Why reading body language can be dangerous - Executips


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Why reading body language can be dangerous

A wrong reading of body language contributed to the death of 175,000 Iraqis and hundreds of coalition forces.

This was a revealed by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett in her seminal book How Emotions are Made : The Secret Life of the Brain. She narrated that Saddam Hussein’s half-brother misread the American negotiators’ non-verbal language and believed the US was not serious about attacking. I am assuming the negotiators behaved in a diplomatic or “corporate,” manner.

Dr. Barrett, a distinguished neuroscientist, disagreed with the “classical view” that emotions have a “fingerprint.” Backed by numerous laboratory tests, she argued that there is no template for the brain process and the bodily manifestations of emotion. For example, we may or may not have a spike in blood pressure when angry, we may or may not sweat when nervous.

She also disproved the universality of facial signatures. Happiness is not always displayed by a smile or a laugh. We all know by experience that when happy, we may sometimes cry. Sometimes we just take it in silently, sometimes we are just stunned, or we may even faint. People who are angry don’t always scowl. Sometimes they laugh.

Culture affects perception

The author said it is important for us to know these human errors of interpretation in order to avoid serious consequences. A lot of times our cultural upbringing affects our perception.

Dr. Barrett cited the example of how many women in the Unites States are wrongly diagnosed. When female patients complain of chest pressure and shortness of breath, “they are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety” and are sent home. Male patients, on the other hand, are “more likely to be diagnosed with a heart disease” and are given life-saving treatment. According to Dr. Barrett, this American bias about women being more emotional results in more women over 65 dying more frequently of heart attack.

Dr. Barrett also noted that in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, BBC reported, “Only two of the jurors believed Tsarnaev has felt remorse. The other 10, like many in Massachusets, think he has no regrets.”

Dr. Barrett believes the jury based their impression on the fact that the suspect just sat through the trial with a “stone-faced” expression. The westerners must have wanted him to cry and say sorry. They didn't know, according to Barrett, that in Chechen culture, men are expected “to be stoic in the face of adversity.” 

When Filipinos who have just lost their home in a tragedy are being interviewed onTV, they smile as they talk. Are they happy despite everything ? Maybe they’re just nervous or are trying to overcome stage fright.

The Mind Tools website had this article describing cultural differences in body language. It said that a casual crossing of legs or a “cheery thumbs up” may be a faux pas in Japan and Greece. In the Middle East, flashing thumbs up is considered rude.

In Bulgaria, nodding of the head is actually a gesture of disagreement. In the US and in Western Europe, extended eye contact shows “we are taking interest in what someone is saying.” But in Latin America and Africa, it is seen as a challenge.

The website Strategy + Business shared that in a study, Chinese participants leaned back and made frequent eye contact to project negativity. To communicate dominance, the “Canadians were more likely to sit straight up; the Chinese showed that posture to show submissiveness.”

Thou shalt not judge others

We often jump into a conclusion when people are not behaving in the way that we, ourselves, would. And we tend to dislike them. I remember from years ago this sharing by a priest. He said that he was so irritated by this old man in the front row who always dozed off as soon as he delivered the sermon. Eventually, the man’s wife was able to tell the priest that the man, her husband, was going through chemotherapy and was therefore always tired. He only needed to hear the voice of the priest to feel comforted.

Among the often misunderstood are the extreme introverts. Some of them can be misjudged as uncooperative, painfully shy, lacking in self-confidence, snobbish, inarticulate, maladjusted, rebellious, slow, maybe even hiding something. Susan Cain is an introvert who graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School. In her book Quiet : The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking she observed that when introverted children are pressured, overstimulated or dismissed, they have an increased chance of experiencing depression or respiratory disorders. Ms. Cain also noted that the western business culture is partial to the extroverts -the outspoken, lead-taking and team-playing ones. They are perceived to be more intelligent. 

Yesterday, before giving a pep talk to our scholars from poor families, I noticed one boy who was not participating in singing the worship song. At first, I thought he was arrogant. Then I was reminded by Dr. Barrett’s teaching against quick conclusions.  Maybe it was his first time in a spiritual gathering and was being overwhelmed by a feeling he couldn’t understand. I did not have an idea so I had no judgment.

The misjudging of people happens frequently at a time and place where there is so much tension and suspicion. For example, a war zone. A similar state of hostility may happen in the office where competitive workmates choose to watch one another instead of talk to one another.

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