You’re a bit psychic. You may not know this. But you can forecast the near future pretty well.
For example, you can look at a stranger’s face as she walks toward you in a crowded airport. With one wordless glance, you know where she’s going next.
In a split second, you’ve analyzed her facial expressions and body language. Expertly, you navigate around her as she travels to her intended destination.
Oh, you don’t know whether she will be going to Bangkok or Paris. But you know that stranger is going to walk to the left as she passes you.
That’s why you walked to the right. You avoided collision as you both made your way to your next destination.
Perhaps you perform small actions like these hundreds of times a day. You read people. You glance at their body language and facial expressions.
You gauge intentions. You make split second calculations as you navigate through time and space.
You do all this without words. You don’t think twice about it.
It’s too ingrained. Too basic. Too obvious.
Or is it?
Your ability to understand other people without them saying anything?
It’s actually amazing.
And your ability to communicate without using words? Also amazing.
Yet we often dismiss or ignore this kind of nonverbal communication. We take it for granted. And when we ignore it– we can get into big trouble.
We’ll stand at a crosswalk, absorbed in our phones. Our faces and bodies aren’t signaling our intentions to passing motorists.
Passing motorists don’t know how to interpret this. They don’t know what our next move will be.
That’s because we’re not using our bodies to signal to the world around us. Instead, we’re using our faces and bodies to communicate to another world – a digital world.
The digital world is much (much) less urgent.
We almost always get in trouble when we ignore communication fundamentals. This morning, I read a headline:
Honolulu is the first big US city to ban phone use at crosswalks
I actually read this headline out loud, while shaking my head.
“Not a bad idea” said a colleague. His face, 4 meters or so from mine, was buried in a mobile device.
Got that? He didn’t gauge my feelings on the subject. He responded to my words without looking at me. He didn’t see me shake my head.
“Is it a good idea?” I thought. I stared at him and arched an eyebrow with skepticism.
The Honolulu scenario is too Orwellian for my tastes. I like the idea of safer crosswalks. But I don’t like the idea of ‘distracted thoughtpolice’ issuing tickets for ‘distracted thoughtcrimes’. Surely there must be a better way to help people.”
That’s what I was thinking. But my colleague? He never looked at me to read my expression.
He had no idea I was ruminating on Orwell and the thoughtpolice. He kept staring and poking at his device. I grinned and shook my head at the irony.
I doubt issuing him a distracted thoughtcrime ticket would help our situation. Nonetheless, I could tell by his body language he wasn’t really interested in the headline or my feelings on it. I let it go.
The skeptical raise of my eyebrow? My ironic smile? The shake of my head? My colleague’s disinterested tone and bent head?
All minutia. Subtle little gestures with little long term impact or significance.
Or might they mean more than that?
Could missing day-to-day nonverbal cues like these threaten our chances at survival? Perhaps not with the immediacy of an oncoming car.
But over time, these minute miscalculations can erode the strength of our relationships and our communities.
But we can increase our body language competency with one simple tip:
Seriously. That’s it. It’s the first obvious step we can all take to become amazing at reading body language.
Sounds too basic, right? Give it a whirl, anyway.
Try being present. Notice the nuances.
We all communicate more than we know without even trying. And we all understand more than we know without half-thinking about it.
So think about it. (At least start by half-thinking about it.)
You’ll never know what you’re missing if you don’t look up. You might miss an oncoming car.
That would be great.
But by looking up, you can also gain a more powerful understanding of the emotional context of the life you’re living. Don’t miss out.