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Say It with Body Language

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #59, 2004.

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David Marks


This article on body language doesn't have a "how to" exercise for your children, but if they learn this language, it will help them as they try to understand what others are saying by the ways bodies are used. The power of this type of communication was made very clear to me years ago when I was at the Lincoln Park Zoo with my wife and son, Corey. He was about two-and-one-half years old.

Talking to the Animals

We went to see the new primate exhibit. They had recently installed a large glass enclosure where they held orangutans. I had just finished a book about communication between primates and was eager to try some of the techniques out on one of the great apes. My wife, holding Corey, and I stood looking through this thick glass cage at a huge female.

Apes don't look each other in the eye because that's seen as an act of aggression. They glance at each other and quickly look away. I did this with the orangutan. For a few minutes I looked at her, then quickly away. I noticed her looking at me. She would glance briefly at me then look off across the cage at something of great interest. Every once in a while our eyes would connect. I realized with great joy that she was "talking" back to me. We were telling each other that we weren't being aggressive with each other.

When apes want to be groomed - and this is important to them, for it keeps them clean and reduces parasites - they have a ritual they go through. They establish eye contact. They go through the procedure this orangutan and I had just established. They then pretend to groom themselves, glancing at each other occasionally. They do this by picking at bits of skin on their arms and putting the bits in their mouths. I started this procedure. I would pick at my arm and pretend to put what I had found in my mouth. I kept glancing at her, and soon she began to pick at her fur and put bits into her mouth, glancing up at me every two or three seconds or so. This was very exciting for me. We were now having a conversation.

When they have established that they both are interested in a grooming session, apes can approach each other without fear that they'll be seen as aggressive. I reached out to the glass wall and pretended to groom her. She must have seen this as my interest, for she approached the glass. Stopping just a foot away, she watched my actions for a few minutes with much pursing of her lips. She picked at the glass on her side as if offering to groom me. We ended up with both of us picking at each other through the glass wall just as if we were grooming each other.

We ended up with her huge nose pressed flat against the glass on her side and me with my nose pressed against the glass on my side, and our eyes about two inches apart. I was having this great relationship with a seven-hundred pound orangutan. They have beautiful brown eyes.

The point in telling you this story, other than that it was fun, is to show you that animals communicate effectively with the members of their species with body language.

Body Language Has a Vocabulary

People have spoken language, but like the animals, we also talk to each other with our bodies.

The ways we sit, stand, walk, hold our shoulders, cross our legs and arms, hold or twist our hands and use our facial muscles tell other people how we feel about them or ourselves or the situations we're in.

Just as with spoken language, there are two elements to body language. There are the delivery and the reception of the message. To get any message from one person to another, both the sender and the receiver must have the same body vocabulary. This lexicon of body messages has to be learned.

Some body messages are different if the cultures are not the same. A message sent in New York might not be understood in Togo, Africa. But there are some universal body signals that are the same for all cultures. All people seem to react in much the same way to surprise, distress, contempt, shame, fear, interest, joy, disgust, and anger. All people are programmed to smile when they're happy, turn their mouths down when they're displeased, and go through a lot of the same facial gestures, such as wrinkling the forehead, lifting the eyebrow, or raising one side of the mouth.

There are also examples of very different body vocabularies. For instance, in our country we shake our head from side to side to say no, and nod up and down to say yes. But in India these gestures have just the opposite meanings. Side to side means yes and up and down means no. You can get a very interesting reaction from a friend who has asked you a question if you answer yes at the same time you shake your head from side to side, or say no as you nod. You're sending confusing and contradictory messages, and you'll be able to see the confusion on the other person's face.

Below are some of the ways we talk with our bodies in our culture. These don't always mean the same thing, but generally:

  • When we don't believe something someone has said, we let them know it by lifting one eyebrow.

  • When we're feeling insecure or wish to be isolated from others, we fold our arms about our bodies.

  • When we feel indifference (we don't care), we shrug our shoulders.

  • When we want to tell someone that we both know something that others don't know, or we wish to establish a special bond, we wink one eye.

  • When we have strong negative feelings about something someone has said, we push the statement or the idea away from us with our hands, much as we would push a grocery cart out of our way.

  • When we don't accept what someone is saying, we cross our arms over our chests or cross our legs.

  • When we wish to say to people that we can't believe what's happening to us, or that we have just witnessed something really dumb, we roll our eyes upward.

  • When we wish to have someone accept something we've said, we open our arms with our palms facing upwards.

  • When we're impatient, we tap fingers or rock one foot.

  • When we've forgotten something and want to let others know that we're feeling stupid about it, we slap our foreheads.

  • When we want someone to continue talking or explaining something to us, we gesture with our hands as if we were asking them to come closer.

  • When we don't understand something, we tend to rub our noses, and sometimes when we're lying, we touch our noses.

    We even use our bodies to help our listeners understand us when we speak to them:

  • Just as we use a rising inflection with our voices when we ask questions, we also raise our heads at the end of a sentence that asks a question. We also raise our hands and our eyes open wider at the end of a question.

  • When we make a statement, our voices go down, and at the same time we tend to tilt our heads down.

  • When we're speaking and we have to pause, but we intend to go on speaking, we hold the same pitch. In the same situation, we hold our heads still to signal our intent to continue.

  • When we're listening to someone speaking and we get to a part with which we strongly disagree, we make a major shift of our bodies. Knowing this, salesmen, public speakers, and many parents have clues as to how their audiences are accepting what they're saying. If your children see you shift your body when they're telling you something, at some level, they'll recognize that you might not be accepting what they are saying. They might not be able to tell you why they feel you don't accept what they've said, but they'll think you don't.

  • When we're nervous, or unsure of ourselves, or feeling some pressure, we blink much more rapidly and more often than we normally do.

  • Children suck their thumbs when they're not feeling really secure. Adults signal this feeling by holding their own hands. Dogs yawn. This has nothing to do with what I'm telling you, but it's interesting. Notice the next time when your dog isn't sure what's going on. I bet he yawns.

  • When we're under pressure we have a tendency to rock our bodies. The next time you see a person doing this rocking, count the number of times they rock in a minute. When people are unsure of their positions, they get security from that heart beat-rhythm. It's thought that they seek the security of their mother's heart beat, both before they were born and just after. If you watch, you'11 notice that almost all women, even those who are left-handed, carry their babies in their left arms with their children' s heads to the left - the side their hearts are on.

You might introduce these communication techniques to your children in some organized way. They will learn them through normal exposure to their world, but it might give them a nice start if they were introduced early to what others really think or feel.


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