Reading the Hidden Communications Around You: A Guide to Reading the Body Language of Customers and Colleagues by Dr. Anne Beall. Book Review by Arundati Dandapani.
Do you know how to read the signs?
Can you get when people like, cooperate, compete with, lead or despise you?
Want to read body language as proficiently as you read Google Maps?
It takes effort, practice and vigilance to the cues to analyze facial expressions and body language. Some cultures are known to be better at this sort of thing than others. But Dr. Anne Beall really comes off as the be-all of non verbal signs and market research and is therefore an impressive author, business professional and leading academic today in her book Reading the Hidden Communications Around You: A Guide to Reading the Body Language of Customers and Colleagues. I was lucky to meet her team in Chicago earlier this summer, and highly recommend this book to all early stage industry professionals who are eager to make an impact within or outside their organizations.
She outlines the seven basic emotional expressions that occur across cultures in her latest book: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Surprise, Fear, Disgust, and Contempt. Check out some expressions in the pictures below. Can you label these emotions the next time you’re on the subway watching people?
Touch is the next thing she discussed. She explained there were 5 types: positive affect touches, playful touches, control touches, ritualistic touches and task oriented touches. Task-oriented and ritualistic touches are part of everyday workplace communications. Touch occurs more as likeness and emotionality grow (for eg., in airports, where 60% of those saying hello or bye touch each other). Task oriented touch includes handshakes, and functional touch could include helping someone clear their desk or cross the road or access an inaccessible entrance, etc. Interestingly, touch is initiated more by women than men, and also by those in more senior positions towards those who are junior to them. Apparently, North America is a typically touch-avoidant culture, where people turn to “licensed touchers” like physicians, hairdressers, or cashiers to meet that need. In Latin America or even in parts of Europe, people rely on touch to communicate politeness, good feelings, friendship and intimacy.
Gaze and Eye-Behaviour
Gaze also reveal many things about how we feel or think. We look longer at those senior to us, those we like, and if we come from a culture where looking longer is a habit. Women gaze longer than men, and sometimes interviewees (or interviewers) may look away from people they are prejudiced against. Looking away, or with a lowered gaze, can be an indication of respect in some cultures, but also shyness, autism, etc.
Contempt is easy to detect as well. Contempt is different from pride. Pride can seem to be laced with humility and self-worth arrived at through extraordinary effort, labour and hardship, and undeterred positivity. Contempt on the other hand appears to thrive on negativity and vengeance. Which brings us to the business question, “What is the value of contempt in business and when can/should we communicate it to our competitive advantage?”
Can you think of the last time you read contempt in a business interaction, brand campaign or customer experience? How did you react? Perhaps contempt has a place in satire and in activism, but it does occur in intercultural interactions, and can often manifest as vision and values-wars.
Expressions, particularly microexpressions, reveal the momentary reactions people have to one another and to the situations they encounter. Those momentary expressions are true, uncontrolled responses that reveal what a person is experiencing internally from minute to minute.Dr. Anne Beall, Reading the Hidden Communications Around You, 2019, Beall Research Inc.
Beall talks about the importance of reading gestures. Gestures can be emblems (understood uniformly / universally such as the signs for “ok”, “good” or “be quiet”, etc.) or illustrators (to illustrate a point and are context-specific). Gestures can reveal enthusiasm, emphasis and confidence. But gestures can also tell us how difficult it is for a person to find the right words for something or how cognitively complex it is for them to talk. The size of a gesture can also illustrate a talker’s perception of its importance/emphasis.
People who gesture a lot and lay things out visually might be more visual in their outlook and respond favourably to visual examples and arguments. People who gesture more abstractly using bodily re-enactments maybe conveying that they are very tactile (connected to touch) in their outlook and experience according to Beall. (Or they may have been dancers or traffic signal cops!).
A few exercises to-go:
Watch others touch, gaze at, converse with another. Understand who is the person wielding more power or influence. Judge what their relationship might be and how long they might know each other. Do this with everyone, everywhere you go. Apply what you learn to your own conversations. Watch people react differently to your PERCEIVE inspired body-language.
Reading Electronic Communications
There is even a section in Beall’s book about how to read electronic communications! This skill is fun and necessary. The non-verbal communications challenge is compounded when you can’t see the sender of the e-mail. How do you read e-mails, particularly from those you have never met before? In an age of what a neighbour used to call “textroversion” where people (and he blamed millennials) got “overexpressive” over texts and social media to amplify their message and meaning, it can seem hard to read the signals from the noise or analyze any kind of layers of the other person.
Research has found people mistakenly believe they’re quite able to communicate sarcasm, anger, and sadness electronically. Unfortunately, most of us overestimate our abilities in this area. This means that text, e-mail and social media are not the ideal medium for conveying complex emotion.Dr. Anne Beall, Reading the Hidden Communications Around You, 2019, Beall Research Inc.
A lot of e-mails you get these days lack good grammar and can be extremely negative. Greedy, demanding, emails that fail to communicate trust, authenticity or purpose go into my Trash/Spam folder. It’s not just about annoyingly surface “Happy Friday” sales emails, but also all superficial communications. Who wants to conduct business with those who do not convey any value? Transparency is the suggestion here.
Moreover offline relationships can impact your digital trails. A bad business relationship offline is likely to be just as bad or worse online, so they can “get ready to be blocked”. I know of a few suppliers who intersperse their newsletters with esteemed publications to radiate the sort of “business halo” or credibility we are all seeking in business partners. That’s just one strategy to establish authority and convey value.
Using Emojis and Avatars
Emojis help add “personality” and “context” to otherwise formal messaging.
The most frequently used emojis are happy faces😊 followed by sad faces☹️, hearts❤️, and gestures 🙌. Emojis are effective at expressing feelings that are complex and difficult to describe (such as the laughing-crying emoji🤣), and to communicate inside jokes, sometimes to build a shared vocabulary.Dr. Anne Beall, Reading the Hidden Communications Around You, 2019, Beall Research Inc.
The use of emojis in surveys is a relatively new development in the past decade, circumventing the respondent’s inability to express non-verbal communication in survey research. Their use in survey research has been controversial at the minimum (especially using emojis in Likert rating scales) but also found to have an impact in reaching certain younger and more digitally native cohorts like Generation Z. Avatars can also add social presence and context by mimicking offline non-verbal behaviours, and especially replicating gendered and cultural differences — even when the people behind the avatars may not share the same gender, race, background or culture.
Three general rules to follow, as prescribed by Dr. Beall in your observations of people and their non-verbal behaviour:
- Observe variations from a person’s normal behaviour
- Observe variations from the situation
- Observe variations across different people
I agree with this checklist and would add a caution to use this for professional purposes or conclusions only. Although the professional is more often than not the personal (derived/motivated, etc.) life, attempting to read people (with PERCEIVE or otherwise) in your close friendships or family can put an unnecessary strain on the interactions leaving one or all members feeling overly examined. It’s also how you can get wedding guest fatigue — and back in 2014 before moving to Canada, I wrote a popular story called “The Reluctant Wedding Guest” that captured an angst with foreshadowing: interestingly Beall also references her love of watching people at weddings!
A Great Holiday Gift for Your Clients
Dr. Beall’s book overall is a perfect guide to understanding and building the new business vernacular and excelling at serving your clients and customers. I leave you with a table of intent below from the book, for times when you need a cheat sheet on what non-verbal cues to adopt or read.
If you embark on the non-verbal communications analytical journey (watch people more, listen less) with the knowledge that everyone you are reading is your colleague and customer (read her subtitle), the above rules and cues discussed can yield and amplify positive results like self-discovery and will create mutual growth.
Stay tuned for a review discussion of Dr. Anne Beall’s next book Strategic Market Research on Generation1.ca.