Body Language 88 Does Our Body Language Reveal Conscious or Unconscious Prejudices?

July 24, 2020

The social upheaval in 2020 triggered by the murder of George Floyd, and amplified by many other tragic situations, has changed the way we approach racial injustice as a society.

While some progress has been made over the decades, it is clear that more progress is urgently needed. As an older white male, I realize that I am caught in my own world view.

I am becoming more aware that many marginalized groups have a vastly different set of experiences about the impact of prejudice. I am seeking to learn more.

As a longtime student of body language, I have concluded that our gestures and other body language do reveal hidden feelings of prejudice.

When teaching body language, I stress that cultural differences are really important when interpreting signals from another person. You cannot assume you are interpreting a signal from someone of another culture is what you are used to in yours.

There is a wonderful resource book on this topic entitled “Kiss. Bow, or Shake Hands” by Terri Morrison, Wayne Conaway, and George Borden. My copy is a few decades old, but they have been issuing new editions; the most recent version was written in 2015.

It is important to keep things up to date, because customs tend to change with time. The book is a great way to read up on the culture of another part of the world when you travel internationally.

Even within a particular nation there can be large differences in body language signals depending on the differences that occur between groups of people.

For example, I am sure there are numerous issues where body language signals are different from one race to another. I have not found a lot of studies on this aspect, although there was a documented study at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016 relative to doctors being less empathetic with their body language when treating terminally ill black patients versus white patients.

The majority of the physicians were white men, so the team could not make any statistically significant conclusions about whether the physician’s race impacted his or her actions.

In a Tufts University study reported in Science Daily, “Subtle patterns of nonverbal behavior that appear on popular television programs influence racial bias among viewers. Black characters elicit especially negative nonverbal responses, such as facial expressions and body language, from other characters, and viewers exhibit more racial bias after exposure to such negative responses.”

The study found that characters on the shows exhibited more negative nonverbal behavior toward black characters than to white characters of the same status.

I also found an interesting study indicating “Some evidence for the nonverbal contagion of racial bias.” The study was done in 2015 by Willard (Harvard), Isaac (Princeton), and Carney (UC Berkeley). “Four experiments provide evidence for the hypothesis that we can ‘‘catch’’ racial bias from others by merely observing subtle nonverbal cues.”

The implications of this study are that it is likely we unconsciously pass on judgmental feelings about another group of people by our nonverbal behaviors.

I found several examples of specific scripted studies such as the ones above, but I have not found a meta-analysis or extensive controlled experiment reported in the literature.

I have a growing interest in the subject of the links between bias and body language. If anyone knows of a book, additional academic study, or video on this specific topic, let me know.

I find myself reading more on this topic and trying to learn how to become an “antiracist.”

I am currently reading the book “How to Be An Antiracist” by Ibram Kendi on this topic. He is a New York Times bestselling author and is Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.

He makes the point that “racism is steeped in denial.” He also points out that when a person says “I am not a racist,” it is an indication that the person likely is a racist.

Before this summer, I was not thinking about these issues as much as I should have. I thought of myself as unbiased and have volunteered in dozens of ways to help try to level the playing field, particularly for black folks in our community.

I now see my actions in a different light and feel that by not being more proactive in pursuing inclusive excellence, I was likely part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

I am attempting to remedy this situation by redoubling my efforts to become more educated about the issues and more active in fighting all forms of bias by reading and attending numerous programs on the topic.

It is an interesting area, because if you have unconscious biases, you are not aware of them, by definition. I think it is wise to explore in what ways you can become more aware of any unconscious biases you have.

We need to recognize that everyone is biased.

Discussions of this topic are challenging, because it is easy to offend a person who is different from you. Well-intended conversations can quickly become a minefield of potential problems.

Someone said that in order to make progress, we need to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. There are many things we need to “unlearn” and learn in a different way.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”



Body Language 49 Babies

October 12, 2019

In previous postings I have dealt with numerous aspects of adult body language, body language in children, and even the body language of animals. It is time to deal with the only remaining category of creatures: babies!

When we think of babies and their limited ability to move, ambulate, articulate, and communicate, it seems like there would be not much to report in terms of body language for babies. The exact opposite is true.

Babies have an amazing ability to let others know what is happening in their brain as well as all other parts of their bodies. This realization underscores that most of body language is instinctive, and we do it unconsciously.

For example, the baby in the above picture is curious about something. We can tell that by the shape of the mouth and the wide-eyed expression with the eyebrows held high.

The baby has no cognition of these signals, and is not doing them intentionally; they are just there.

Here is another typical baby expression that is pretty hard to misinterpret. The baby was not trained to make these expressions. The expressions in the two pictures are both unmistakable, and even though some things are the same, the messages we get are completely different.

Here is an interesting question to ponder. They say that a high percentage of body language is culturally specific. A person living in Eastern Europe will have different body language signals than a person from Canada. Do babies from different cultures have different body language patterns? If so, how did they come by these habits?

A more plausible explanation is that all humans are born with the same set of body language regardless of location and are conditioned as they grow to emulate the patterns of the specific culture in which they live.

The bond between a mother and the baby is particularly strong. The mother will know long before another person if the baby is hungry or wet. She will be able to interpret a runny nose far before things start to get messy. I suspect that the baby has a very good idea of the emotions of the mother without the ability to understand any words.

If the mother is sad or tired, the baby will know about that, at least to some extent.

I have no way to verify that and am reminded of the joke made by Steven Wright. He said that when he is with an infant, he writes down all the noises the baby makes so he can go back years later and ask the child what she meant.

Did you ever watch an infant communicating with a dog or cat? There is so much information being transmitted in both directions it is astounding. As adults, we have learned long ago to just absorb these signals and not think about them consciously. But the signals are still there throughout our lives, and we are constantly interpreting them in our subconscious.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on https://www.leadergrow.com/articles/categories/35-body-language or on this blog.


Body Language 42 Animals

August 24, 2019

Because we are verbal creatures, it is sometimes hard to remember how much we communicate with each other through body language.

When we observe how well animals communicate with little or no ability to communicate through words and tone of voice, we can be aware of the tremendous advantage we have.

In the attached picture, we see a mature dog and kitty. Often these two species do not get along so amicably, but here we can read in a lot of what is going on by their body language.

The kitty is alert, feels secure, and is generally happy. Somehow the position of the kitty’s ears and paws speak out loudly to me. The animal seems to be saying, “I am here with my buddy Rex, and he is taking care of me. Even though he is ten times larger than me and could actually eat me, I am not afraid.”

Just to amplify the contrast, consider how difficult it would be to convey trust with a being that is ten times your size (think the size of an elephant).

The exception, of course, is babies. They can convey total trust simply because of their dependency. I believe it is that unconditional trust that is the foundation of the love and affection we feel for our children.

The face of the dog is one of pride. I get that mostly from the erect head, the lowered jaw, and the shape of the ears. To me, the eyes show caring and love. He has his little friend and is feeling good about their relationship, at least at the moment of the picture.

If you were to toss a live rat in the picture, things would probably change quickly.

The dog is not telling me those things verbally or even making any noise, but the body language says it for him.

Imagine if we were as expert at making our feelings known as our pets are. Actually I think we are, but most of it is subconscious.

Granted, we do not have the ability to change the shape of our ears, but we do control their color based on our emotions. A highly emotional state will cause the ears to flush for most people.

That is why the study of body language is so fascinating to me. I have been studying the topic for over 40 years, and I am still learning new things every day.

One thing that comes through loud and clear is that all body language is situational. You cannot assume literal meaning from a single data point of body language. You can only start to form a hypothesis.

To improve the accuracy of your reading, it is necessary to verify your suspicions in a number of ways.

First, look for clusters. If several body language signals point to the same feeling, then your accuracy of reading it correctly goes up geometrically.

Second, make sure to factor in cultural differences. Many gestures are culture specific, and the meaning of a signal in one part of the world can be the exact opposite meaning somewhere else on the planet.

Here is an interesting question, We know body language for humans is culturally specific.  Do you think animals have similar tendencies? Would a dog from Mexico have different body language than one from Saudi Arabia? I have no idea.

I am sure that body language is species specific. I believe the body language of a pit bull is likely to not be the same as a poodle.

Third, seek to verify your hypothesis by considering what is going on around the body language you observe.

Fourth, ask open ended questions of the person. If the dialog mirrors the body language signal, you are probably close to the true meaning. If the words and body language are opposed, then further verification is needed.

In the future, notice how much animals are able to convey their emotions, even though they don’t speak much, or in some cases at all. Notice how by changing their expression and other gestures, they can get you to understand how they are feeling. See if you can emulate your pets by showing your emotions in a more conscious manner.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on https://www.leadergrow.com/articles/categories/35-body-language or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.TheTrust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.