Here and now, there and then

The strength of the non-verbal component of communication is also its weakness.

Its genuineness, the difficulty of being controlled and its direct connection with the emotional component of the limbic system, characteristics that determine its expressive superiority (my personal point of view) compared to the verbal component, make the body language of not easy interpretation, and not because its decoding has not been widely studied (1) (2), but because one of the characteristic aspects of the verbal component is missing: the possibility, in case of any doubt, in case of partial comprehension or inattention to the speaker, to ask to repeat what has been said.

Ask to repeat what has been said is a common practice, which perhaps denotes inattention, but if the request is made with grace, it is unlikely that someone will have to be hurt. The situation is different for the non-verbal part, whose repetition request is mis-founded ab origin, given that: (A) the non-verbal component is substantially involuntary, so the issuing subject hardly has the awareness of his facial expressions, his posture and of his movements, for which he would not even know what he should repeat; (B) even if awareness is there, repetition would be a pure physical gesture, a simulation, just as the act of the actor is, that mimics without inner feeling the corresponding emotional state (here perhaps there is the exception of the Stanislavskij’s system (3)) and would therefore be an appearing without a being; (C) is not a rigorous argument, but I fear we would be taken for insane by our interlocutor.

The gestures and facial expressions are therefore always "here and now" - this is their incredible expressive power - they unconsciously capture the moment and the emotions, and if they are lost in the moment, then they are lost forever and even if they could be replicated, they would be "there and then", and would then become only a physical gesture, not a representation of what one is trying.

Careful and continuous observation is therefore essential, but observation itself is a bodily signal, which transmits a message to the observed - who doesn’t remember, as a child, the warning of parents "do not stare at people!" - causing it to react in a way that could affect its behavior and the way it is manifested.

In practice, therefore, if we do not observe we lose something, but if we look too much, then we influence something, and both are unsatisfactory for a clear and complete understanding. In other words, we have an act of measurement that potentially affects what is measured.

A complex discipline, then, becomes even more complicated, and it is not by chance, where it is possible, that the communication is recorded to be analyzed then - police interrogation and sessions with patients suffering from particular diseases, to make some examples - being able to take advantage of what technology gives us to detect what might have missed.

Of course, not always, indeed, very rarely, it is possible to analyze ex-post what is said through the non-verbal part and, even when this is done, it should be considered that shooting normally catches the speaker and not the context in which he is speaking, so it is not possible to say whether his specific attitude is linked to what he was saying or to something that happened around him.

For example, imagine that a speaker is filmed during his speech, be him, let me say, a politician or a preacher, and then be analyzed later, looking for micro-expressions (2) or gestures that could revel what he really meant. Now, imagine that during his speech the person noticed, in the audience, a person dear to him and whom he had not seen for some time; it is probable that on the face, regardless of what he was saying at that moment, a mimic typical of joy appears; on the contrary, imagine that he see a particularly annoying behavior, for example a person who is talking on the phone instead of listening to him: it is probable, in this case, that the expression would be that of a fleeting contempt.

In both cases these expressions would be reasonably rapid, almost micro-expressions, which if detected ex-post, especially that of contempt, could suggest that what was said was not sincere, significantly contaminating the entire speech, since the credibility of the speaker could be lost.

Here the evaluation error is evident, which could perhaps be avoided by observing the ocular movements of the speaker - the gaze fixed on a point in the audience, unknown in the filming, but anyway conceivable - linking them to the fleeting expression and raising the doubt that it is, in a certain sense, decontextualized by the discourse.

Error and possible correction aside, I hope it is still evident how the analysis of body language is fraught with difficulties, especially in those cases where only live coverage observation is possible, where there is not a second possibility of analysis - if I meet a client for a complex negotiation, I cannot film it for a subsequent examination - and everything must be based on the ability to grasp what happens, when it happens, which is anything but easy and, perhaps, not even entirely possible.

 Andrea Zinno - De Corporis Voce

Bibliographic references
  1. Allan Pease and Barbara Pease - "The Definitive Book of Body Language" - 2003
  2. Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen – “Unmasking the Face” - 2003
  3. Wikipedia - Stanislavski's system