Don’t Get Your Tail in a Twist! When Bad Body Language is the Signal to Speak Up and Straighten Things Out

IMG_20130605_170058_756 (1)This is the third article in a series on nonverbal messaging inspired by the equine world, one realm where beauty is never vain, strength does not mean aggression and nonverbal cues always trump talk.

I adore my horse, Dolce. His name in Italian means “sweet” or “sweetly.” He is well-named as he has, true to his Arabian breed, a lovely disposition. Every wrangler, rider, rancher and farmhand who has ever come in contact with him has commented on his gentility. And he came to me sweetly. He was rounded up in a rescue effort and transported to the farm where I took riding lessons. I first saw him as the farm owner drove me around looking at the horses available for lease. He had been living there for about six months and was cowering under a big mare. What first caught my attention was not his physical beauty, but that he made extended eye contact with me –and then suddenly looked away. This happened three times. Our eyes locked for about three seconds and then he turned his whole head away. By the third time, I sensed that he had once been very much loved by a human. That’s how I read it. His expression and gestures said, “Are you back? Is that you?” And, implicitly, “If you help me now we can put this all behind us.” Three days later I leased him. Three months later I bought him. We’ve been together as horse and rider for six years now.

I know Dolce quite well and when I see that he is not himself in some way, I know he doesn’t feel well. This was the case the other day when he didn’t trot right over to me. He was moving slowly. He didn’t whinny. His ears did not come forward—the equine equivalent of a smile. Worse, his ears went back when I haltered him—the equine expression of irritation. I admit that I first felt insulted. He’s always so happy to see me. Then, when I began to groom him, he pinned his ears. That hurt! That hurt me, I mean! As I brushed his back near his rear he swung his head around as if to bite me. He was letting me know he was not taking it. And I was taking the rejection personally. After a deep breath and a pause, I started to emote less and think more. I palpated his spine. I was thinking Lyme disease which gets horses and causes them painfully sore backs. But he didn’t jump when I palpated further. Not back pain. But what was it then? It was time for a thorough head to hoof examination. And there it was: a nasty-looking abrasion on his heel bulb. Communication experts say, “A problem named is a problem solved” and so it was. Just as I lifted the injured hoof to clean the wound his ears went forward. True to his personality, Dolce knew I was trying to help him. I think that’s why he heals quickly when injured or ill. He starts to heal even before the medicine is applied. He starts off grouchy and defensive until he senses the sincerity, accepts the helping hand and warms hearts in the process. That’s a lot of camaraderie and effective communication for a creature that doesn’t use words.

How different it is in human to human communication! What happens with us humans when other humans’ “body language” communicates to us that they are not happy to see us, irritated with us and even seem to be rejecting us? Ouch! We feel hurt. We get insulted. And we walk away, snarl back, or otherwise escalate the hostility. But just as with our four-legged friends, I propose that these negative signals we receive are actually clues to one’s circumstances and if we can “respond” thoughtfully rather than “react “ emotionally we humans, too, can find relationships in unexpected places and productivity in stressful situations. What do I mean?

Let’s start by realizing that non-verbal communication is ambiguous. This is counter-intuitive as many of us have powerful gut-feelings about what a look, tone or gesture mean. We really believe we “know what she meant when she averted her eyes during our conversation.” We are certain that “his tone was dismissive during the phone call.” We are sure that “when she shifted in her chair and looked at her watch during the interview that she was bored.” The fact is that we really do not and often cannot “know” any such things. Why? Because, nonverbal communication means different things depending on the culture from which it emanates. In short, it is culture-specific, a fancy term for the behaviors of particular people with common characteristics that impact the way they act and especially how they communicate. For instance, if you are American and give a fellow American colleague the “thumbs up” gesture, it is a compliment. Give a “thumbs up” to a Persian associate and you just gave someone “the finger.” One gesture. Two cultures. Divergent messages. And unintentionally hurt feelings.

And culture is not just about ethnicity. Take the culture of folks with back problems, say compressed discs. They have trouble sitting for long periods of time and they behave in certain ways as a result. During hiring season a human resource professional might need to sit through back-to-back interviews that aggravate her condition. Feeling her back start to ache, she shifts in her chair trying to find a comfortable position. This happens two or three times until she also glances at her watch wondering if it is time yet for another dose of her medication. However, the signal received by the anxious interviewee is, “Uh-oh. She’s bored with my responses. This is not going well.” Wrong! The message sent has zero to do with the interview. Rather, the behavior stems from a physical ailment, not an interpersonal issue or negative view of the matter at hand.

What thickens the plot is how one handles a perceived slight. If one self-righteously declares, “You are being very rude and I won’t stand for this treatment” it is dramatic and makes for a juicy, “I told her where to go” story at dinner with friends. However, it doesn’t help one get a job. If one stays quiet and silently brews resentment that too will likely backfire as those signals eek out to pollute the communication environment and sabotage the interview. When affronted, one must think logically about what to say that is productive and can contribute to a climate of good will. And make no mistake about it: words are necessary. We are the only species on the planet with the gift of speech and arguably, we have not only a responsibility to use it sensitively with other humans, but great opportunities to use it smartly to achieve our goals. How so?

Bearing in mind that nonverbal messages are ambiguous, culture-specific and typically based in biology, we must remind ourselves that we are likely mistaken in our first read of what is being signaled. That doesn’t mean our intuition is off; on the contrary, something is indeed happening when one averts their eyes suddenly in the midst of an otherwise engaging conversation. What’s off is our translation or interpretation of the gesture. So when we’re observing a change in an interviewer’s body language, that is, she goes from smiling and making eye contact to fidgeting, grimacing and glancing at the clock—simply speak up! We need to share the observation and pose a genuine question in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. We need to smile sincerely and say, “I notice that you are checking your watch. Have we run over our scheduled time or need a break?” How welcome that will be to a person who needs an aspirin! And what’s in it for us? She now sees a perceptive and reasonable person! She will likely call a five-minute break and return focused and noting that she is interviewing someone who is a whole person and not just a resume. In a word, her ears will come forward.

Lisa Bernard, M.A., is the founder of Lisa Bernard’s Word of Mouth, Inc. a full-service oral communication firm based in Westport, CT. For over twenty years Lisa has been helping real people achieve their goals one conversation, speech or interview at a time. She can be reached at, followed on Twitter @CueCardComm or via LinkedIn.