While it is possible for a person to lie or conceal information, body language symbols are quite involuntary and cannot be concealed. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Be it secret agents involved in espionage or human resources (HR) consultants looking for tell-tale psychometric contours before deciding on hiring new employees, many professionals use the science of body language and its interpretation to make the right call. But how does this work out in real time?

According to Dr Nazli Balkir Neftci, associate professor at the Department of Psychology in the Canadian University of Dubai and psychotherapist at the German Neuroscience Centre says body language is a non-verbal form of communication of emotions or intentions.

Dr Nazli Balkir Neftci

"This includes facial expressions, gestures, eye contact or body orientation and postures. Body language is often performed unconsciously. Your facial expressions or how you hold your body can tell how you are feeling or what you are intending to do. They may either be in line with your verbal communication or quite the opposite. Decoding such emotional leakages can be quite useful in various settings, such as interrogation of suspects in a crime or in accurate assessment of a patient during psychotherapy.”

Non-verbal gestures

Arati Patel Tuteja, Dubai-based hypnotherapist, mental health coach and NLP practitioner, who uses the art of interpreting body language in dealing with her subjects, seconded Dr Neftci’s views. “Body language is a function or combination of feelings, nervous responses, emotions, thinking, muscle memories (cellular memory) etc. We speak through our body. This is decoded through our facial expressions, hands and leg movements, positions of shoulders, micro expressions, gestures, postures, tone and pitch of voice,” Tuteja said.

Arati Patel Tuteja

“Body language is a function or combination of feelings, nervous responses, emotions, thinking, muscle memories (cellular memory) etc. We speak through our body. This is decoded through our facial expressions, hands and leg movements, positions of shoulders, micro expressions, gestures, postures, tone and pitch of voice,” Tuteja said.

According to body language expert Jan Hargrav, studies show that 55 per cent of human communication is non-verbal, 38 per cent is through voice inflection and only seven per cent is through words.

Neural connection

Body language is not just about a set of physical gestures, but these have deep neural connections and that is how scientists are able to draw conclusions. Dr Neftci pointed out that the term was coined by an anthropologist, Ray Birdwhistell, in 1952, while studying people to investigate and analyse behaviours in social situations.

Elaborating on how body language worked through neural pathways, Tuteja explained: “Emotions drive human experience and expression, especially in a trial where a person is recalling what’s stored in memory, through our neuro pathways. If a person is trying to recreate something else, then his or her body gives away the information of deceit. Emotions sweep through the entire body, generating either fight, flight or freeze response involving sweat glands, heart rate and blood pressure. Human expression is indicative of emotions expressed via postures, positions, eye movements that are very obvious to decipher. However, it’s the micro movements of expression on the face that need very delicate understanding.”

Dr Neftci continued: “Today, emotional body language is a term used in neuroscience. This includes numerous empirical studies, providing evidence of its accuracy. The majority of body language experts are advanced psychologists (mostly clinical or forensic) as they are trained to spot or convey a particular emotion. However, it is also widely used by law-enforcement officials during interrogations and by HR specialists for hiring decisions as particular patterns of emotions can indicate your personality.”

Involuntary symbols

Tuteja said that while it is possible for a person to lie or conceal information, body language symbols are quite involuntary and cannot be concealed. “We, NLP practitioners, believe that while a person can lie or forget, our nervous system does not lie or forget. The nervous system is an automatic response based on what’s going on in a person’s mind and body.” Hence its reliability.

He cited some instances where lawyers, policemen and judges are expected to keep an eye out for reading people’s voices, manner of speaking, choice of words and body language. There are distinct tell-tale signs:

• Fear can be expressed through dilated pupils, increased heart rate, excessive perspiration, trembling of limbs.

• Evasion can be manifest in a person who looks furtively with darting eyes, crossed arms or leans the upper part of the body.

• Anger can be expressed with a subtler expression such as a twitch of the under-eye muscle and sides of nose muscles.

Point of convergence

Dr Neftci reiterated that although different cultural backgrounds influence our non-verbal communication, there are many points of convergence. “Despite cultural differences, the majority of bodily expressions are proven to be universal, leaving very little room for subjectivity. A few examples of bodily expressions of positive emotions can be a head nod paired with a smile, which is indicative of one’s enthusiasm and engagement in a conversation. Another example may be one’s erect posture when one is proud or slouching of the head when one feels sad or rejected. A few examples of bodily expression of negative emotions may include keeping the eyes on the floor when a person feels uncomfortable, shy or if a peron is dishonest. Crossing the arms can be an indication of defensiveness.

The tell-tale signs can be applied across situations, especially during psychotherapy, said Dr Neftci. “During psychotherapy, the application of expertise in body language does not stay limited to particular cases. In fact, this knowledge is used for every single patient. In order to assess whether the emotion expressed is congruent with the involuntary body language or not, psychotherapists maintain a constant observation of all bodily cues. On the other hand, psychotherapists initiate a voluntary body language that reinforces the idea among patients that they are being empathised, understood and accepted such as through eye contact, leaning in, mimicking their emotions and so many more,” she explained.

Some tell-tale signs
Here are some common gestures and what they signify:
— Hair: Groomed and Healthy, a sign of relaxation
— Forehead, puckering the brow: Stress
— Lips: Pressed when something is bothersome
— Crossed hands, covering the mouth, coughing, touching nose: Self-soothing
— Eyes: Movements of eyes indicative of processing information rather than deception
— Loosening of shirt, tie, brushing legs with hands or moving feet: Ventilating when something is bothersome
— Yawning: Stress, mirroring of fatigue
— Fingers running through hair: Bothered, stressed, upset
— Touching neck on the side: Insecurity
— Eyes blinking: The person is bothered about a word or unresolved issue

Scope for errors

A highly aware student can use body language to influence or change opinions of people, cautioned both the experts. Dr Neftci gave some examples. “People can intentionally use gestures to empower the emotions they want to convey. This can include situations like politicians targeting a positive image during a public speaking session or the efforts made by a psychotherapist, aiming to establish a good rapport with a patient.”

Many signs are wired to DNA

Dr Neftci elaborated on how the nervous system was involved during the process. “Our central nervous system (brain), which is composed of a complex network of neurons (brain cells), is naturally involved in this particular type of communication. Our limbic brain (placed in the middle of reptile and cortical brain) is responsible for all non-verbal communication.”

Based on these decisions, an individual is capable of generating emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, joy, pride etc. “Our body tends to give physical responses in line with how we feel because such responses are used either to down-regulate negative emotions or to upregulate/maintain the positive ones. For instance, we tend to initiate self-soothing behaviours, such as rocking the body back and forth, rubbing the back of the arms, wringing the hands or biting the lips or the inner cheek to down-regulate anxiety and stress. Such cues can be very helpful to understand people’s emotions. To give an example, if a suspect is manifesting a self-soothing behaviour during an interrogation, it may mean that he or she is stressed and anxious when being in a tight corner. Body language is an indication of all of our emotions and they never lie,” added Dr Neftci.

Powerful tool to be used judiciously

While body language has been recognised as a powerful communication tool, especially in knowing undercurrents in a personality, both experts were of the opinion that it needs to be used judiciously and in combination with other facts. Behaviour analysis and body language should be used as an analysis and evaluation tool rather than judgement. There is a lot that goes reading between the lines here. Sometimes, further investigation may provide a simpler explanation. For instance, when I asked a man why he was constantly looking at a watch, he said he was concerned about parking. Similarly, while interviewing my client, I asked to clarify why he was touching his neck. He explained that it was because he slept in a wrong way and that it was hurting. Therefore, other factors need to be taken into consideration before drawing any conclusion on behavioural communication,” Tuteja cautioned.

Tuteja quoted Joe Navarro, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent in the United States, who has provided a definite grid on basic non-verbal gestures and what they communicate. Body Language expert Jan Hargrav, who also trains police personnel, provided some basic signs and their interpretations, especially in a court room.

— Hands up, rigid hand and all fingers apart: The person is terrified and will tell the truth.

— Hands up and fingers are tight together: The person will tell the truth, but the truth will have to be pulled out from him or her.

— Hands bent, palms cupped: The person will try to lie.

— Two fingers together and two apart: Give spontaneous and analytical, honest answers.

— Hand leans backward: Will try to bend backwards to make you believe, but will typically lie.