Why to dismiss advices on body language control
Usually, the problem with these advices on “the gestures you should avoid”, when your “body language is becoming problematic” and that you want “to fix them” is that it implies that 1) some gestures should be avoided; 2) your behaviour is problematic; and 3) “control” is a mean to an end: change this problematic behaviour. It reminds me the naïve vision of the rational man portrayed in the “homo economicus” theory.
I will try to show you that none of these are true and some are even impossible.
I prefer to keep a critical thinking especially when things are presented in a way it might be easily taken as “absolute truth”.
Besides, I always find quite disturbing the amount of articles on the subject of non verbal communication which never quote any sources or put any references. And that’s one of the main issue with this topic: full of myths and beliefs.
It’s clearly easier to use an argument from authority. After all, why questioning the claims of a coach or a professor? 🤔
Non verbal analysis makes sense only with context. To give a meaning to a specific gesture without taking into account the context in which people are communicating is incorrect. At least in the systemic approach of non verbal communication analysis.
According to Gregory Bateson (1904–1980):
“Gesture is not independent from the context in which it is produced.”
In the fifties, he gathered a group of theorists and multidisciplinary academics, known as the Palo Alto group. They successfully imposed the notion that communication (verbal and non-verbal) is a system.
Edward Hall (1914–2009) also pointed out the importance of context in human communication. More recently, Francisco Varela (1946–2001) supported the concept of “embodied cognition” with his work in neuroscience & neuromimetics, refuting the “universal nature” of an individual’s communication objects (e.g. gestures).
According to F. Varela:
“Every living being looks for balance within its environment (autopoiesis). Thus, behaviour emerges or results from a recursive process between perception (sensory organs), action (movement) and environment (in a broad sense) in which the being finds itself.The attitude of an individual is guided by the principle of autopoeisis which is understood by the relationship between the subject and the means it disposes of (perception/action) in its environment.”
Based on this approach, the meaning of the (in)famous “crossed arms” really depends on all previous and next non verbal items (gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, speech and movement speed, etc.) of all the people interacting in an environment in order to be defined as “defensive”. In other words, we need the context.
In the “embodied cognition” paradigm, the concept of control would make little to no sense: if the context conditions your behaviour as much as your inner thoughts, therefore you have to control the context. This reasoning is clearly unsustainable and may lead to some extremes (e.g. “Lord Business” in the Lego Movie 😅).
Attention span and brain limitation.
Non verbal communication is mainly unconscious process: by the time you may realise a certain gesture, it already occurs. In fact most of the brain “process” are automated for our convenience.
The reason is pretty simple: free our mind of thinking to all the actions and decisions, it has to take every seconds. Attention is one of our most precious resource and our brain tries to optimise everything all the time.
Interestingly, emotional responses to a contextual stimuli occurs many seconds before you’re even aware of it.
But the brain is limited. For instance, we’re pretty bad at giving attention to multiple things at the same time. That’s not my opinion, but well known fact in psychology. For more information this subject, please check this funny exercise:
So now imagine: you’re in a conversation with someone and you’re giving your attention to your body and your gestures at the same time. Will you really be focused on what’s happening, on the quality of your interaction? Will you even follow the conversation? Or will you be focus on yourself, your body and what you should do or not do?
If you did watch the video, you know the answer.
You’re in control… are you?
Controlling your body usually leads to jerky movements and loss of fluidity due to muscle contraction, alteration of speech flow/clearness and therefore leaks of non-verbal clues that you are trying to control your body language. Which is creepy and suspicious. Because who the hell would like to put so much effort to control his body language except someone who has something to hide? 🤔
Seeking to control unconscious processes is totally meaningless. At the opposite, being aware of and embracing your emotions, feelings and mindset is a much deeper and interesting exercise.
It may seems less effective at the first hand, but truly changing your behaviour requires you to change your mindset. It’s not about avoiding or forcing yourself doing some gestures.
If it doesn’t feel natural, it’s probably not.
Thanks for reading!