few decades myths have arisen about the importance of body language and other non-verbal factors in human communication mostly fueled by books aimed at distilling the research by social psychologists and others. The trouble is that the popularization process almost inevitably results in diluting and oversimplifying research findings. What started out as preliminary observations or hypotheses become hard fact, and few of the original author’s words of caution about the limitations of a particular experiment find their way into the popularized versions.

One spectacular example of this is the claim that the words we use are by far the least important part of the communication process because upwards of 93% of communication is non-verbal body language and facial expressions. When I’ve asked lecturers or trainers who’ve presented claims unquestioningly as “fact”, none have ever been able to cite the source or to provide any further details or sources about the original study.

This claim flies in the face of common-sense experience. For example, it would mean that anyone unable to see a speaker’s facial expressions, whether because they are blind, in the dark, listening to a radio, or talking on the phone, would only be able to understand a much smaller amount of what was said to them than they do understand.

And, if only 7% is verbally communicated, there would be no need for anyone to learn foreign languages, as we would already be able to understand 93% of any particular one of them.

One researcher, Dr. Albert Meharbian, a social psychologist, said “I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning, I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately, the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.”

This also increases the normal anxieties of speech-making with a catalog of extra things to worry about, like stance, gesture, movement and even what colour clothes to wear.