Traveling through the Atlanta Airport recently during a period of heavy delays, Patti Wood could see the pain and stress etched on travelers’ bedraggled faces. Anybody could. You didn’t need to be an expert in body language to pick up the cues. People were leaning on one another, slouching in their seats, or walking slowly as if through water with phased-out zombie-like stares. But Wood is an expert, author of seven books on communication, including SNAP — Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma. So she did what she’s compelled to do in such situations, she stopped and spoke with some of them.
“What I could do reasonably is sit with a few people and listen to their pain,” she explains. “Because listening deeply involves watching and listening for cues. When you listen deeply and someone feels heard and understood, it lightens their load, and they may not have to keep giving out the message verbally and nonverbally, ‘I am in pain!’”
But as Wood and anyone else who studies body language seriously will tell you, it’s rarely so easy to read people.
The science of facial expressions and body language is incredibly complex, ever-evolving, and riddled with myths. Among the few certainties is that the nonverbal cues you give off can pack many different meanings to different people, and you can’t fully predict how your little quirks will be perceived — whether by coworkers, acquaintances, or strangers, or even horses.
Among the biggest mistakes we make when trying to read someone’s body language: “We think it’s all about us,” says Wood, who speaks to and consults with Fortune 500 companies to improve their sales and leadership with nonverbal communication, and has appeared on just about any popular TV talk show you can think of.
“Nonverbal communication is a language, it’s a very complex language, and just like any language the cues, like words, can mean more than one thing.”
“People read someone’s body language and assume they are, say, standing far away and…