Do You Speak Body Language?

There is a darling older woman who patrols my neighborhood in her power wheelchair almost every day. If I am outside weeding the driveway border for any length of time, I can be sure I’ll see her. She will stop and comment at length on what I am doing before motoring along to the next house on the street. I choose to believe she is complimenting my arboreal aplomb, but we have yet to exchange a meaningful syllable … because we do not speak the same language.

Most of us have experienced the frustration of miscommunication. I once told a dignified waiter in broken, high-school French that I had died from eating his food — instead of telling him that I was finished with my plate. Miscommunication like that results only in a good story, but in a critical situation it could be catastrophic, and even in daily life it can leave us hurting unnecessarily.

There is one language we all speak but do not all understand: body language. Every one of us expresses his or her emotions through gestures and expressions, but not all of us have cultivated the skill of interpreting them. If only “body language” was a choice on Google Translate! I recently watched a friend chase her daughter’s teacher down the hall while relating a long story with no pauses. If someone had turned off the sound, the panicked flight of that retreating teacher would have been obvious to everyone, but in the moment, my friend did not recognize the subtext of her body language.

So here are a few simple cues to observe in any conversation:

Eye contact expresses concern and interest. When you lose eye contact with another person, it may indicate that you have lost their attention. In this age of texting and cell phones, you know what I mean! The goal is not to get their attention back but to reflect on the other person’s needs. Do they need to get going? Are they hoping for their turn to speak?  Or have they lapsed into a coma?

Posture indicates receptivity and a power dynamic in relationships. An open posture and a relaxed stance communicate acceptance and a willingness to engage. Hands-on-hips is a more dominant or even aggressive gesture, while crossed arms and legs may indicate anxiety, especially when accompanied by bouncing or jiggling. A conversation partner who vibrates off the couch is trying to tell you something!

Finally, there is the language of proximity. A friend who reaches to put an arm around you communicates love, while the same gesture from a stranger is just creepy. Pay attention to whether your partner in dialogue is moving toward you or away from you, and if they start putting objects (like grocery bags, small children or doors) between you, then you may have over-stayed your welcome!

Try observing the body language of the people around you today, whether they are talking to you or to someone else. Like all foreign languages, this one requires practice. If we want to love others well, get our real message across or simply become more socially intelligent, it behooves us to use and interpret non-verbal cues with as much fluency as our native tongue.

I’ll probably never learn Albanian or whatever language my talkative neighbor is speaking, but I can flash her a warm smile, wave a hearty hello and walk toward her when I see her coming. Hopefully, she will know she is welcome, and we will enjoy a companionable few minutes together based on nothing more – or less – than our body language.

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