19 August 2010

Body language on BBC Radio 4's 'Word of Mouth' (17 August, 2010)

If you missed my appearance on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth programme on body language earlier this week, you can listen to it again on the BBC website for a few more days - after which you'll still be able to hear it below (I come on after about 12 minutes).

For what it's worth, I thought that the American body language 'expert' was dead right in referring to some of his own words of wisdom (at least twice) as "ludicrous over-generalizations" - but it did leave me wondering why, if he knows that, he's so willing to trot them out so authoritatively to anyone who happens to be listening.

With social psychologists like that on the loose, is it any wonder that so many false and misleading claims about non-verbal behavior have become embedded in the mythology of management training?

video

Other posts on body language & non-verbal communication:

12 comments:

Nikki Felder said...

Can anyone tell me what type of body language our President had when he spoke again on Saturday about his endorsement of Islam?

edward.reynolds said...

nikki- perhaps have a listen to the whole interview, then maybe you might change your question...
People don't have 'types of body language'. Those times when there is a message in the body language it's obvious, when it's not obvious....there isn't anything more than what he is saying.

So called 'experts' such as the first chap use the same rhetorical tricks as astrologers and psychics to rationalise and account for 'body language' as some sort of hidden message system. However once their rhetoric fades most users find that their own understanding of culture makes more sense than the expert.

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks for both these comments. And Nikki: take note of what Edward says, as he's saved me the trouble of replying!

Mark Bowden said...

I’ve listened to the show and feel that Professor Witchell’s input is a very entertaining hook without which the audience would not be compelled to stay engaged and potentially hear your thoughts Professor Atkinson. Having read your book “Lend Me Your Ears” (and its a great book) I can pinpoint similarly entertaining generalizations that create enough drama or humor that can engage an audience through to a potential truth later on and that standing alone could easily feel too mundane to hold out for. My feeling is that Witchell has a more post-modern aesthetic that is willing to own, enjoy and disclose his over-generalizations. Your style has for me a more modernist approach of “expert = absolute truth” that is potentially a generational trait. (You might like to check out the work of my colleague Dr. Karl Moore at McGill, Montreal about this in his TEDx speech on PostModern Management.)

You know all in all Word of Mouth is a great show because of its ability to mélange differing ideas and attitudes into a short time span and allow an audience to think a little for themselves. It’s not news or a lecture by an expert--its classic BBC; entertaining, informative and educational. Given this I think your should celebrate being alongside the other “experts”, Max.

Mark Bowden
www.truthplane.com

Max Atkinson said...

I too am a fan of Word of Mouth, whether or not I happen to be on the show. Nor do I have any problem about appearing alongside other 'experts' - especially when they say things that make whatever I come up with sound moderately rational and/or sensible by comparison.

However, I confess that I don't quite understand your distinction between 'post-modernist' v. 'modernist'. But if your point is that he's quite young and I'm an old fogey, I don't have a problem with that either.

I greatly appreciate your kind remarks about 'Lend Me Your Ears' and am glad you liked it. However, I do find your suggestion that I go in for similar exaggerations a bit worrying.

If, as you’ve suggested in recent comments on Twitter, the subtitle - 'all you need to know about making speeches and presentations' - is an example of this, there are two points I'd make about it.

The first is that the key words are 'all you need to know', which I amplify and explain fairly early on in the book - i.e. in the preface (pp. 3-4 in the UK edition).

The second, and this is the really depressing thing from my point of view, is that I wouldn't even have had to do that (or have any such a subtitle) had my publishers not insisted on a title - 'Lend Me Your Ears' - that I never liked and didn't want - not least, to use a contemporary cliché, because I’d have preferred something that said what it did on the tin, rather than one that would sit there on the bookshop shelves implying that it might have something to do with Shakespeare or literary criticism.

For what it’s worth, the title I wanted was: ‘The Joy of Speaking: How to Seduce Your Audience’. But I fully admit that, by echoing the title of a best-selling book about sex from long ago, this too betrays my age and probably wouldn’t have echoed at all with younger generations!

simonroskrow said...

Great discussion, and so many areas I'd like to pick up on, if time allowed!

A couple for now that are most prominent in my mind:

1) I think there is a danger that both Professor Witchell and Professor Atkinson are guilty of post-rationalisation, but that there is actually nothing to feel 'guilty' about. Much academic study looks at something that has happened and then attempts to create a theoretical framework around it - inductive reasoning. The difference for me is in the quality of the approach rather than the approach itself - it is essential to have a solid core of observational data upon which to build your theories, otherwise they'll collapse.

From recently watching the "claptrap" documentary available elsewhere on this blog, I have respect for the solidity of Professor Atkinson's approach - I have no data on Professor Witchell's.

2) The second area regards the 'ludicrous generalisations', and their kissing cousins, 'over-simplifications. This is a danger with all theories, all academic study, and all ideas in general. The linguistic approaches that Professor Atkinson promulgates are, I believe, also generalisations, in that, for example, the 'rule of three' generally works, but not always.

--

Finally, picking up on the comment about the 'fact' that "false and misleading claims about non-verbal behavior have become embedded in the mythology of management training" - this is also a generalisation, and, as a management trainer, I take pride in being outside the norm in this case!

edward.reynolds said...

A point not often made about the language work of Conversation Analysis, Professor Atkinson's background (and to a more junior extent my own) is that as a guiding principle generality is claimed 'for these cases'. The reader is given the analysis and the description and asked to see if it applies in their own experience.
Too often this is overlooked in the concluding paragraphs (or the CA researcher does make overgeneralisations!).
Thus like the more traditional research of professor Bull we have an internally consistent method of claiming a particular form of generality - however good analysis will always admit that it is never final.

Experimenters and Conversation Analysts alike do get up in arms when those like Professor Witchell get up and throw around broad claims to appear to have great explanatory powers.
As a great example such 'experts' plague deception detection and are a consistent source of irratation for all serious parts of the field when they are trotted out by local media to throw around wild speculation like it was based on science.

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