Body says more than words

The case of the Dubai amnesiac highlights the importance of body language as a litmus test for lying and a vital part of communication.

DUBAI // Actions speak louder than words. And in the case of the mystery man who was found swimming towards Palm Deira last week and who claims to be suffering amnesia, body language is a silent whisper that police are listening to. "We want to help him," said Lt Col Ahmad al Merri, the head of criminal investigations at Dubai Police, "but the problem is that he is inconsistent and his body language suggests that he is elusive."

Some studies show 60 per cent of any dialogue is made through nonverbal means - such as gestures, posture, facial expression and eye contact - and about 30 per cent through tone of voice, while verbal communication is as little as 10 per cent. "Body language is the most important part of all communication but it's not the only part," said Fergus Claffey, a body language instructor at Spearhead Training, which provides business training in Dubai. "If you don't understand the body language of the other person you are going to probably misinterpret and misunderstand [their] communication."

Not all gestures imply the same thing, as body language varies by culture and context. "It is very important to establish a baseline because the danger is always in making an assumption, like with crossed arms," Mr Claffey said. "People will assume that it is a defensive posture, but it could be a relaxed posture." Common body language signs that indicate deception include involuntary swallowing, pupil dilation and changing skin tone. A handshake given with the arm slanting down towards the recipient means dominance and control. Nodding in agreement while looking away actually reflects disagreement.

While modes of non-verbal communication differ across cultures, studies show that expressions of some emotions - including anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise - are universal and reflexive. "Body language is motivated by the unconscious more than the conscious," said Dr Raymond Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist at Dubai's Human Relations Institute. "When motivated by the conscious it is a deliberate act to fool the recipient of a particular message."

Personality type also affects nonverbal communication. An aggressive person will typically use bigger gestures, which may come across as threatening. A more passive person may only use body language to make a point when they feel it is necessary. "Anger is anger, depression is depression," Dr Hamden said. "However, variations will be due to the individual characteristics and traits. The body language in non-verbal communication of the extrovert is more transparent and more animated, while the introvert may be more closed in their body position and very selective to whom they may show gestures in desire for contact."

At times people are not aware that their physical messages are at odds with the words coming out of their mouth, a situation that inadvertently landed a 23-year-old Russian man a girlfriend. "There was this woman who said she wasn't interested in me who kept sitting in a way that she was leaning towards me," said Evgeniy Gerasimchuk, a student at the American University of Sharjah who gestured to convey his meaning. "Later on we ended up being together. So her body language said the opposite of what she did."

Those more aware of the meaning of body language may have an advantage over their less well-informed fellows. Ewan Abbasi, a 23-year-old American of Palestinian descent, has become more knowledgeable about her body language and no longer tries to hide her true emotions after taking a communication course. "If I lie it is very apparent on my face, so I have given up on trying to conceal anything," she said.