Body Language … by Cassiel Knight

I’m teaching an online class on body language and I thought I would share some of this with you. Body language is a big part of ensuring we show our characters’ reactions and emotions. Learning body language also gives you the tools to move beyond gazing, smiling, looking, walking, and so on. It’s like having an arsenal of weapons to show, don’t tell.

I’m not going to teach the full class here but thought I’d share a few things. Hope you enjoy this toe dip into body language.

What is Body Language?

A term for communication using body movements or gestures instead of, or in addition to, sounds, verbal language or other communications. Considered “paralanguage” which describes all forms of human communication that is not verbal. Can also incorporate the use of facial expressions.

Which basically means it’s everything you do except talking or other verbal expressions – grunts, sighs, etc. Does that sound like there’s a lot of opportunity here? Maybe. But maybe it sounds restrictive to you. That’s what I’m here to do – to help you look beyond the obvious so when you are told to dig deeper, you know how to do it.

More science – the total impact of a message is:

7% verbal (words)

38% vocal (tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds)

55% nonverbal (body language)

Are you surprised?

Bet most of us don’t think of communication being beyond what you say or hear. Ah, but it is so much more. Let’s say you are sitting in front of an agent (have I scared you yet?).  You’ve worked really hard to keep your tone modulated, a smile in your face and in your eyes, sitting up straight, you know the drill. However, your body’s language may be telling the agent a whole other story. For instance, your pupils probably dilated due to the stress and your respiration increased. Maybe your cheeks flushed. Despite trying to relax your arms, your shoulders likely tensed. In the beginning, your body’s angle was away from the agent. As you talked and found a connection, you started angling your body closer. Under the table, your toes were pointing at her.

All of these happened while you were focusing on the other stuff—you just didn’t know it. It’s done instinctively. For the most part, we can’t control it. We are hard-wired to do this. Read on and learn why.

Body language is a relatively young science-less than 50 years old. The first book written on body language was written in the 1970s by Julius Fast based on research done by Charles Darwin in the 1960s.

So, while body language as a science is young, it’s an old language.

Our ancestors were experts at this old language and as I noted above, we are hard-wired for this language.  I’m going to brush over this since there’s a lot to discuss but I’d like you to understand why 55% of our communication is done with our bodies. If you want to read more, there’s excellent resources which I will give later but you can start with one of my favorites, What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro. He calls this living our limbic legacy. What he’s referring to is our mammalian brain (Paul MacLean, 1952). This is the part of our brains that “reacts to the world around us, reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought” (Navarro, 2008, 23)

Did you get that? That part of our brain, the “honest brain” (Goleman, 1995, 13-29) is our survival brain. It’s the one that makes our bodies do things without us knowing and even when we don’t want them to. Our ancestors knew this well. I know you’ve heard of the freeze, flight or fight response. That’s our limbic brain in action. In a split second, your body has decided which one to do. Sure, you can “change” your mind but bottom line, when you are faced with something dangerous or even unsettling; your natural response is one of the three. Usually, in that order but sometimes, depending on the influence, you can skip. Navarro does an excellent job of explaining these responses.

The reason I shared this with you is I want you to understand the background of body language so you can see how it plays out when we start looking at different ways to show our character’s emotions and reactions. Think freeze, flight or fight as the core.

How does Body Language reveal emotions and thoughts?

  • Body Language is an outward reflection of a person’s emotional condition
  • Hardwired from our pasts when body language and vocal, not words, comprised communication.
  • Dominated by biological rules that control our actions, reactions, body language and gestures.
  • Humans are rarely aware that our postures, movements, and gestures show one thing, the truth, while our words say another.
  • We’ve lost our ability to read body language because we are obsessed with verbal communication. Even worse, now that we have social media and the internet, many of us spend so much time online, we no longer have that in person communication that is so important to understanding each other. This is why most of you were surprised that the verbal piece of communication was so low. How would you have responded if I had added social media? Hmm. Wonder if there’s study on that. <smile>

Can Body Language Be Faked?

  • Language can be faked but body’s physical reactions cannot.
    • Politian’s, interviewees, pageant contestants – use studiously learned body movements but even the most expert can only fake body language a short period.
  • Physical reactions are the key:
    • Pupil dilation
    • Sweating
    • Blushing
    • Involuntary mouth movements like a split-second sneer
    • Forehead crease, crow’s feet

Women are More Perceptive

  • Your heroine can read the hero and other characters better because:
    • Commonly referred to as woman’s intuition
    • Innate ability to pick up and decipher nonverbal signals and an accurate eye for small details.
    • Particularly evident in women who have raised children since the first few years, the mother relies almost solely on the nonverbal to communicate with the child.
    • Women have between 14-16 areas of brain to evaluate other’s behavior – men have 4-6.
    • Female brain is organized for multi-tasking – which is why men focus on TV shows and movies so hard they ignore things going on around them. And if you succeed in distracting them, they lose the plot.
    • More white around their eyes
  • The average woman can juggle between 2 and 4 unrelated topics at the same time. She can watch TV while talking on the phone and listen to a second conversation around her while drinking or eating. She can discuss several unrelated topics and use 5 vocal tones to change the subject or emphasize points. Men can only identify 3 tones.
  • Men in occupations such as acting and artistic types and those in nursing are nearly as perceptive as women; gay men also score well
  • Interested in learning more? There’s a great book on the subject, Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps by Barbara and Allen Pease who also wrote another favorite body language book of mine, The Definite Book of Body Language. In their book, they say that:

Like most female mammals, women are equipped with far more finely tuned sensory skills than men. As child bearers and nest defenders, they needed the ability to sense subtle mood and attitude changes in others. What is commonly referred to as “women’s intuition” is mostly a woman’s acute ability to notice small details and changes in the appearance or behavior of others. (Pease, 2001, 19)

To wrap this post, our bodies are complex machines, yes, machines, but they are also able to communicate a wide range of emotions without the mouth saying a word. Learning body language helps you discover how you can add depth to your writing, and reduce repetition, by going beyond the normal. Sight is important but utilize the other senses, including touch, to make an editor, agent or reader feel connected to the characters. It also eliminates the frustration in trying to find different things to use and move beyond gazing, looking, smiling, grinning, shrugging and walking.

Hope you found this enlightening!


Posted on July 27, 2012, in General and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This was such a creative, yet vital topic for fiction writers on how to bring characters alive. Thanks, Cassiel and Darla!


  2. Justin Blackwell

    I believe this to be very accurate, but im dissatisfied in the sexism. Men may be less sensitive as a whole to this but it is certainly not true that gay men are just as good as women. Women can be just as poor at this as men. Ive seen it! Straight men can be just as good as women at this. Sexist and discriminatory.


  3. Nice article! As a psychology major (back when that first book was being written) I learned about body language as it related to counseling. But it wasn’t until I took a workshop about using body language in writing two years ago that I realized I wasn’t using it in my books. That workshop made a huge difference to my writing.

    Now, when I write any scene with dialog or tension, I act out the scene. I literally stand up and say the lines with emotion and note what I naturally do. Do I roll my shoulder? Squint my eyes? Fist my hand? Point forcefully at my imaginary hero’s chest? Do I walk away? Do I drop my gaze to the floor? Look out the window? It has been both fun and enlightening for me, and I’m sure my stories are so much better for it.


  4. August McLaughlin

    Fascinating topic. I love people watching for the sake of body language study. Our physicality often says far more than words do. Thanks for this informative post! Hope your class experience rocks. 🙂


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