Why Body Language IS International

Here’s the trouble with interpreting body language – we often assign meaning incorrectly.

Posted on | Janine Driver | Comments ()

Here’s the trouble with interpreting body language – we often assign meaning incorrectly.

I am always the first to say this: body language means absolutely nothing if we do not take into account an individual's history, culture or normal behaviors into account when we attempt to interpret what they are saying without saying a word.

Of course our bodies say more than we think – if they didn’t, I’d be out of a job!

In every situation, during every conversation, in the course of every interaction, our bodies are telling it like it is. They effectively demonstrate what we are unwilling or unable to – our happiness, our sadness, our anxiety, fear or nervousness.

Here’s where having only a little bit of knowledge is dangerous – with it, we reach faulty conclusions based upon our limited information, often to the determinant of the situation at hand.

Think about it … how embarrassed would you be if you believed your co-worker to be a compulsive liar, when in reality they are from a culture in which low eye contact signals respect and deference, not dishonesty.

What if you incorrectly believed that gorgeous gal at the game isn’t interested in you because she is talking to your buddy – yet the entire time she has her whole body turned toward you, including that tell-all, her belly button. Do you want to miss out on the love of your life?

What if you called the President of the United States a liar on national television because of his contemptuous body language – while simply not addressing his baseline behaviors?

As the POTUS met last week with Israel’s Prime Minister, Netanyahu, it was evident that their meeting of the minds was somewhat uncomfortable for both participants.

However, I am not certain that I see contempt and hatred, as much as I see frustration and exasperation for the situation at hand. 

As both men noted, there are substantial differences between them – the least of which are cultural. Yet, it is my interpretation that at the root of this discussion are two world leaders who both identify with the struggles and obstacles of the other, and who, given alternative circumstances, may have been better friends than they claim to be.

Let me explain why.

If you watch their encounter, the biggest thing that jumps out is the physical positioning of these gentlemen. Both have their bodies angled slightly inward (toward each other). Both have their outside legs crossed in, again toward the other. Netanyahu spends the majority of the time with one hand up while speaking, the other placed gently on his leg, again in the direction of Obama.

Most importantly, pay close attention to their belly buttons. As our first connection to another human being, these belly buttons are quite the little triggers. Emotionally, our navels know what our hearts and minds sometimes cannot face – they instinctively point themselves in the direction of individuals we like, admire and trust. As is the case here, those buttons are inward, pointing directly at one another.

Also, President Obama brings his hands up and forms what’s called “The Basketball Steeple.” A variation on the handgun steeple seen in boardrooms internationally, the basketball is a gesture of compassion, caring and understanding. With both palms up and out, fingers spread – it’s a vulnerable position. We see Obama use this position a lot – it is most certainly in his baseline of behaviors when speaking in public. By using a familiar gesture, Obama is demonstrating a type of ease in this situation that would not be present if he were full of contempt and hatred for his counterpart.

Additionally, what may be interpreted as contempt in Obama’s eyes while Netanyahu is speaking may have another meaning entirely. Obama is clearly concentrating on Netanyahu’s words. His brows are slightly furrowed, and he holds his hand up to his chin – in the Thinker’s Pose. This position is well known as a sign of concentration, which is what I believe Obama to be doing. He is respectfully and carefully listening to the concerns being brought forth, and appears more than a little exhausted – not trying to intimidate or unwillingly show contempt. (Or, maybe he looks a little worse for the wear – because HE IS. Geez … the man is running the United States of America, being the world’s watchdog, maintaining a marriage, and raising a family. I’d be tired too.)

Essentially, it appears to me as though the tension exhibited during this encounter is situational – and not representative of a fundamental dislike for each other. Let’s be real – this is a tense situation for everyone involved; t’s pretty understandable that these men may in fact be anxious or nervous.

Yet, judging by their core body language reactions to being close – it looks as though underneath the situational tension there lies a mutual respect and indeed, something close to “a friendship” as Obama stated.

Disagreements between friends, as Obama coined this circumstance, do in fact happen in the course of business, relationships and life.

If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be much to comment on, would there?

Blog written by Janine Driver
Janine Driver is the New York Times best-selling authorof YOU SAY MORE THAN YOU THINK: A 7-Day Plan on Using the New Body...