Why do Simon Cowell’s eyes flicker when he’s being rude to an X Factor contestant? Why do we feel unamused by Ricky Gervais’s open-mouthed non-laugh? Is it significant that Margaret Thatcher used to close her eyes when answering questions?
The answers are simple. They’re all examples of social leakage. Whatever is being said, the body language of these public figures says something else. Cowell doesn’t mean a word he’s saying. Gervais is trying to summon an atmosphere of hilarity without saying anything funny. And Thatcher, however calm her reply, was trying to shut out her pesky interrogators, as if they didn’t exist.
I’ve become an expert in this field after studying Body Language: How to Know What’s Really Being Said by James Borg, who introduces London’s advertising and financial executives to the black arts of interpersonal skills. He takes the reader through the ways our bodies reveal boredom, dislike, anxiety, indifference, mendacity – and, in happier moments, liking and even attraction – and shows how you can control your own gestures and mannerisms to make life less fraught.
He begins with the 1950s study showing that when people meet, 55 percent of their communication is by body language, 38 percent is by their voice and only 7 percent by the words they use. “The proportions would be different if you and this person talked for an hour,” says Borg, “but the first three minutes is when they decide whether to stick around with you or take their drink and leave.”
Borg can tell you how to interpret signs you might miss. If the human resources interviewer sits sideways-on to you, it means they’ve already given the job to someone else. If the female executive is brusque with you, it’s because your eye contact has strayed from the acceptable top triangle (eyes to crown of head) and the okay lower triangle (nose to lips and cheeks) to the flirting-only triangle of throat-to-breasts.
He’s full of insights into the “dance” of gaze behaviour in which you must indulge if you’re not to be taken for a staring-eyed psycho. And he admits reading body language is an imperfect science: no one behavioural tic will tell you that someone’s lying. You have, says Borg, to look for “clusters” of behaviour: staring at the ground (though that could be just anxiety) or changing the rate of speech. “When FBI agents were trained to establish if people were lying and tested in real-life situations, their score was 50/50 at best.”
How about the mask-like face, the fake smile, the glacial grimace of the public star, whether it’s Madonna, Katy Perry or Beyoncé?
“An insincere smile is lopsided, asymmetrical and doesn’t reach the eyes,” said Borg. “It’s just the power part of the face. The key things in a smile are the creases around the eyes and the wide angle of the mouth. Kate Middleton’s a good example. When she’s talking to people in an orphanage or on walkabout, she exhibits what seems a genuine smile because it goes all the way up to the eyes.”
There was nothing fake, he says, about Kate Winslet screaming: “Oh God, I really did win it!” at the Emmy awards. “She’s an emotional woman, who lets it all hang out,” says Borg. “But the body language was fascinating. She grasped the Emmy so tightly in both hands, as if saying, ‘This belongs to me’, as if afraid someone might take it away. She started thanking her mother, evoking her childhood. She became like a six-year-old girl snatching something and saying: ‘This is mine!’ “ – The