Is Body Language A Language, And Is It Universal?

You probably vaguely know what body language is, but did you know there’s a whole field of study behind it?
A young woman stretching with the view of a city in the background

No matter what your native tongue is, you also speak body language. Whether you’re consciously noting it or not, the way you present yourself affects how the person you’re speaking to understands you, and vice versa. This can be a pretty loosely defined term, but there is a whole field of study behind it. So what is body language, exactly?

What Is Body Language, And What Isn’t?

Body language is used pretty loosely in pop culture. You could say waving to someone counts, and even sign language is technically “a use of the body.” To avoid generalizations, some researchers might call the field of study around it kinesics instead (though body language is still the more popular term).

The field of kinesics was essentially invented by American anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell. Staring in the 1950s, he devoted his career to investigating the influence of posture and gesture on communication. While kinesics is not treated exactly as a part of linguistics, Birdwhistell did base his research on the field of descriptive linguistics. Whereas verbal language is built of phonemes (a unit of sound), he argued that body language is built of kinemes (a unit of movement). 

To answer the central question of this article, researchers don’t think of body language as an entirely separate language. Instead, it merely supplements meaning. Similar to how you stress a certain word in a sentence to change the sentence’s meaning — “I want that” vs. “I want that” — you can use bodily movements to accentuate things as well.

The number of factors that can be looked at in kinesics is probably larger than you think. While the most obvious parts of kinesics are movements like rolling your eyes, crossing your arms and sticking up your middle finger, there’s more to it. You can look at proxemics, which is how closely people are to each other, or haptics, which is how physical touch is used. This may seem a little obscure, but small differences can have a noticeable effect. 

How Much Of Language Is Nonverbal?

Have you heard the statistic about what percentage of communication is nonverbal? It’s about 80 percent. Or wait, no, actually it’s more like 93 percent. Actually, maybe 55 percent? Oh, and then Ray Birdwhistell said that body language made up 60 to 75 percent of conversation. These numbers get thrown around a lot, but it might be more complicated than a percentage can express.

The statistics above are based on a series of studies done in the ‘60s and ‘70s by Albert Mehrabian. The study asked people to evaluate the feelings and emotions of a statement based on the way a person speaks, and they gave a percentage to various features. The results said that people based their evaluations of the message 55 percent on body language, 38 percent on tone and only 7 percent on the actual words being said. 

This study is often reported as “93 percent of language is nonverbal,” but that’s not entirely accurate. If you take the words away from a message, you probably will have a hard time understanding what the person is trying to get across. That’s the whole reason the game charades exists.

This doesn’t mean body language should be written off. It’s certainly a factor in communication, even if it’s not possible to put an exact number on how big a factor it is.

The Body Language Controversy

Not long after Ray Birdwhistell’s original research into kinesics, it became a popular topic for book writers. There is something very appealing about the idea that you can “read” another person to find out their secret thoughts and desires. But this approach can lead to some misconceptions about how body language works.

Body language is a somewhat subjective category because there are so many factors that go into it. It can comprise a speaker’s conscious movements, unconscious movements, the information they’re going to get across and the information that the listener understood, among other considerations. Even if you perfectly observe someone’s movements, you’re not going to always see the same thing. This doesn’t mean body language isn’t worth studying, but there is reason to be skeptical about its use in certain areas.

Perhaps the biggest controversy comes from one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. Given by Amy Cuddy in 2012,  “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are” detailed her and her fellow researchers’ studies that purported to show that not only do a person’s thoughts and mood influence their body language, but also a person’s body language influences their thoughts and moods. The central thesis talked about power posing, which said that if you stand in a confident position (arms akimbo, for example), you can actually increase your confidence.

The power pose became embroiled a few years later in the replication crisis of psychology, meaning follow-up studies did not find the same results as the original. This led one of Cuddy’s co-authors to bail on the thesis, though Cuddy herself still believes that power posing will be vindicated by continued research. There’s no clear answer for this yet.

Is Body Language Universal?

One question that has been important to the study of body language is whether it’s universal. There are certainly gestures that are culture-specific — the American peace sign can be confused for flipping someone off in England, for example — but the argument is over whether more subtle gestures are recognizable outside a certain culture.

Ray Birdwhistell believed that body language had no universals, but research over the past few decades has shown evidence of some cross-cultural recognition. American scientist Paul Ekman did a famous study in 1971 that found Papua New Guineans, who had little interaction with the outside world, could reliably tell what an American was feeling based on their facial expressions. Further studies have argued there are at least seven basic emotions that seem to transcend a person’s upbringing.

Still, there are cultural differences, and body language can be an important part of language learning. Because it contributes so much to understanding, a language learner needs to learn how to incorporate it with a new language. This can add an extra layer of difficulty when you’re simply trying to translate something in your head, but it can also be a great help. If your vocabulary is limited, body language is something for you to fall back on to get your point across.

For the most part, body language is a central part of communication that people recognize without thinking too much about it. (Unless you’re flirting, in which case it’s all you think about.) Once in a while, however, it’s worth it to step back and consider how your movements come across to other people. It’s not an exact science, but physical cues can be used to increase understanding and bring people closer together.

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