Every body's talking: Nonverbal cues can send powerful messages

It's no surprise that Gabriel Grayson became a body-language expert. Born to deaf parents, Grayson quickly picked up the animated language shared by his mom and dad and their circle of friends. He was fascinated by their world, which relied on ge...

Body language
People use body language to convey nonverbal cues. Carrie Snyder / The Forum; models: Matt Englund and Phaidra Yunker

It's no surprise that Gabriel Grayson became a body-language expert.

Born to deaf parents, Grayson quickly picked up the animated language shared by his mom and dad and their circle of friends. He was fascinated by their world, which relied on gestures, movements and facial expressions to communicate thoughts and emotions.

The Philadelphia native would grow up to be an astute reader of nonverbal signals. He founded the Department of Sign Language at the New School University in New York City and became the principal sign-language interpreter for the New York City judicial system.

He also helped two early experts on body language, Henry Calero and Gerard Nierenberg, update their work, "How to Read a Person Like a Book," first published 40 years ago.

Considered revolutionary for its time, that book has sold a million copies. It's again gaining a new audience in a world where people are searching for any type of competitive edge in an ultra-tight job market. Fueling the interest are popular TV crime dramas like "Lie to Me" and "The Mentalist," which showcase the power of reading nonverbal cues.


"It's show biz, so it's dramatized," Grayson says of those TV shows. "But it does convey the thought that you can be a visual Sherlock Holmes."

Like it or not, our actions really do speak louder than our words. Humans form their first impression of someone in as little as seven seconds, Grayson says. About 53 percent of that impression is formed by appearance, 38 percent of it is our tone of voice, and a scant 7 percent is our vocabulary.

Few people are more aware of that than Judge William Hill.

As North Dakota's U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge, Hill has sat on the bench for 25 years. In that time, he's heard many stories repeatedly and seen many people who were terrified to be in a courtroom.

Hill says he has learned to keep a "poker face" so as not to sway juries or intimidate people who are testifying.

"For them, it may be their very first time in the courtroom. I just try to sit back and listen," he says. "I never lean forward, I maintain an exact demeanor, and I try to never interrupt. You don't want to telegraph what an answer might be. You want to make them feel their opinion is worthwhile."

Entrenched in our DNA

Many of our nonverbal signals are so entrenched in human DNA that even congenitally blind people will use them, Grayson says.


As early as the fourth century B.C., upper-class Greeks cultivated a "firm," upright stance and unhurried gait, so as to distinguish themselves as people of leisure. Renaissance-era Europeans frequently wrote about body language. And in the 19th century, Charles Darwin pointed out the many similarities in human and animal behaviors as a way to suggest that our physical expressions may be biologically inherited.

Yet body language seems to stem from nurture as well as nature. Grayson points out how extreme displays of emotion are frowned upon in Japan (or even among some Scandinavians in the Red River Valley), while great expressiveness and dramatic gestures are expected in Italian culture.

Gender also plays a role in nonverbal expression, Grayson says. Women tend to be better at interpreting subtle unspoken cues, such as behaviors that might suggest someone is lying. In general, they also are more expressive and display more nonverbal cues, as they aren't raised to mask emotions like many boys are.

Still, there are some similarities that span cultures. People tend to touch or scratch their noses when feeling doubt or trying to hide something. Grayson points out how former President Bill Clinton touched his nose 26 times during the interview in which he claimed "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

All smiles not created equal

Different types of smiles can also be universal. There are sincere smiles - such as the closed-lip, "simple smile," which acknowledges the person is well and pleased by the situation. There's an "upper smile," which exposes the top teeth and is often exchanged between family members.

And then there are the insincere smiles. That includes the "oblong smile," in which a person exposes her teeth in the form of a grin but the smile doesn't reach the eyes (you might politely smile like this if someone tells a joke you don't find funny).

Overall, however, Grayson warns against oversimplifying the complex language of the body. Body-language experts learn to look for a cluster of behaviors rather than one particular gesture.


"If a woman crosses her arms in front of her, does that mean she's rejecting you?" Grayson says. "It could be that she's chilly or she's scratching her side or something else. It's not just one thing. It's a cluster of movements, actions and ideas."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525

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