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 82 Shy

July 7, 2020

Most people will have times in life when they feel shy. It is not a negative thing to exhibit some insecurity in certain situations. We all experience this. The body language of a person who is feeling shy is usually rather easy to decode.

In most cases the person will be trying to avoid being noticed. You may see a child cover her eyes or hide under a coat or blanket.

The gestures associated with being shy are easier to spot in young children than in adults. My guess is that as people mature, they develop ways of disguising insecurity and have coping mechanisms to be able to function successfully in the world.

Let’s examine some other gestures that may be operational here and see if there is a common thread.

The person may hide by stepping behind a door and peeking around the edge. Sometimes you can see a person wearing a hat pull the brim down to hide the face. The idea is to get behind or under something.

Another manifestation of being shy can be the position of the hands. A shy person will sometimes have his hands folded together and sometimes he will be moving them back and forth in front of his body. This is also a contraction movement trying to appear smaller than he actually is.

If the eyes are not covered, most likely the person is looking down and has her chin lowered as in the attached picture.

I found numerous different mouth configurations when looking at photos of shy people. There was not enough of a central theme to constitute a trend. The mouth could be open or shut. It could be symmetrical or pulled to the side. The person could be smiling or frowning, although I saw more examples of a smile than a frown. The mouth area was also frequently covered by the fingers.

What to do

You can help a shy person open up, but it can be a delicate dance, because if you come on too strong, it may be interpreted as a form of put down for the person. The best approach is to let the person know you are sincerely interested in her opinion without talking down to her.

Here is an example of an approach that is too direct. “Alice, you have not said anything in the meeting so far. We want to know what you are thinking.” A softer approach might sound like this. “Let’s hear from some of the other people to broaden our discussion.” When using this approach, avoid looking directly at the person you want to open up.

The person may feel bullied or not treated well by others. Sometimes a leader may exacerbate the situation by letting unkind remarks go unchecked. A hostile environment may be very subtle, and what seems like an innocent remark may be taken the wrong way. The best way to avoid that kind of problem is to have a rule that our team will not make jokes at the expense of other team members.

Avoid commenting on the appearance of a shy person. He wants to remain as hidden from view as possible, so calling attention to him in any way will make things worse for him. The best approach is to get him to share something and honor that with an affirming comment that is not heavy, judgmental, or insincere.

A person who tends to feel shy may do better in a one-on-one situation. You may be able to get the person to feel more confident by spending some time with him. Once you have built a strong rapport with the person, then he will be more inclined to open up when you are both with other people.

A person who is shy may also be highly sensitive. The two concepts are different but are often found in one person. A sensitive person can be a real asset, because he or she can often pick up subtle clues and give insights into how the rest of the group, or a specific person, is reacting to something.

Times of insecurity happen to all of us, and for different reasons. Learn to live through these moments and contribute your ideas as soon as possible.

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