By Rupali Patil March 1999 The subtle lexicon of body gestures or body language can teach you a lot about yourself and people around you. Tiny tots use it. Teenagers revel in it. Elders disguise under it. Advertisements survive on it, election campaigns drive it, and your neighbor practices it. Welcome to a session of body language—a cluster of physical movements and gestures that convey all forms of emotions. Rapunzel may ‘shiver’ at the sight of the witch or Juliet may ‘sigh’ for Romeo. Without body language, cartoon strips like Archie, Calvin and Hobbes or Asterix could never have been effective. But body language is more than just a quiver or shiver. In their book Social Psychology: Understanding Human Action, psychologists Robert A. Baron and Donn Byrne explain: ‘Information (about other people’s behavior) is often provided by ‘nonverbal cues’ relating to others’ facial expressions, eye contact, and body posture… Our current moods or emotions are often reflected in posture, position and movement of our bodies. Such nonverbal cues are usually termed body language.’ Here’s an example: A man waiting for departure time in an airport sits in a rigid, upright position with ankles locked. His hands are clenched together in one big fist, while he rhythmically massages one thumb against the other. These gestures indicate a nervous attitude, perhaps a fear of flying. Another classic example of body language can be found in an elevator. When there are a few people inside, they usually lean against the elevator’s walls. When more people enter, they occupy the corners. If the elevator gets crowded, every occupant turns to face the door. As American psychologist Layne Longfellow explains: ‘Hands, purses and briefcases hang down in front of the body. There is a tendency to look upward and avoid touching the other person.’ In the process, every muscle gets tense. People seem ‘taller and thinner’, and anyone breaking this ‘elevator etiquette’ is sneered at. Both environment and heredity influence body language. A baby’s yawn or hungry bellow are biological signs and therefore universal. But a display of anger is person-specific: while some may throw tantrums, others may simply clam up. Most of these responses stem from childhood habits and environment. Your sense of territory is also an inherited faculty that affects body language. Dr. Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist, in his study of man in relation to personal space, coined the term ‘proxemics’ to describe his observation about zones of territory and how to use them. According to Dr Hall, there are four distinct zones-intimate zone (close friendship or parent-child relationships), personal zone (used during personal discussions), social distance (social or business relationships), and public distance (speaker and audience distance). These zones are further subdivided into close phase and far phase, depending upon the relationship. Body language differs according to the relevant zone. Body language is also culture dependent. Some commonly used signs are ‘thumbs-up’ (all the best) or ‘V’ for (victory or peace). But if ‘V’ is shown with palms facing inward, it signifies obscenity. In India, gestures are often influenced by religion. Muslims wish each other by bowing their heads down and raising a cupped palm to the forehead. Hindus touch the toes of their elders. However, some actions are characteristically Indian. For example, if someone unknowingly stamps on another’s feet or belongings, he immediately touches first his chest and then the forehead as a mark of respect. Given such influences, can body language actually be used to change behavior or personality? Joe Rodrigues owner of Breakthrough Communication Services, India, says: ‘If certain actions are unseemly or rude, I suggest the concerned person change them. I have seen executives snapping their fingers to catch the waiter’s attention… Since they are used to doing it, they fail to see its demeaning nature.’ This probably accounts for the growing popularity of personality development classes, both in Indian and abroad. A major part of these classes deals with body language. And the emphasis is primarily on the outer personality of the individual, keeping in mind a corporate work ethos. But can a modification of body language adversely affect your inner personality? Perhaps not, provided the technique used is holistic. T’ai chi, for example, takes care not to suppress the inner self in order to portray a better image. It represents the spiritual side of exercise and helps us acknowledge our own inner strength and capacity. Even yoga tries to harmonize the body, mind and spirit. In fact, our entire body is an organization of energy, which can be purified and rejuvenated through such holistic techniques. And if the internal self is positive, it is bound to reflect in external postures and gestures. ABC of body language Arms crossed Defensive and cautious. The individual brings hand to his face, puts his chin in the palm and extends his index finger along his cheek. Remaining fingers are positioned below the mouth. In this gesture, the body is drawn back from other individuals. The thought patterns are critical, cynical and negative towards the other person. Dropping eyeglasses onto the lower bridge of the nose and peering over them. Causes negative reactions in others. Slowly and deliberately taking off glasses and carefully cleaning the lens. The person wants to pause and think before raising opposition or asking for clarification. Pinching bridge of the nose. This gesture, usually accompanied with closed eyes, communicates great thought and concern. Nose-rubbing or nose-touching: A sign of doubt, it often reveals a negative reaction. Rubbing around ears. Performed while weighing an answer, commonly coupled with ‘well, I don’t know’. Putting one leg over the arm of a chair, pulling a desk drawer out and placing a foot on it, or resting feet on a desk or chair. Gestures of territorial hegemony. Swaying back. Weak ego. Retracted shoulders. Suppressed anger.
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