Monday, June 05, 2006

Body language speaks louder than words

My Sensei has always encouraged us to look at what message we are sending by our physical demeanor. Example: Looking like a victim by hunching our shoulders, bowing our head away from someone, and avoiding eye contact.

My curiousity was aroused by his teachings. In Psychology, I had learned that body language such as tone, physical placement of the body parts, and physical distance between people accounts for close to 65 percent of the message. Our spoken word only gives about 35 percent of the content of the ideas.

As a mother of an autistic son, I have had to become more aware of the messages sent by our body language. I had to teach my son even the most basic actions that people take for granted. For example, that avoiding eye contact with another person (in our north american culture) has many negative messages such as "I'm afraid of you", "I'm not talking to you", "I do not wish to speak/listen to you", "I reject you". I had to instruct my son to "look at me" when he was talking to me so that he learned to do this everytime he wanted someone's attention. Although, my son Kenny was innocently avoiding eye contact with people, he was sending negative messages to those who did not know him. After years of correction, Kenny now will constantly give positive social cues to people when he meets them. This has improved his life immensely.

Body language affects our daily interractions. It can help make a potentially violent situation worse, or calm it down. I am thinking of making a separate thread on that topic.. "using body language for self defense" so that we can look at that aspect of our training also.

As we consider Body language, we have to remember that it is taught by culture. For example, avoiding eye contact is considered the deepest sign of respect amoung the Native Canadians. In their traditional culture you do NOT look at an elder directly in the eyes, it is disrespectful, and rude. I have experienced being with some Native Canadian children who continue this tradition. However, this is another topic all on it's own. I'd like to focus on the whole aspect of sending unintended negative messages to others through our silent body language in this thread.

Some of the ways that we can send a negative message to others are:

a) Putting our backs towards a person when sitting or standing so that they feel excluded from a group rather than everyone facing each other in an inclusive way. You can notice this in a group of friends gathering together, they will automatically create a circle so that they can see each other's faces, and read each other's body messages. When you place your body so that you cannot see the other person you are telling them "You are not important, and are unwelcomed."

b) Avoiding eye contact. This is a strong message to the other person that something is going well in the conversation, or is amiss between the two speakers. There are MANY messages sent by the connection of our gaze, by how long the length of contact is, which way our eyes move, and when we break contact. One example is the positive "locking" of the eyes with those to whom we are very attached. If we tried to lock our gaze with a stranger, it would be taken as "staring", and as a challenge. We give away our emotions, our attitudes, our understanding, and even whether or not we are speaking truthfully. It is important to give a person just enough eye contact to build a relationship, but not too much to make them feel uncomfortable. The good news is that each person gives off body language that alerts us to just how much contact is good for them.

[i]"RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. We generally begin an utterance by looking away and end it by looking back at the listener. While speaking, we alternate between gazing at and gazing away (Nielsen 1962, Argyle and Dean 1965, Kendon 1967). 2. There is more direct gaze when people like each other and cooperate (Argyle and Dean 1965). 3. People make less eye contact when they dislike each other or disagree (Argyle and Dean 1965). 4. In primates, the unwavering gaze evolved as a sign of dominance and threat (Blurton Jones 1967, Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975), while gaze avoidance originated as a submissive cue (Altmann 1967). 5. "The [Bushmen] children often used to stare at each other until finally one gave up, by averting the eyes, lowering the head and pouting" (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975:184). 6. "When the subjects gazed at the interviewer's eyes, the hand self-manipulations of the subjects increased, reflecting the upsetting effects of monitoring the interviewer's face during interaction" (Bod and Komai 1976:1276). 7. Direct gaze (along with forward body and smiling) is a trustworthy sign of good feeling between new acquaintances (Palmer and Simmons 1995:156).[/i]

c) Placing physical distance between us and the other person. There are many messages that are sent by how far you stand, sit from someone. You can say "I accept you, and I am comfortable with your presence beside me", " I want to dominate you", or "stay away from me, you frighten me", or "I dislike you.. keep away." all with how much distance you place between you and a person, and how consistent this distance remains when interacting. What is very important is to come into a good distance wherein one is open to interaction, but not enforcing it. The action that really sends out a "stay away" message is when a group of students form a closed circle. There is a big "Do NOT disturb, you are not welcome here.." message being sent by that closed circle even if that is not intentional.

d) Positive/ negative tone of voice. The tone of our voice sends a stronger message than the words that are being said. My children enjoy reading the subtitles of the Japanese anima rather than listening to the dubbed english because they tell me that the tone of the Japanese voice actors cue them into what the real emotions are in that moment of the cartoon. Tone of voice reveals the true message of what is being communicated by that person. Really awesome actors can apply various tones to affect the outcome of a performance. So the words "I like you" can actually mean the opposite just by the tone expressed.

A dojo will receive quite alot of new students that come in to join, and learn karate. The body language of the main regular student group can make the newcomer feel acceptance, or rejection within the first few minutes of interaction. It could be possible that even regular students that train together frequently could be sending messages of rejection, and unacceptance to each other through their body language. Being aware of what our body language is saying, and choosing to help others feel comfortable in the dojo is part of the promise that we make to ourselves when we say that we will " respect others" during our dojo kun.


Oniyagi said...

What an awesome topic. As I read that, I was reflecting on myself and came to the realization that it is indeed correct. I notice that when I am with a group of friends and there is a "new" person around, I distance myself from them. I avoid eye contact (except the beginning glance and ending glance) and I someimes sit away from them. If I feel threatened by them (for whatever subconscious reason) I tend to make direct eye contact with them: saying by body language "I am the alpha male, challenge me and die." And yes, I have completely turned my back on some people, though it was VERY intentional. Also, it is a mistake. Turning your back on somebody sends the message that "You do not threaten me in any way and are not worth my attention." In martial arts, we know this to be a HUGE mistake. In doing so, we underestimate our "adversary" and give them a pretty much free shot at attacking us. To use Frogman's blog entry as an example: Learn from your mistakes. Learn from my mistakes as well! DO NOT rurn your back on ANYONE! I learned that as a police officer. I went on a call that involved two teenagers fighting. One was completely fall down drunk and the other was very much in control of his senses. The drunk was mouthing off from his position on the ground and I turned my back on him to show him that I was in control and was not worried about him. As I was talking to the other suspect, his eyes got big with disbelief and he dropped to the ground. I turned in time to get out of the way of the 2x4 that was heading straight for me. Learn from a potentially lethal mistake folks.
Two cents done :)

supergroup7 said...

Thank you for the experience lesson that you shared with us.. I'm glad that that altercation didn't go in a negative direction!

I agree totally.. NEVER turn your back on your opponent.. especially during tournament fighting.

Have you seen the "Million Dollar Baby" movie? It shows graphically what can happen when you let your guard down from habit. So train to keep your guard up in the dojo, and outside of the dojo when doing sparring exercises with an opponent.

Ruth said...

This is really interesting - I'd forgotten that I'd read previously in your blog of your psychology studies. My job in management training touched a lot on this sort of thing (I stopped working 5 years ago to have children).

My husband and I honeymooned in Canada (Vancouver and surrounds) and we were taken aback by the friendliness of everyone. For unfriendly body-language, come to London! If someone makes eye-contact with you on the underground, you imediately assume that they may be about to threaten you in some way. If you smile and say "g'd morning" to someone, they look at you as if you are very odd.

Thanks for this post - I always feel excited when I see you've added more to you blog for us all to read.

(I have posted a brief summary of some of the work that I've come across on karate and psychology on my blog).

supergroup7 said...

Yes, Ruth.. In my limited interactions, I have found that Canadians tend to be more culturally friendly in person, or on the phone, or in any other interaction as compared to other nations. I wonder what it is about our weather, or the size of our country, or about the air up here that causes Canadians to be willing to smile, say "hello", or "excuse me", or even lend a helpful hand in such an open way. When you consider that Canada is made up of so many different cultures that retain their identity ( Cultural mosaic) How do we keep such a friendly face?

Yet, I have to admit that I have heard that the Japanese culture is FAR more hospitable to strangers. The people that I have talked to have shared some wonderful stories of how kind, considerate, respectful, and welcoming the Japanese have been to them when they were visiting that country.

[Mat] said...

"Ruth.. In my limited interactions, I have found that Canadians tend to be more culturally friendly in person, or on the phone, or in any other interaction as compared to other nations"

Unfortunately, it's not the case over here in quebec.

Sometimes, it feels like new york over here.

supergroup7 said...

I am going to send a little teasing note... something like "Well.. Many Quebecers don't consider themselves Canadians anyway.." :-p

I say this with a glint in my eye, and mean no insult by it.