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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Can you read my body langauge?

Body Language: This was a term I heard growing up when I was watching cricket. A lot of times this commentator Ravi Shastri would comment on teams' body languages depending on how they were doing in the game. And at most times it would be reflective of their performance.

However body language (in my view) goes beyond cricket or sports in general. I think our whole lives are littered with body language. For example, if you talk to people in "Human Resources or Development", they will tell you that one of the things they observe during interviews is body language used by the interviewee which (in most cases according to them) indicates the interest a person has in the job, or if he/she actually is saying the truth and so on. has some interesting thoughts on body language. It describes non verbal commmunication as:

The communication without words. The face is used a great deal. Hand signals, shrugs, head movements, etc. also are used. It is often subconscious. It can be used for:

  • Expressing emotion (e.g. smiling to show happiness)
  • Conveying attitudes (e.g. staring to show aggression)
  • Demonstrating personality traits (e.g. open palms to show accepting qualities)
  • Supporting verbal communication

It also says that different cultures have different body languages:

Non-verbal behavior also varies across cultures (such as the ‘ok’ finger O), although the six major emotions (anger, fear, disgust, sadness, happiness and surprise) are common across the world.

If you have watched the football world cup, I am sure you have seen the Italians use hands to talk as this article confirm:

Walk down the street of any Italian town today and you might think you've wandered onto the set of a Fellini movie. People everywhere seem to be mumbling to themselves while gesticulating wildly. If you get closer to them, though, you'll notice that they're punctuating a conversation on their telefonini with hand gestures. Mobile telephones are ubiquitous in Italy today, and all those animated discussions are proof positive that Italians express themselves with their hands even while speaking on the phone.
further one of the best football refrees of all times Pierluigi Collina says:

Whilst renowned for his ability to stare down even the games most aggressive exponents, Collina explained that his ability to deflate tense situations with a smile was equally important:

"I only ever had a few seconds to resolve a situation and therefore using the right body language was essential. You just have to use the appropriate behaviour for the moment – it could be a smile, or I could be much firmer, depending on the situation."

Back to which states:

Try the difference between listening to someone with your eyes closed and listening/watching with your eyes open. It is much easier to understand when you are watching them.

This is why I think emails/MSN/social networking sites are handicapped when it comes to communications. While emitcons are great, they are still very limited in how much they indicate. it is much harder to fake a smile in person then it is to type "colon" and a "bracket" .

: ) ( typing that was so easy!)

Having said that, I think emails/msn/social networking sites can be a secondary tool to facilitate relationships depending on who the user/s are. I must say some people are better at it then others.

Phones are slightly better given that you can actually judge more from the tone of a voice but it is still nothing like a face to face meeting. I actually think women are much better at "phone communication" then men are which is probably why most of my friends tell me that they have longer conversations with their moms then dads on the phone ( mind you dads may be quieter in person as well but this phenomena magnifies on the phone).

As a Muslim, I look for guidance towards the Prophet Muhammad ( Peace be Upon Him) and lo behold I find this:

Abu Hurayra said, "When he faced someone, he faced him completely. When he turned away, he turned away completely. I have never seen anyone like him and I will never see anyone like them."
The last thing you want to do is to be looking the other way from the person you are talking to.

and again from the sunnah:

Jarir said, "Since the time I became Muslim, the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, never saw me without smiling at me." The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, "A man from the best of Dhu Yaman will enter by this door whose face has been touched by an angel." Then Jarir came in.

I personally find people who smile at me more approachable then those who are stern faced. I also find smiling at people makes me more approachable for other people.

The masters of body language whom I know generally tend to follow both of the above prophetic practices Also the best body languagers know how to indicate that they are in a rush (i.e. looking at a watch) or turning their legs away from you when they are sitting). Other examples would be people walking fast and talking in a rush when they are in a hurry.

Then you get people who are terrible at reading body language. No matter how much you indicate to them ( non verbally) that you are out of time or in a rush, they will keep talking. Thats when you use verbal communication to indicate your feelings.

I find women are better then men at using and reading body language which makes sense given their more observant nature. I know when I am in the process of getting married and am interviewing my potential spouse, I will actually be as vigilant about non verbal communication asI will be about verbal communication. Having said that, I also know that some people are good at hiding their body language but if you spend a significant amount of time ( one hour?)with them you will eventually start seeing some non verbal signs. Further, each person has their own way of usi ng body language which may be dependent of where they grew up, how their parents were and so on.

In conclusion, I think it is a skill to use and read body language and as with other skills, there are some who are better at it than others and then there are those who are naturals. (Din says that as he turns his body away from his laptop!)

A small Booklist on this topic:
Body Language: How to Read Others' Thoughts by Their Gestures (Overcoming Common Problems) (Paperback)
The Definitive Book of Body Language: The Secret Meaning Behind People's Gestures (Hardcover)


Hafsa said...

Jazak Allah for the informative post. It's very interesting how the same sign can mean different things in different cultures.

Like folding your arms (like in a standing position of salah), in the sub continent, kids are asked to "fold their hands" as it's a sign of respect, and paying attention. While in North America, it's "being closed, defensive"

Humairah Irfan said...

Hammy Wammy..
here's a link:
I haven't read your post completely, inshallah will do so after Ramadan.

khany said...


electronic communication are handicapped because they leave out body language. cant argue with that.

books and letters suffer from the same. however they are also indispensible because sometimes we value the limited communication when it may be impossible (or difficult) to meet in person.

looking beyond this compromise you will notice that books and letters are also valueable for several other reasons. off the top of my head:
they allow us to keep a record of a conversation that is more reliable than our memory.
body language can also be a distraction (especially in mixed gender situations); memos, letters, chat messages and emails minimize this element.
face to face conversations often require immediate responses. the distance and privacy allowed by these other media usually give us more time to think through our response, to refresh our memory by rereading what has just been said, and by allowing us to quickly research before providing a response.

in summary i think both face to face and indirect communication serve complementary purposes. it is unfair to criticize one relative to another without providing a reason for the communication in the first place :)

Happy said...

Nice non-verbal stuff:) You can check some more about non-verbal eye contact.