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British Expat Newsletter:
14 September 2005

Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.

In this issue

  • This week: Body Language
  • Virtual Snacks
  • Bizarre Searches
  • Joke and quotation

This week

Did you know that, according to scientists, less than 10% of face-to-face communication is verbal? It’s not what you say but the way that you say it – your tone of voice, your facial expression, and your posture. In any case, your appearance is often more important than what you are saying.

Those of you who hang out on Internet fora and chatrooms will probably already be aware that misunderstandings arise much more readily on the Internet. Even a hastily typed email can cause unintentional offence (or hilarity, of course) because the sender hasn’t taken the time to think about what the recipient will read into it. Such a lot of what you’re trying to convey goes missing – if the scientists are to be believed, over 90% of it! So perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to revile smileys (emoticons) – they’ve become essential to show the non-verbal communication behind what has been written. A smiley can change the whole tone of a forum posting or email message.

Body language is so important, they’re even using it in humanoid robots. Apparently the human upper body’s main joints (including the neck, wrists and shoulders) have a combined total of about 25 degrees of freedom (DOFs) – each degree of freedom representing the ability to rotate around, or move along, one axis. Manchester University researchers have created various models to find out how many DOFs are needed to convey non-verbal messages. A robot with 18 DOFs would still be able to convey most of them, if rather woodenly; a robot with just 10 would lose most of the functions – being unable, for instance, to shrug its shoulders or fold its arms.

Apparently, animals also use body language – a quick look on any search engine reveals several results for understanding what your dog, rabbit, or whatever is trying to tell you. For example, if a rabbit gives a shrill scream then you know that it is either hurt or dying. Very useful, that.

Body language is also important in business, job interviews, dating – in most situations of human interaction. Some exponents of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) claim that by controlling your own body language you can even adjust your own emotional responses. Even if you don’t subscribe to that point of view, there are all sorts of ways you can use body language to your advantage.

For starters, you can tell when someone is lying. There are all sorts of giveaways here. The shifty look (avoidance of eye contact) is one, although allowances have to be made – I’ll come back to this later. Others include a general tightening of the liar’s posture, hands covering the face and especially the mouth, monotone speaking, replies which use the exact words of an accusation… and many more. On a related point, ITN roped in those boffins at the University of Manchester during the recent General Election to analyse politicians’ performances in front of the television cameras. (We all know they’re lying, but not always what they’re trying to hide!) Sadly, we didn’t get to see any of this as we were still in Thailand at the time.

But it’s particularly important for expats to be aware of body language, because intercultural communication relies on some different cues. Remember that I mentioned the shifty look above? Well, many of you in Asia, Africa and the Arab world will probably be aware that maintaining direct eye contact is seen as confrontational and is generally avoided, whether the speaker is telling the truth or not. Others will be familiar with the problems that different personal space perceptions can cause – the European being pushed further and further away across the room by an encroaching South Asian who wonders why the European’s being so stand-offish. And we’ve all heard the ones about the thumbs-up sign in Belgium (or many other countries).

It’s a fascinating subject, of course. But, as with all things, perhaps a little knowledge can be dangerous. It’s too much of an oversimplification to assume that someone sitting hunched up with their arms folded is on the defensive. They may be cold, or suffering from stomach cramps. So use it with caution!
Have you experienced anything recently which made you think about body language? Why not comment and tell us about it?

Virtual Snacks

We mentioned the BBC/British Council Teaching English site a few weeks ago. Well, it turns out they’ve got an interesting page on non-verbal communication too. Worth a look, especially if you missed this earlier.
[Obsolete link removed]

They say that animals don’t lie. Here’s an interesting article on dog body language, which has plenty of extensive links for further reading too.
Talking Dog: Body Language

And if you’d like to test your own ability to read body language, why not take the BBC’s “Spot the Fake Smile” test? (I got 17 out of 20 – see how well you get on!)
BBC Science & Nature: Spot the Fake Smile

Bizarre Searches

Some strange search terms which have led people to visit British Expat recently:

  • painter of women in the kitchen
  • british garden lizards
  • freddy and the dreamers email
  • pictures of childrens healthy lunchboxes
  • joke psychologist optimist pessimist pony
  • spanish tutus
  • graeme chicken
  • what say things do i tell my man in bed
  • blue smurf shops
  • haggis mousse recipe
  • which luminaries was not born in 1685
  • atabal bocu darabuka rebolo

Till next time…
Happy surfing!

British Expat Magazine


“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
– George Bernard Shaw, Irish literary critic, playwright and essayist (1856-1950)


One reason the Armed Forces have trouble operating jointly is that they don’t speak the same language.

For example, if you told Navy personnel to “secure a building”, they would turn off the lights and lock the doors.

Army personnel would occupy the building so no one could enter.

Marines would assault the building, capture it, and defend it with suppressive fire and close combat.

The Air Force, on the other hand, would take out a three-year lease with an option to buy.

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