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What-Every-Body-Is-Saying-Book-CoverWhat EveryBODY Is Saying by Joe Navarro is a book about body language. Yes, it’s probably the same book that guest on Fox News read right before confidently spouting a bunch of bullshit about how Obama was definitely lying because he took his hands out of his pockets or something. He probably was, but you can’t read deception from body language like that. It’s just not how it works.

I picked up this book because I wanted to be able to understand and place more deliberate meaning in the posing of my subjects. I also wanted to be able to better interpret the natural posing my clients use themselves. For example, during sessions with lots of moving parts, such as those with large families or multiple small children, I usually have to give instructions that land my clients in a photogenic position, rather than carefully moving them into that position. In the time it takes to do careful posing, small children’s attention spans run out, and it’s a bit like trying to catch water with your hands.  By better understanding our unspoken languages, I can start to identify clients who need more help to stop looking nervous or uptight. If I tell a client, “sit something like [this], however you feel most comfortable” and then they do, if they’re emotionally uncomfortable, they might advertise that in their body language, so it’s something I wanted to be able to read.

Navarro lays some scientific foundation for his arguments with the “limbic brain” and the “thinking brain”.  Our thinking brain, or neocortex, is where our consciousness resides, it’s also where we invent lies. The limbic system of our brain, responsible for our automatic freeze, flight, fight response (yes, in that order) and it is overwhelmingly honest. In other words, very few people are good at overriding their limbic system in the face of danger or discomfort. If there’s a tiger running at you, you won’t be able to play it cool. But if you make it out alive, your thinking brain will be happy to cook up some stories about how cool you kept it during the encounter.

The limbic system is honest in the sense that it causes us to do things without thinking about them, making those behaviors exceedingly difficult to modulate. Our thinking brain on the other hand is regularly tasked with explaining to ourselves and others why we acted one way or another and the explanations don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with reality. Our mouth can easily sidestep the truth, but our body under the more constant control of the limbic system, tries to correct the record.

The trouble most people have with this information is believing it is so consistent that it can be read like an actual book. But as Navarro repeatedly makes clear, the limbic system responds to stress, not lies. Reading someone’s body language, at best, helps you understand where someone resides on the comfort spectrum, and it just so happens that some things have a pretty consistent affect on that spectrum. For example, lying makes most people uncomfortable, so seeing a lot of discomfort in a person’s body language with a certain question or request, might indicate that they’re lying or withholding information or not being honest. But it also might mean they just had a bad breakfast burrito this morning. Being able to separate the lies from the burritos, Navarro says, is about looking for a contrast in body language, not just the language itself.

Body language is a clue, and nothing more. It’s information to guide an actual human conversation. There is no way to read people’s minds and it’s foolish to try. Attempting to use body language to do so will turn up a lot of false positives and more importantly make people hate you. People hating you might be okay if you’re an FBI agent, but not so much if you’re just hoping to better understand and nurture your relationships with clients or friends or family.

What EveryBODY is Saying is an insightful read. I became more cognizant of the body language I was using myself, noticing that I tend to take up a lot of space by sprawling out, and resting my hands behind my head. Classic confidence spectacles. I found this fascinating particularly as it would appear, at times, that I use confidence displays to abate my own lack of confidence. Clear enough evidence for me that body language, however honest, does not always telegraph the real meaning to onlookers. Interesting to read about though.