I have had a long standing interest in reading people. The ability to figure someone out in a short period of time is an incredible advantage. I always enjoyed trying to establish just what it was thatmade someone tick. As such, people watching was a rather enjoyable hobby for me. Of course, it’s hard to really confirm anything, and most conclusions I came to were purely for entertainment’s sake.
Body language is an important part of reading someone. Reading someone’s nonverbal communication is actually rather hard if you’re not a natural. Most people go through life without picking up on these subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) clues.
This is where Lie to Me comes in. I like the show. It’s entertaining. However, I fear that it is already rapidly developing the CSI effect. Before I get to that though, I want to make a point. Because Lie to Me is a television program, it automatically must be made to be very watchable. It must be entertaining, complex, and yet simple enough for the average Joe Schmoe to understand.
I was in class one day, and this girl behind me brought up Lie to Me. In short, she exalted the entertainment value of the show (“It’s a really good show!”) and went on to recite practically by rote the key points of microexpressions from the previous night’s show. She then went on to say how you can go to school for this kind of thing and learn how to read someone’s facial expressions.And oh how I wept. Lie to Me is a great show, yes. And I enjoy it thoroughly. However, I do NOT make the mistake of assuming that it is some kind of education in nonverbal communication.These kinds of shows are a double edged sword. I love them because they are interesting and they entertain me. I hate them even more because they expose the general public to a rather esoteric topic. This exposure garners an unusual amount of interest. These shows invariably distill very intensely difficult subjects into bite-sized pieces of information, accompanied by soundbites and a (sometimes) compelling story.
The general public picks up these little bits and pieces about body language and all that other nonsense. Jane watches Lie to Me on Wednesday night. She tells her boyfriend Mike about a particular expression that people make when they’re about to engage in a violent act. Mike tells his friend Allan over a couple of beers that if he ever sees a guy with a furrowed brow and flared nostrils that he should run for there is impending risk of physical aggression. Allan goes to work the next day and chats with his co-worker Katie and mentions that flared nostrils are a sign of trouble, that a fight is coming. Katie goes home to her husband and in passing conversation mention that she learned that the nose is the most important part to look at when determining whether or not someone is going to be aggressive.
Do you see what I’m getting at here? The source material gets distilled, distorted, and misquoted. Soon enough, you have a handful of self-proclaimed bodylanguageexperts who have “trained” in reading body language. And in their own social circles, there is nobody to challenge their expertise. They perpetuate myths about body language.
This brings me to my rant about the book entitled, “The Definitive Book of Body Language” by Allan Pease. It reads very easily, is very entertaining, and contains lots of pictures and illustrations. However, it’s also very misleading. The book is anything but “Definitive”, as it proclaims. Not only do I find the book oversimplified, I believe that its greatest weakness is a lack of structure when it comes to learning. The author said himself that the book was written so that you can pop into any part of the book and read something and learn something.
This is inherently very pop culturish. It provides no contextual interpretations. It does however, have a disclaimer: that these things are situational and should be read in clusters. But it does not give much in the way of an explanation as to what these clusters should be consisted of. One of my biggest points of contention is the part where they talk about arm-crossing. In one section, they essentially say that you should not cross your arms, even if it’s comfortable.
On the other hand, author Joe Navarro is much more sensible. I enjoyed What Every BODY Is Saying far more than I did Pease’s book. Navarro does NOT claim to be the Bible of Body Language. Rather, he takes a more humble approach, and his work is more clear and useful for it. Navarro consistently makes the reader aware that everything must be compared to a baseline of activity. In my opinion, his book gives one a more grounded, realistic, and solid foundation for the learning of body language. It is by no means a complete course, as Pease’s work might suggest. In fact, Navarro’s afterword frames the entire book perfectly: that reading body language and detecting deception is no small feat.
My rant isn’t just about body language: this happens for most anything that is of a particular degree of technical difficulty. But in this case, I can imagine that for many novices, The Definitive Book of Body Language will be the only book they ever read. Such is the way of all pop culture: there is breadth, but very little depth. And that is why I hate pop culture: it waters down and perverts expert knowledge. It is why I am rather guarded with knowledge. I prefer to stick with the master and apprentice model, similar to the martial arts culture. A master with pure intentions will only teach students who are deemed worth of such knowledge. And for good reason: should the knowledge be taught to an unworthy or incapable student, in time that student will be teaching and spreading that knowledge in a perverted form.
And now I await the day when I will be consistently overhearing people talking about last night’s episode of Lie to Me, chatting away with such eagerness about body language, trying in vain to accurately read someone’s inner mental state. I’ll be ready to cringe.