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:
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.