Post No.: 0099
Whereas mathematical symbolic language must be precise (e.g. ‘A > B’ should mean nothing else except ‘the value of A is greater than the value of B’) – everyday language can often be extremely ambiguous e.g. the spoken comment, “You look like Marilyn Monroe today” could be taken as a compliment because she was considered beautiful and you look beautiful today – or it could be taken as an insult because Marilyn Monroe today looks like a pile of bones in a cemetery somewhere! “Every 30 minutes, a person is getting mugged in this city” – what a poor individual! (Understanding things like this is critical in the area of natural language processing in computing, and in some cases applying proper grammar and punctuation when writing.)
Yet humans can correctly understand each other most of the time despite such ambiguous language – partly down to cultural language conventions, and partly down to taking on board each other’s body language, vocal tone and emphases on certain words in order to decipher our emotions and feelings and therefore our intentions. Body language, vocal tone and non-verbal communication also help us to somewhat understand someone who doesn’t speak the same verbal language as us, because these signals are largely universal.
So body language and non-verbal communication are crucial in how we socially interpret the words spoken by others. You can generally tell if someone is e.g. dominant or submissive, open or defensive, interested or bored, based on their non-verbal cues. This is why a lot more misunderstandings can occur from communication that is not done face-to-face. Text messages, emails and online posts can be easily misinterpreted because they lack the ability to clearly communicate the intended emotional tone (e.g. sarcasm is especially difficult to determine – really(!)) Emoticons or emojis can help, but still many of those are used ambiguously too. (What emojis should one use if one is sweating beads after making some baba ghanoush?! That was Fluffy’s joke. I don’t understand it personally – woof.)
The emotional tone isn’t always clear thus we will fill in the tone and non-verbal cues we think a sentence is intended to be accompanied with for ourselves based on our own assumptions, and this assumed information can completely change the way a message is interpreted e.g. we can read the exact same written words, emoticons or emojis as ‘cute flirting’ or ‘creepy flirting’ depending on what assumptions and expectations we hold about the other person at that time, or we can read plainly-delivered lines as aggressive, and so we respond with overt aggression in retaliation, which makes the other person now intentionally write with aggression, and they’ll think that you started it, when you think that they started it! So it’s best not to jump to conclusions about the emotional colour of a written message without fully understanding the context it was written. If in doubt – give the benefit of the doubt.
Something else to note is that, even if a message truly had a certain intentional emotionality accompanied with it, such messages are written during particular fuzzy moments of high emotion, which are usually fleeting – so if a recipient doesn’t catch or read the message immediately and only gets to read it much later, that emotion (or at least that intensity) may have waned by then. The message may be sent and fixed but the person who sent the message may have long moved on from that level of intensity. This is the problem of communication that is not done in real-time, never mind face-to-face, like how a lot of messaging is done now. So remember that context is king. Although written words can be permanently saved and be (re)read at any time, how someone felt when they wrote those words may not reflect how they feel every or any other day. It also highlights why we should try to pause and calm down before writing an angry message too.
Expressing our emotions is necessary to communicate clearly, and we do so more genuinely with our body language and vocal tone than with our chosen words. Any incongruence between what we say and how it’s said will create confusion or suspicion.
Our emotions are also contagious, so when we smile, the whole world smiles with us! If you’re empathic towards someone, you’ll involuntarily physically feel e.g. an unpleasant transient feeling in your body when you see them get hurt or anticipate they’re about to get hurt. It can signal rapport if the body language of two people subconsciously mirror each other. When other people yawn, you might start to yawn too. This emotional contagion is one reason why people don’t tend to like to hang around awkward people and like to hang around charismatic people. (But there are potential advantages if we’re just a little bit more patient and empathic with those who feel socially awkward e.g. they might actually be good and interesting people underneath, and potential disadvantages if we’re not a little bit more cautious of charismatic people e.g. they might actually be psychopaths who are experts at public manipulation.)
If you’re trying to determine if someone is lying based on their body language – to give you the best chance of being correct with your predictions, you should look at clusters of body language cues i.e. not just one or two in isolation because they can be too ambiguous (e.g. a flinch can mean several things, such as a defensive reaction or a genuine itch), look for consistency (several cues that are consistent with each other will give you more confidence in your prediction) and remember to factor in the context (e.g. it should be no surprise that a person might have a red face after running or wish to leave quickly if they are genuinely in a rush to get somewhere else). It’s also important to look at them from head to toe – they may be consciously trying to control the body parts they think you will look at to prevent any ‘leaks’, such as their face, eyes and mouth; so parts like their hands, hips and feet may be more truthful. Too many people (due to reading a bit of ‘pop psychology’ from gossip sources) focus on ‘gaze aversion’ too much, hence one of the first things liars control is where their eyes are being directed – but body language includes micro-gestures, increased blinking, personal space, the use of props and someone’s overall body posture too, for instance. So don’t miss the wood for the trees.
Having said all that, predicting deceit via body language is far more difficult and unreliable than most people estimate with their own abilities. And even if you can determine if someone is concealing something, it can be difficult to determine what exactly they’re concealing (e.g. a secret lover or a nice secret surprise gift for you?) Unambiguous hard evidence or a non-coerced confession should therefore still rule supreme.
People can express a particular facial expression or body language so much in their lives that it becomes etched on their face or body permanently e.g. for holding disdain towards others so much and for so long, a person can exhibit an upturned corner to their upper lip even when they think they’re expressing a neutral face, or a shy person might stand or walk like a plant shrivelled in the shade so much that he/she starts to possess that posture or gait more-or-less permanently. Things like botulinum toxin injections can also make it difficult for other people to accurately gauge someone’s true feelings sometimes, and can also make it difficult for the person with botulinum toxin injections to properly or fully, truly feel some emotions too, because part of how we actually psychologically feel an emotion is by first physically expressing the associated expression itself. (Read Post No.: 0050 for more about the ‘facial feedback effect’.) So pull more positive facial expressions (be proud of any smile lines) and hold your body up high – you’ll also feel happier and more confident too!
Woof! (Moderately high pitch. A drop of drool. Tail wagging slightly more to my right side.)