Maybe I’m just ignorant, but this sort of body-language interpretation, as featured in the NY Times today, struck me as about as scientific as palm reading and hand-writing analysis:
Tonya Reiman and Maxine Lucille Fiel do not know much about football, but they are fluent in body language, one of many areas in which the Giants have appeared suspect recently.
Reiman and Fiel noticed Coach Tom Coughlin crossing his arms. In their playbook, that was a defensive posture. They saw quarterback Eli Manning biting his lower lip and said that was a sign of regret. They watched the Giants’ players bowing their heads when they were still way ahead.
“This is extremely important in sports,” Reiman said, referring to body language. “If you’re trying to work together, you need some kind of rapport. You show rapport through body language.”
I know scientists like Paul Ekman have constructed a detailed map of facial expression, but is crossing your arms really a “defensive posture”? I mean, that’s just so vague. I have a nagging feeling that if the Giants had won the game, Coughlin’s arm crossing would have been a gesture of steely authority, not defensiveness.
But maybe the Times was being tongue in cheek. One can hope. But then I came across this Gladwell article on Cesar Milan and “movement analysis,” which treated the analysts like bona fide scientists:
Movement analysts tend to like watching, say, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan; they had great phrasing. George W. Bush does not. During this year’s State of the Union address, Bush spent the entire speech swaying metronomically, straight down through his lower torso, a movement underscored, unfortunately, by the presence of a large vertical banner behind him. “Each shift ended with this focus that channels toward a particular place in the audience,” Bradley said. She mimed, perfectly, the Bush gaze–the squinty, fixated look he reserves for moments of great solemnity–and gently swayed back and forth. “It’s a little primitive, a little regressed.” The combination of the look, the sway, and the gaze was, to her mind, distinctly adolescent. When people say of Bush that he seems eternally boyish, this is in part what they’re referring to. He moves like a boy, which is fine, except that, unlike such movement masters as Reagan and Clinton, he can’t stop moving like a boy when the occasion demands a more grown-up response.
Is that really rigorous research? I’m genuinely asking the question, because I don’t know. Can our body language really be broken down into nebulous categories like “adolescent movements”? And would a Republican “movement analyst” still consider Bush’s gaze to be “primitive” and “regressed”? When we analyze somebody’s body language, how much of the meaning is in the body, and how much is in the act of interpretation? If anybody knows the answer to these questions, please enlighten me. I’m genuinely curious, and more than a little bit skeptical.