How does she know? This was the question that plagued me recently when I read a body language expert’s analysis of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. But how does she know that Meghan’s hand placed on Harry’s arm means she is enjoying the moment? Or that the position of Harry’s fingers indicates that he’s a relaxed parent? These are some of the existential quandaries I ponder around 3 a.m.
The expert in question, Blanca Cobb, regularly deciphers corporeal clues for media outlets such as CNN, Good Morning America, and Harper’s Bazaar. She also trains lawyers, journalists, salespeople, and other professionals in the art and science of body language. I caught up with her last week to learn some of her tricks. During our conversation (which thankfully happened on the phone so she couldn’t see my tell-tale nervous hunched shoulders and foot-jiggling), we discussed how body language works, how her single friends sometimes try to harness her powers before a date, and how to win over the most battle-hardened airline worker. Below, her job in her own words, along with her analysis of three celebrity photos I foisted upon her.
Reading Body Language Is a Superpower
Reading body language is a bit like having a superpower. I see the subtle, nuanced elements of human communication you don’t. When talking to each other, people are mostly focused on the words the other person is saying. But our bodies reveal how we feel in ways we may not even realize. If you’re nervous, you might rock slightly, rub your lips with your finger, or play with your hair. So yes, sometimes it feels like I have a superpower, but it’s not an inborn talent – it’s a learned skill. I have a Masters of Psychology and studied with great body language and deception detection experts.
You’d be surprised how many industries use the services of body language experts. Companies hire me to train their sales teams to read people better—to recognize, for example, a customer’s reservations about making a big purchase. I get called on by national and international media to weigh in on what I can see in interactions between people in the public eye—celebrities, politicians, famous athletes, or high-profile criminal cases, like the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. My job is to glean insights not just about a particular situation, but human behavior more broadly. The goal is always to understand people better.
There are a lot of factors to take into consideration when reading body language. Culture and context are really important, as are “clusters.” In body language, a cluster is two or more types of gestures a person makes at around the same time. A cluster gives me more confidence in what I believe I’m observing. For example, say a person is talking to someone and they crinkle their nose. Crinkling the nose is a micro-expression of disgust. That is a clue on its own, but when paired with other gestures we can extract more information about what a person is really thinking. Crinkling the nose and leaning away from someone would indicate the subject’s dislike of the person they are talking to, or of the topic. If they crinkle their nose while nodding their head, they may be trying to give the impression that they agree when really they do not.
That Said, I’m Not a Mind Reader
I always say, however, that body language is a combination of art and science. A read of a situation is by no means a 100 percent certainty. There have been times when I’ve been quoted in a publication along with another body language expert, and we have a difference of opinion. But think of it this way: not all doctors are going to solve the same medical condition the same way, right? They might try different medications or procedures based on their expertise and experience. It’s important to remember that body language analysis is just one person’s interpretation of the situation.
The most challenging part of my work is probably when I don’t have enough information. When a TV program or publication comes to me and wants a solid answer about what a celebrity or politician’s body language means, and sometimes it’s just not possible. There’s only so much information that you can get from one photo or video. A lot of the time, I don’t know what happened before it. I need some context. Going back to the medical metaphor, it would be like going to the doctor and saying, “I have a cough.” The doctor is going to be like, “Do you cough at night? In the morning? How does it sound? Is it a barky cough? Are you coughing anything up?’ Often as a body language expert you don’t get to ask many, if any, follow-up questions.
Think about it: If it were that easy to tell if someone is lying, we would not have the Innocence Project, we would not have this high false confession rate. You want to know why? Because judges, juries, police officers, detectives, and lawyers would be able to see right through a deception. It’s just not that easy. I wish it were!
Asking for a Friend
My family and friends rarely ask me to read someone’s body language for them as a favor, but I will say I have some single friends who are starting to date again and will occasionally reach out and ask, “Hey, I’m seeing this guy, here’s what’s happening when we go out, what do you think?” A friend recently recounted to me that her date doesn’t look her in the eyes much, and often looks over her head. But he’ll touch her arm occasionally, particularly when she says something funny. He was giving her mixed signals. To help her figure out what’s going on, I suggested that she watch him when they’re talking. He might be uncomfortable, lying or hiding something if he looks everywhere but her eyes, or gives eye contact to others, but not her. Since I didn’t see their interactions myself these are of course only guidance points–everyone needs to trust their own instincts.
Now You Try It
Moving through the world can be a little easier when you are more mindful of the body language signals you’re giving off. In a job interview, you should lean forward when the interviewer is talking, keep your hands visible by rested them on the table, and keep both feet grounded on the floor. At a party or a bar, if you want to seem more approachable, don’t huddle in the corner and avoid eye contact. Instead, be more open and inviting by having your back to the wall or the bar and looking around the room.
Body language can also be really powerful when dealing with customer service. Say you’ve missed your flight and you’re at the airport hoping the airline will re-book you on the next flight at no charge. Before you approach the counter, make sure you’re in the right mindset, because your non-verbal cues will reflect that. Calm down, relax your shoulders, make sure you’re showing the natural curvature of your fingers when you put your hands on the desk. Lean forward and say, “Hi, Mary, I really need your help.” Say the person’s name and speak with a warm tone of voice. If initially Mary says she can’t help, don’t sigh, roll your eyes, or drum your fingers on the desk. Showing that you’re a reasonable person will get you further than someone who complains, “Oh, I’ve been in this line for 20 damn minutes!” and becomes aggressive. Mary is the one with the power in that situation, and if Mary doesn’t hate having you in her face, there’s a much greater chance of you being offered a seat on that next flight.
Images via Getty