As I sat at a small restaurant waiting for what would be a very late friend, I tried not to stare at the table next to me, bemused. Sitting to my left was a man and a woman, in their early 30s. They weren’t dressed quite the way one would expect two business professionals meeting – the woman was wearing a flower-patterned sun dress and had on peach lipstick with her hair carefully arranged in a bun, and the man wore a relaxed t-shirt and jeans. I couldn’t quite place what they were doing there, together, however, because they were sitting quite far from one another, and the entire ordeal reminded me of an interview I had had ten years prior.  While the restaurant was a beautifully rustic and intimate place, it played pop music rather loudly making it hard to hear, meaning the only ability I could rely on to satisfy my curiosity was my eye sight.

While the woman animatedly gestured with her hands while she spoke to him, she would clasp them together tightly whenever he responded. The man she was with fidgeted quite a bit as she went on, stretching back in his chair and tapping his foot wildly. In about a half hour, while he moved on from tapping his foot to drumming his fingers on the table, her animated hands gently fell; one running along the V-neck collar of her dress, which slightly revealed her décolletage, and the other tracing the top of her wine glass. Suddenly, his finger drumming stopped, and he leaned forward eagerly. It was not a business meeting, but a first date.

What appears at first glance sometimes is the story, albeit not the full one, according to Marcel Danesi, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, known for his work in language, communications, and semiotics (the study of signs). For Danesi, however, author of “The History of the Kiss”, any true passion between the two would be apparent in examining their kiss. A peculiar act for some, Danesi has spent the majority of his career observing and interpreting the meaning behind signs in our verbal and non-verbal communication – whether it’d be romantic, practical, and even murderous – and has published hundreds of articles and books on the subject. In the scenario above, the woman’s nerves got the better of her, or she was attempting to win him over, yet as he tapped his foot – a non-verbal cue that he was desperately trying to run away from a situation in which he couldn’t actually do so – she clasped her hands tightly – a non-verbal gesture suggesting she was soothing herself from nerves. Only when she indicated sexual interest by slowly tracing her finger on the rim of her wine glass mimicking sensual activity, and running her hands along her collar towards her bust, indexing where he should look, did he return her interest.

We often throw around the term “body language”, but what is meant by it, really?

By any standard definition, body language, more technically, kinetic communication, is the use of any part of the body to communicate something; it is different from vocal-written language in that it is based on bodily or facial forms (units, structures, etc.) to emit messages. It can be unwitting, signalling that is instinctive, such as facial expressions conveying basic emotions, or witting, such as a wink of the eye which has a specific meaning in a cultural setting. The difference between the two also comes out in the difference between gestures and gesticulants. The former involves the use of the hands intentional to convey something, such as the pointing finger to indicate location; gesticulants, on the other hand, are spontaneous movements of the hands that accompany vocal speech. These generally depict in the gesture spaces concepts that are being spoken in specific ways. For example, cupping the hands often accompanies words such as “receive” “capture” and the like.

How much of body language then can be considered culturally  dependent, such as the wink, which I presume says one thing in Western culture, and something entirely different in another?

As mentioned, some is unwitting and common to other species, as well. The witting one is where culture steps in. For example, not looking into the eye of an investigator is interpreted as guilty avoidance in many English-speaking cultures, but it is a sign of respect in many others.

What about when it comes to gender roles? How much of our gendered behaviour is cultural?

Some cultures expect gender roles to be marked by different kinetic, proxemic, clothing and other modes. Like language, we use non-verbal modes to convey gender, class, ideologies, and so on and so forth.


I suppose this could be similarly understood with not only the use of vernacular, but a particular accent could also signal class, which I believe is quite apparent in Britain. So, would you say our ability to signal how we feel via non-verbal communication a product of nature or nurture, then? Or is it similar to the experiment made on Eliza Doolittle in the film ‘My Fair Lady’; are the witting forms solely the ones that are learned?

To reiterate, it is both. Some are natural and others are learned. The natural ones, such as smiling, are interpretable across cultures (hence for example the use of the smiley emoji across the world), others are coded culturally, such as the distances people maintain as they talk to each other.

Insofar as there are interpretable body languages that exist between two cultures (for instance, upon researching for this piece, I noted that the facial expressions that are recognizable around the world are those of happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise, and anger, as first noted by Charles Darwin, the founder of evolution, in his book The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals) can non-verbal communication be called an exact science or is it a matter of subjective interpretation?

There are actually three types of non-verbal communication sciences: kinetics, which studies bodily movements, facial expressions and gestures; proxemics, which measures the zones people maintain as they interact; and nonverbal semiotics which examines how dress codes, food rituals, and the like convey social and cultural meanings. The techniques used vary from linguistic ones in kinetics to physiological ones in the measurement of proxemic zones. It has been found that the data accumulated from research is actually very reliable in many domains, from criminal investigations to simple assessments of orators.

For the lay person and not a research scientist, then, are they capable of interpreting body language and why is it important to take note of a person’s outward appearance and gestures? Can you, for instance, spot a criminal based on how he or she acts? In the same vein, how can you tell if someone is lying to you, or sexually interested in you?

This is a tough question, because clothing and grooming are coded in specific ways and acceding to context, age, station, era, and so on. However, there is now an ipso facto science of lying that tries to map bodily actions (including eye movements and head tilts) to the words and the credibility of a communication. Much like a lie-detector test, these observations go beyond the merely anecdotal, documenting statistically-significant patters across variables and cultures. They could similarly apply to sexual interest or aiding in criminal investigations. As for interpretation, it depends on the level of analysis. For instance, most people in Western society can correctly interpret a wink and similar signs, or know an awkward situation when they see one.

In that sense, if you understand the science and signs behind something like lying, can your own body reveal to others as much as theirs does to you? Can a person be capable of faking their own body language?

Yes, and faking is only partially possible, since, as the cliché goes, the body does not lie. When we do “put on” an act, our unconscious mind is able to detect an asymmetry between what is said and how it is communicated non-verbally.

I suppose then gestures -faking or not – are essential to communication?

Gestures can replace vocal language as they do in American Sign Language, for example. Some cultures, such as some Native American ones, have developed parallel vocal and gesture languages: the form is used within the tribe and the latter across tribes for more universal interpretation.

Given the new digital world in which we currently reside, I wonder whether emojis may be the new way of expressing ourselves in place of non-verbal communication in written, textual communication.

Yes, it would seem so. But the mode’s eye is already accustomed to seeing a hybrid visual-textual language in comic books, in advertising and the like. So, emojis are simply manifestations of a growing use of visual modalities and other modalities in written communications.