Poetry of the Body

A handshake. A frown. A wave. These and other subtle yet visible gestures comprise man’s oldest form of communication: body language.

“If you think about how we evolved, we didn’t evolve in an acontextual situation like e-mailing or texting people,” Center for Cognitive Health psychologist Daniel Singley said. “People were living together in groups before there was organized language. And so it makes sense that at a very primal level we’re set up to communicate, to produce [body language] and to interpret other folks’ behavior.”

According to Singley, body language is an essential part of interpersonal communication and the conveyance of ideas. In fact, the majority of meaning in a conversation is actually imparted through nonverbal communication, Singley said.

“The old saying is that communication is 95 percent nonverbal and 5 percent verbal, or what you actually say,” Singley said. “[In fact], there’s actually an area of the brain which is dedicated specifically to attending to and decoding facial expression.”

Although body language is an integral part of daily communication, certain occupations and kinds of people, especially those who perform or appear in public, like “actors, politicians, entertainers, attorneys and athletes,” benefit greatly from effective nonverbal communication, according to Singley.

“Body movements are always essential to musicians,” said principal violinist for Advanced Orchestra Leonard Chen (12). “Body language should be a major part of how they play. Without expression, there is really no point [to playing].”

This type of physical and visual communication is not limited to group orchestral performances, and audience members are not the only ones on the receiving end. Nonverbal communication also takes place between the musicians themselves,  according to Chen.

“Even when you are solo playing, you need to use a lot of body language, so your accompanist knows how to play,” Chen said.

He said that words are “too much to think about,” and that through musicians’ collective variety of body language, the entire ensemble can achieve greater harmony in their performance.

Dance is another artistic form of expression in which body language is prevalent, as it is highly refined nonverbal communication, according to Singley.

“I think it is easier for me to communicate through dance, because it is like my art form,” dance team member Delaney Douglas (10) said. “I do not really know specific movements [that impart certain emotions], but when you put them all together, they can convey a strong feeling.”

According to Douglas, dance can serve as a substitute for verbal communication.

“I am not good with words, so [dance] is more natural for me, since I have been doing it for awhile,” Douglas said. “I think you can really show things with dance that can be really hard to say.”

Using body language and emotional expression as an indirect means of communication, like through performance, is also a component to drama and acting.

“Body language is called communication to the audience,” drama teacher Marinee Payne said. “Body language and acting are not separate.”

According to Payne, when an actor assumes the role of a character, he or she must “get to know how the character thinks, how the character feels [and] how the character responds to situations.”

Similarly, people in day-to-day conversations also respond to situations with their body language, sometimes unconsciously.

“Often times I’ll observe that if two people sitting across from each other have their legs crossed, and one of them uncrosses them and then recrosses them, it’s very, very common that, be it intentionally or not, the other person will in fairly short order do the same thing,” Singley said. “I think the phenomenon where you catch people’s yawns [is a another good example]. We’re catching each other’s body language, again, sometimes in ways that are overt.”

Akiko Friedman (11), captain of original events for Speech and Debate, agrees. Friedman believes that actions and body language convey the majority of an idea in a passage. Even if a speaker is saying one thing, if the body language is contradictory, the idea is not effectively conveyed. Thus, body language, being an unconscious form of communication, can “both strengthen and weaken the message of the passage.”

“Body language is not something you really think about.” Friedman  said. “It conveys your ideas in a different way, in a more subliminal, unconscious way.”

Singley agrees with this idea, as “body language serves as a way to either support or invalidate what you’re saying verbally, and you can send people a consistent signal or unwittingly send them an inconsistent one.”

To become an effective communicator, there are certain aspects of nonverbal communication that should be avoided. For example, according to Advanced Drama student Madeleine MacConnell (10), some kinds of ineffective body language can detract from a scene, like “repetition of the same movement, [which can] often be distracting.”

There are also ways to hone the ability to impart meaning effectively. One way to control motions and gestures is “[to] practice in front of people,” according to Nathan Gibbs (11), a lead actor in the fall play production of “Argonautika.”

“You don’t practice acting on your own; you practice in front of people, and you get input from them, and you try again and again until you get it right,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs, also a member of the Congressional debate team, said that harmony between body language and speaking naturally comes to different people at different times.

“Sometimes in public speaking, if you don’t learn it easily and it doesn’t start coming naturally, then … [you have to] actually memorize gestures and think about exactly what you want to do, what facial expressions you want to use … I think that, honestly, the best way to go about this stuff is just to always practice and get feedback,” Gibbs said.

Payne believes that balance must be found in a person’s body language and speaking. In terms of acting, “you want to look for that balanced person, that balance in characterization.”

The importance of being able to communicate efficiently in this manner is also significant.

“[Body language training] is straight up social skills training,” Singley said.

Overall, the power and depth of body language, facial expression and gesture have long been crucial components of interpersonal interaction.  Whether in dance, music, public speaking or acting, talking with the body can sometimes be more effective than verbal communication. After all, actions speak louder than words.