Most Jewish Student acitivists are trained in public speaking skills, and can communicate what they say in a way that other people will understand. However, focussing on our speech when we communicate is misleading, because at least half of our communication is not verbal at all, but depends on our posture, expressions and gestures. This is called body language. Why is body language so important? There are two principal reasons:* When you are making a presentation or talk to a group of students, only a fraction of what you communicate will depend upon your words. You say much more with your body language.
When you are running a discussion, having a chat with someone, or listening to somebody's problems, you can learn a lot about what they are thinking and feeling by watching their body language.
Picture this scenario: You say to a friend, "How was your meeting with your tutor?" Your friend says. "O.K." Then her smile vanishes and her hand tightens around the notebook she is carrying. Did your friend really do O.K. in that meeting? Probably not, but she does not want to talk about her true feelings right now. When a person's facial expression differs from their words, your experience tells you to go with the visual cues, not the words.
The Vocabulary of Body Language
Body language, unlike spoken language, is inexact; so you have to be careful about how you interpret it. It can vary slightly from person to person, and greatly from culture to culture. This doesn't mean that you can only 'read' body language when the other person intends to display it - body language is nearly always unintentional. As a starting point, the lists below provide you with some common body language terms and their generally-accepted meanings:
Positive Body Language
Positive body language is generally quite reliable as an indicator of a person's feelings. It signals interest in the other person and in the conversation.
Relaxed posture - Comfortably seated, relaxed breathing, no visible stiffness or abrupt movements. These indicate no major barriers to communication.
Arms relaxed - Uncrossed arms and hands open (palms up or otherwise visible to the other person) are signs of openness.
Good eye contact - Looking in the other person's eyes, particularly when they are speaking, indicates interest in that person. Proper eye contact involves looking away occasionally to avoid staring.
Nodding agreement - When nods are used to punctuate key things the other person has said, they signal agreement, interest and understanding. However, continual unconscious bobbing of the head usually indicates that the listener is tuning out.
Taking notes - Shows interest and involvement, particularly if notes are on what the other person is saying.
Smiling/adding humor - This is a very positive sign. It signals a warm personal relationship.
Leaning closer - Reducing the distance between two people, particularly when the other person is speaking. Indicates interest is up and barriers are down.
Gesturing warmly - Talking with hands, particularly with palms open, indicates involvement in the conversation and openness to the other person.
For all of these positive gestures, moderation is the rule. When they are exaggerated, they can become more negative than positive. When you are talking to somebody, make sure that your body language is positive. Keep an open posture, smile, and make eye contact.
Negative Body Language
Negative body language is somewhat less reliable as an indicator of the person's comfort with the current conversation than is positive body language. Actions that are generally considered negative may just be a matter of comfort for this person, and may be indicative that the person is tired or has a lot on his/her mind.
Body tense - Stiffness, wrinkled brow, jerky body motion, hands clasped in front or palms down on the table. These can indicate concern with the topic or dealing with the other person.
Arms folded in front - Creates a barrier; can express resistance to what is being said.
Hand on face - A hand over one's mouth is a closed gesture, it can often indicate having something to say, but a reluctance to talk. Leaning on one's elbow with the chin in the hand can communicate boredom.
Fidgeting - Moving around a lot, playing with things and drumming fingers are usually a sign of boredom, nervousness or impatience.
Arms behind head, leaning back - In a well-established relationship this can be a relaxed gesture. In a new relationship, it is often used to express a desire for control or power.
Yawning - Boredom, confusion. The other person is talking too much or in too much technical detail.
Impatience - Trying to interrupt what the other person is saying, opening one's mouth frequently as if to speak.
Distraction - Eyes flicking about, blank stares, flipping through literature without really reading it, looking at others in the office, looking at the person's body or clothing.
Leaning away - Avoiding moving closer, even when something is handed to the person, is strongly negative.
Negative facial expressions - These include shaking head, eyes narrowed, scowling, frowning.
If you are giving a talk or leading a discussion and you notice more than a few people exhibiting negative body language, you need to find ways to change what you are doing. For example - engage your audience more by asking questions, introducing humor etc.
Combinations Count More Than Individual Gestures
Body language is more meaningful when several expressions take place at the same time. For example, the combination of leaning forward, nodding and smiling is a strong indication of agreement and openness. Most meaningful is a matched set of gestures which also agrees with what the person is saying.
Transitions Count More Than Positions
As a rule of thumb, individual body positions or movements are frequently meaningless. Some people's faces form a smile or a frown more naturally than a neutral expression. Some people lean on their hand all the time; others never do it. Some people can't sit in a chair for more than a few minutes without crossing their arms; others sit erect with their hands at their sides.
What is meaningful, however, is a transition from one body position to another. If a person spends the entire meeting leaning forward, that may be just comfort. But if the same person starts out leaning back and then gradually moves forward as the meeting progresses, that's non-verbal communication. If you suggest a solution to someone in your student union and they cross their arms as you talk, and then put their hand on their mouth as you finish - you can be fairly sure that they do not like your suggestion.