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The body tells all

May 23, 2004|By KATE COLEMAN

"The body says what words cannot," said 20th-century American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.

Graham has been called the mother of modern dance. Her influence on the art form was huge. But you don't have to be a dancer to express thoughts, feelings or meanings with your body.

Sometimes, you can't help it.

Some expressions, gestures, positions and postures are involuntary - part of nonverbal communication or body language.

Take the shoulder shrug, for example. It's a universal sign of resignation, uncertainty and submissiveness, according to "The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues," by David B. Givens. Equipped with a doctorate in anthropology, Givens is director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., which promotes the scientific study of nonverbal communication, including body movement, gesture, facial expression, fashion, architecture, mass media and consumer-product design.

The upper trapezius muscle - which moves the shoulder - is connected to a particular cranial nerve and is emotionally responsive and difficult to control.

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Nonverbal communication also has evolutionary roots.

"The smile-face may be traced to the primate's grimace or fear grin," Givens wrote. Grinning submissively showed fear and came also to indicate friendliness.

A smile, "something everybody everywhere does in the same language," according to the Crosby, Stills and Nash song "Wooden Ships," is indeed a universal facial expression, Givens said.

Even babies understand. A newborn is more likely to respond to a smile than to a frown or a face with a neutral expression, he said.

"We are far better at recognizing nonverbal communication than verbal communication," said Mike Harsh, Hagerstown Community College professor and interim director of instruction at the college.

In his public speaking and introductory human communication classes, he always has told students to listen not just with their ears, but with their eyes and hearts as well.

Harsh cited a 1972 study he called key in the field of nonverbal communication. The results of Albert Mehrabian's research are interesting: Seven percent of the emotional meaning of a message is in the words. Thirty-eight percent comes through "paralanguage" - inflection, volume, pronunciation and rhythm. The other 55 percent comes through nonverbal communication, Harsh said.

He has illustrated the point in classes by giving a word to one student - boredom, for example. Without speaking the word, by using posture and gesture, the student will try to express the meaning to classmates. Ninety-five to 99 percent of the time, the other students get it, Harsh said.

They see what he means.

Body language is not always innate. People can be trained in nonverbal communication, Givens said. He worked with a judge who tended to compress his lips during the defense's presentations during a trial. Lip compression can signal anger, dislike, opposition or disagreement, according to Givens' dictionary.

Studies show that juries usually go along with what they think the judge thinks, Givens said. The role of a judge is to be impassive and neutral, but after watching a videotape, the judge realized he was unknowingly transmitting signals that could influence a jury.

Givens, resident anthropologist at the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C., from 1985 to 1997, said he's a "politics junkie."

By watching him on television, Givens said he knew that former president Bill Clinton was hiding the truth about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky long before it was revealed.

President George W. Bush is really into body language, but he is not really aware of his own, Givens said. Bush had mentioned that the eye contact he had on his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was something he really liked, Givens explained.

Bush often compresses his lips in a thin line; that could be an indication of anger, something negative. The president's body language tells Givens that Bush is "very pained" yet sure of himself.

There is a difference in meaning in the way people gesture with their hands, Givens said.

Palms up is a more conciliatory gesture.

Gesturing with the palms down, emphasizing spoken points with gavel-like movements is more assertive - and something politicians do.

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