Let me be specific. Body language, the way many books and other resources present it, is mostly useless in the practice of lie detection. Generally speaking, it is a largely misrepresented understanding. Moreover, because of the meaning associated with it these days (and how writers try to cash in on that), that misunderstanding continues to perpetuate. People like to understand. It’s helpful to communicate better and build relationships. However, there is a risk when people pass subjective myths off as universal fact.
The Great Myth
Body language in many circles present it as some sort of ‘great revealer’ of human intention or everyone’s inner-most thoughts. In fact, most body language supporters give movements some specific meaning; That some physical gesture means something all the time without fail. This is also often generalised into scenarios. All of these are unsupported and unscientific claims. Very often, it might be true for only a sample of certain societies but does not factor in differences of countries, cultures, religions, age, gender, etc., or any combination of those differences.
For example, many people explain crossing arms to mean that a person is defensive. Often, they give the context of business meeting, negotiation, or sales. However, crossing arms is also what people do when they want to think about things. Or when they’re feeling a bit cold. Perhaps they just want to rest their arms. Maybe they think it makes them appear important somehow.
There’s a lot of perfectly logical and possible reasons. Understanding this collapses any chance of accurately determining the reason for any crossing of arms seen during a meeting.
I want to make another important point about those body language books and resources. By spreading the idea that certain movements have specific meaning, it spreads the idea that something means something else when it doesn’t. Well, what is the harm you ask?
The Non-Universal Dangers
Hypothetically speaking, let’s say that one of these body language experts writes in one of these books that in the context or situation of a high risk threat to security, where perhaps an important dignitary is present and under threat of assassination. Suppose now, that this author writes that readers who are security personnel should consider anyone reaching into their jacket pocket an extreme risk and should also respond according to the threat level because they are pulling a gun.
Read that criteria again: “ANYONE REACHING INTO THEIR JACKET POCKET”.
Here’s what this criteria presupposes as fact, and you decide if there is harm.
- The focus is on an assassination by a single gun carried in a jacket.
- Only persons wearing jackets are a security risk.
- Other targets, methods, and means of assassination are not considered.
Now, if these security personnel were to really act upon this “piece of body language expert wisdom”, here is what may happen.
- An assassination attempt by a person in a jacket might be stopped in time.
- Any person wearing a jacket who makes the mistake of reaching into their jacket for any reason at all (for a pen, business card, or a notepad) could be arrested, or embarrassed publicly, injured or perhaps even killed by security personnel.
- The assassination attempt may still happen with incidents with innocent people in jackets also happening.
This is just my opinion as it is a difficult thing to comment on since any result where injury or death is regrettable. However, since many people at a high profile social event will dress up in jackets (including security), the chances of disproportionately hurting or killing many more innocent people in jackets outweighs seems much worse and definitely something to avoid.
Body Language & Communication
So let me then clarify. Body language is prevalent in communication and it’s an important aspect of the way we communicate with one another. We use gestures to communicate ideas and emphasise points. And what I have said doesn’t mean that body language in itself has no meaning. I’m certain we all do everything with a reason – whether we were aware of it or not. However, it becomes a potentially dangerous situation when we assign specific meaning to certain movements or gestures without checking or clarifying, and then generalising it on anyone who fits that pigeon-hole. Depending on the context, it can be a irrecoverable mistake.
Hang on. I said ‘Most body language is useless’. So does that means some are useable?
Yes. Although, the ones that are useable are subjective in their own right. In fact, science has still not confirmed a single universal gesture or body language that is consistent across all the different demographics or variables. What we can agree on is that it is subjective. In lie detection, we observe body language very differently in that we consider its usage in conjunction with the other four channels. It’s important to understand what science has actually learned versus the popular re-telling of old myths in a colourful way. As we always remind participants who attend the programs – “Stick to the science. It makes a difference”.