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TV Review: Secrets of Body Language

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“Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me?” If you are, then I, or anyone else you might talk with, will only receive seven percent of your message from the actual words you use. Seven percent? According to experts, the other 93 percent consists of nonverbal cues.

Secrets of Body Language premieres on the History Channel Monday, October 13 at 9 PM Eastern Time/8 PM Central Time. In this two hour program, video clips of events in political and pop culture history are deconstructed by a handful of experts. Famous events such as the speech Britain’s ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair made upon Princess Diana’s tragic death are examined in stop motion; famous figures are examined, their hidden emotion and sincerity weighed skeptically.

Take, for example, the WWII-era conference at Yalta. We’re told who was the “real leader” and who followed upon their every motion; and who merely sat there looking emasculated. Perhaps because of the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections, we are shown clip after clip of Presidents and politicos. President Bush is not shown in a flattering light — some of his more embarrassing moments on camera are chosen — but the comments given his clips are ironically affectionate. Turns out his body language denotes "alpha male."

President Richard M. Nixon’s body language, as studied here? Defensive and anxious, but most of what we’re shown happened around the time of Watergate. His earlier, televised debate with then-Senator John F. Kennedy is also shown. This event is widely held as a turning point in the role television plays in politics. The peaked-looking, sweaty Nixon fared badly against the poised, tanned Kennedy. Some of the facts surrounding that are explained. Nonverbal communication counts for a lot, and ever since television replaced the hearth in our society, no one running for public office today can afford to ignore its power. The visual communication from that 1960 debate is still seen as costing Nixon the election.

We also see the impact of nonverbal communication outside the political arena. Sadly, we’re shown footage from a "bad traffic stop" in which an officer was killed. Although the death happens out of camera range, some viewers may feel upset by this. An expert uses this video in a class he teaches to illustrate the danger of an officer ignoring physically aggressive body language. Police officers are taught to pay close attention to a subject’s body language, where the person looks, and whether they are listening to the officer. According to the expert, there were several indicators this subject was dangerous and planned to do the officer harm. The expert stops the tape at each point to explain what those indicators were. Fifty-five percent of communication is in body language and facial expression; that's a large broadcast of intentions to those who are aware and alert to its importance. These are important lessons for those who must make split-second decisions, such as police and military personnel. We are also shown an example in which fast and accurate reading of body language saved a life.

For some reason, pop culture icons are included in this special. Paris Hilton’s post-jail “I’m contrite” walk was examined, as was Britney Spears’ body language pre and post what some are now calling her breakdown. It seems a bit cruel to include Britney here, and a bit prurient. Paris’ post-jail walk is said to be an example of media coaching, so its inclusion seems more plausible. There is also a segment dedicated to a Paul Ekman, pioneer of nonverbal study. He found that human facial expressions for seven basic emotions were universal. Those expressions denoted: sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. (He later expanded this list, but seven are discussed in this program.)

We are shown how these facial expressions can flicker across someone’s face in a fraction of a second, perhaps exposing their ‘true’ emotions. The experts in Secrets of Body Language call these "micro expressions." Since public figures often wear a public ‘mask’ in order to gain social acceptability, this flicker can prove very interesting. Which sports figure plead her innocence, but gave all the wrong nonverbal cues and was later found to be guilty? Which two Presidents, threatened with impeachment, insisted upon their innocence although their nonverbal cues insisted otherwise? And how do two parents whose children were missing compare as to sincere hopes for the children’s return? Frame by frame at times, body language and position, facial expression, and those little flickers of contrasting emotion are discussed.

Speaking of which, 38 percent of nonverbal communication has nothing at all to do with facial expressions or body language. What else, then? Vocal inflections. But how reliable are vocal inflections as interpreters? I was less sold when experts claimed they could say whether Lee Harvey Oswald was likely guilty based upon his vocal analysis. An expert examined his vocal tones during his talk in the Dallas police station, in which he begged for a lawyer and claimed no knowledge of the assassination. Something called LVA or Layered Voice Analysis was used. The camera zooms in on a laptop computer and some wavy lines. The expert makes her assertions as to Oswald’s sincerity. Students are also played audio tapes of two parents with missing children – one parent later confessed to murder; the other case, an innocent father sincere in his pleas. Considering that the students sided with Susan Smith (the confessed murderer) and all but two found Mark Lunsford (completely innocent) guilty, I was left dubious about vocal analysis. By contrast, a study showed 70% accuracy in visual indicators in choosing winning political candidates.

We as human beings have more experience relying upon what we see for judgment, than solely on what we hear. We (most people) are simply not used to relying upon vocal cues only. How often do we hear someone but not see them, in a threatening situation? And isn’t threat supposedly how most of our defenses have evolved? How often are emotions misinterpreted over the telephone? At any rate, the science behind LVA is never explained to us. We’re shown the computer at work, but not the study or reasoning behind it. With something as important as the Oswald case, I’d like more justification than that.

In two hours this special tries to cover a lot of territory. Watching clips of events most of us will remember is intriguing but I found myself wishing more had been delved into. This could even be a weekly series. For instance, what impact does the mental health of the person being studied have on the analysis? The narration mentions “norming” or figuring out what is normal for that person, but what is “normal” for a psychotic? For a sociopath? How does that impact the study of their facial or bodily expressions and postures? This is never mentioned.

Cultural differences are mentioned in passing – standing very close in conversation is normal some places, a threat in others – that could be an entire episode on its own. I’d also like to know to which degree of accuracy the average person interprets the more subtle nonverbal cues. Is intuition really a finely attuned sense of nonverbal cues, as some contend it often is? How many people do not pay attention to body language or facial expressions, or discount what they do observe? Seems to me a lot of people buy communication at face value — a “but they SAID so, it must be true” type of logic. Watching this History Channel special may cause such people to rethink relying on words over what’s being said with no words at all. From crucial world events to everyday events like shopping for a car, it’s important to examine our world with as much understanding as we can.

Secrets of Body Language is certainly food for thought, as well as a very entertaining 120 minutes of television. You might just find yourself freeze-framing that remote, and nudging the person next to you and asking, “Did you see what I saw?” the next time you watch something play out on TV. Especially with an election weeks away, looking a bit more closely at what’s happening right in front of us is never more important.

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