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Definition: body language from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Nonverbal communication by largely unconscious signals of posture and movement. Sighing and laughing are also body language; though they rely principally on sound, they are often accompanied by gestures and are nonverbal.

Summary Article: Body Language
from Encyclopedia of Emotion

Body language is a type of nonverbal communication. It includes such things as facial expressions, eye movement, gestures, body posture, and body movement. Communication consists of verbal information (the words themselves), paralinguistic cues (including tone and inflection, known as prosody), and body language. Body language can communicate information about a person's attitude, state of mind, or intentions. Body language can signal many things, including tension, boredom, threat, frustration, attention, sexual interest, submission, and social position.

Specific body movements often have multiple meanings, which may vary by culture, gender, social status, age, and context (the situation). People learn through experience to interpret body movements. For example, crossing one's arms across the chest may signal an unconscious barrier or opposition. However, it can also mean that one is cold. Likewise, shivering could indicate either being cold or feelings of fear. Eye movement and position (e.g., gaze, eye contact) should be interpreted within the context of gender, culture, and social status. In some cultures it is considered polite to make direct eye contact, while other cultures consider this rude. There is a subtle distinction between making eye contact and staring (which may be considered rude). Rolling the eyes may indicate exasperation, boredom, or disdain (especially with teenagers). Looking away from someone while they are speaking may be considered impolite or signal disinterest. Looking upward may indicate that a person is thinking or remembering, while looking down may indicate depression, dejection, or submission. Blinking, flinching, and winking can communicate information about a person's mood or intentions.

Distance between people—known as personal space—varies significantly by culture, gender, and social status. Differing conceptions of appropriate personal space can be a source of misunderstanding between people. For example, an American man may feel crowded if another man stands very close; in another culture, standing close together might be considered a sign of friendship. Touching and close contact may indicate intimacy, friendship, or respect, depending on the cultures (and genders) of the people involved.

The study or interpretation of body language is known as kinesics. Some people claim that an individual's body language can provide information about whether she is concealing information or telling the truth. For example, a poker face is a blank expression that does not reveal information about a poker player's hand of cards. A tell is a subtle signal of body language that reveals information about someone's intentions. Body language interpretation is used to guide recommendations in marketing, jury selection, and management decisions. Body movements known as emblems and illustrators are a type of body language that vary from culture to culture. Emblems are movements that have a specific verbal meaning (e.g., nodding or shaking the head to indicate yes or no). Illustrators are closely tied to speech; they may punctuate speech or help explain what is being said (e.g., talking with one's hands; LeDoux, 1996).

Conditions that may impair the ability to interpret (or appropriately express) body language include schizophrenia, depression, autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and Huntington's disease. Individuals with ASD may make limited eye contact. Theories about why eye gaze is avoided include to minimize sensory overstimulation, that it is not rewarding (reinforcing) to make eye contact, and that the connections among brain structures differ in individuals with ASD, making it difficult to make eye contact and to develop other socially adaptive behaviors (Senju & Johnson, 2009). The body language of individuals with schizophrenia and depression may not match the emotions they report feeling (Flack, Laird, & Cavallaro, 1999). Individuals with schizophrenia, ASD, and TBI may have difficulty interpreting others' body language (Watts & Douglas, 2006). Huntington's disease is a neurological disorder that affects motor abilities. It also affects the ability to recognize emotional expressions, including facial expressions of disgust and angry body postures. There may be a link between the ability to produce body movements and the ability to interpret the emotional meaning of others' body movements (de Gelder, Van den Stock, de Diego Balaguer, & Bachoud-Levi, 2008).

Kinematics is the study of movement. There is a relationship between body position and emotional experience. In an experiment by Niedenthal (2007), two groups of people received news about earning a good score on an achievement test. Those participants who were sitting with slumped head and shoulders felt less proud, on average, than participants who were sitting upright. In another experiment, participants were induced to nod their heads in agreement or shake their heads in disagreement in response to questions. While participants were answering the questions, the experimenter placed a pen on the table in front of them. Later, another experimenter offered participants the pen that had been on the table or a different pen. Those participants who had nodded their heads in agreement during questioning preferred the pen that was on the table, while those who had shaken their heads in disagreement preferred the new pen. In these experiments, it appeared that participants engaging in positive body positions or movements responded more favorably or experienced more positive emotions than those who had engaged in negative body movements (Niedenthal, 2007).

See also autistic spectrum disorders, emotional expression, facial expression, nonverbal expression, prosody, universal signals, vocal expression.

Further Reading
  • Pease, B., & Pease, A. (2006). The definitive book of body language. New York: Bantam Dell.
  • References:
  • de Gelder, B., Van den Stock, J., de Diego Balaguer, R., & Bachoud-Levi, A.-C. (2008). Huntington's disease impairs recognition of angry and instrumental body language. Neuropsychologia, 46, 369-373.
  • Flack, W. F. Jr., Laird, J. D., & Cavallaro, L. A. (1999). Emotional expression and feeling in schizophrenia: Effects of specific expressive behaviors on emotional experiences. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55, 1-20.
  • LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Touchstone.
  • Niedenthal, P. M. (2007, May 18). Embodying emotion. Science, 316, 1002-1005.
  • Senju, A., & Johnson, M. H. (2009). Atypical eye contact in autism: Models, mechanisms and development. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 33, 1204-1214.
  • Watts, A., & Douglas, J. (2006). Interpreting facial expression and communication competence following severe traumatic brain injury. Aphasiology, 20, 707-722.
  • Copyright 2010 by Gretchen M. Reevy

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