Let’s say you’re the manager in some workplace and I’m one of your workers. Some petty pilfering has been going on and you set about cross-examining all the employees. They all look you straight in the eye when you talk to them.
Except me. Does that mean that I’m the culprit?
Now let’s say you conclude that I’m the thief, and you tell me to pack my bags and get out of there real fast. So now I’m in the job market again, I apply for a position well suited to my skills and after being notified that I’m on the “short list”, I’m duly summoned for an interview.
Now, the other candidates make strong eye contact with the interviewing personnel throughout the interview process. I don’t. So now I’m in trouble again. I come across as shifty-eyed. Well now, obviously my former boss was right. For sure, I’m a liar. Is that “fool-proof” deduction justified?
A newspaper article by Nick Morgan examines a number of very widespread misconceptions relating to body language signals.
Accurate knowledge of body language and nonverbal communication is essential for success in interpersonal relations, whether in the business world or in personal life. However, much of our understanding of this field is instinctive. And basing himself on Paul Ekman’s classic work: “Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage”, the writer shows how many of our instinctive assumptions are plain wrong, according to modern communications research.
Take our example of the guy who can’t look you straight in the eye. Is he indeed a liar? Ekman writes: “When we asked people how they would tell if someone were lying, squirming and shifty eyes were the winners. [But] clues that everyone knows about, that involve behavior that can be readily inhibited, won’t be very reliable if the stakes are high and the liar does not want to be caught.”
Although this kind of non-verbal signal most reliably signals the presence of some kind of emotion, maintains Ekman, that emotion may or may not mean that someone is lying. Nervousness can, for example, manifest itself as shifty eyes. But there are many reasons for nervousness. To understand what the behavior means, you still have to interpret the emotion.
Furthermore, if the person is a pathological lair, he will have taught himself the perverse skill of making eye contact regardless and being able to give the misleading impression that he’s sincere. Hence, trying to gauge sincerity or truthfulness by the degree of eye contact is an extremely risky exercise.
This mistaken belief that a person who can’t look you straight in the eye spells danger leads to may errors on the other side of the coin also. Since shifty-eyed people are liars, so too, to avoid being tarred with the same brush, you have to make constant eye contact with someone you meet. At least, that’s the common perception. Thus at a job interview, for example, you feel compelled to stare fixedly at your interlocutor throughout.
Now although most people are comfortable if you look them in the eye for a few seconds, prolonged eye contact is a sure fire way to make them jittery. So they assume that something is going on in the gazer’s mind. Perhaps he’s trying to flirt with the interviewer, or maybe she has some other sinister motive.
So generally, it’s not likely to be good news for the candidate, however innocent and well-meaning he or she may be.
Unfortunately, incorrect perceptions about body language abound. Without doubt, the study of nonverbal communication is important and can be extremely useful in today’s society, and certainly in the business world.
But like in all areas where judging human beings is involved, a call for great caution is certainly in place.
Azriel Winnett is the author of the highly acclaimed, eye-opening book How to Build Relationships That Stick. An enhanced edition is now available as a paperback.