Sunday, March 04, 2012

Translating Body Language

"We didn’t want to hang our heads and have bad body language. We were able to come out and play a good basketball game tonight"-- Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith on his team's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder 3/3/12

“No doubt our attitude and some of our body language during the second quarter wasn’t what it was supposed to be"-- New Tier (Illinois) High School player Connor Boehm 3/2/12

"The body language from Beatrice's Jill Faxon (31) and Gretna's Jordan Meadow tells the story as the Lady Orange defeated the Dragons 47-41 in their Class B state tournament semifinal at Devaney Sports Center on Friday, March 2, 2012."-- Lincoln (Nebraska) Star Journal

“ 'I told them to man up,' recalled Rigoglioso, who didn’t like the body language he saw on the tape. 'No matter how many shots you miss you have to carry yourself like a man on the court. I told them to stop acting like boys and start manning up as basketball players."-- 3/2/12

"They all stepped up when Bernard went out of the game. You could see it in their body language, their level of communication, the intensity in their voice and their eyes. It was obvious they were more determined."-- Florida State basketball coach Leonard Hamilton 3/2/12

“I thought going into the game that our mental approach was very calm, our body language was really solid.”-- Illinois Wesleyan women's basketball coach Mia Smith 3/2/12

As the above quotes demonstrate, at every level of basketball, high school through the NBA, men and women, boys and girls, people are looking at body language. Since the above are all from the last couple of days, we see from a just a small sample size that the focus on body language has become pervasive. Certainly, we've been aware for years that there is a level of meaningful communication that takes place on a nonverbal level, that people's posture and body movements may reveal things that their utterances do not. But I think, based upon a greater frequency of usage of the term, that there has been more attention in recent years paid to body language (perhaps too much attention). Why might that be? There are probably several reasons.

We are in a golden age of data mining. In particular, there has been a push toward discovering "hidden" or "undervalued" data. The "Freakonomics" books, which have now grown into a larger brand, promise to explore the "hidden side of everything." Moneyball revealed that in the culture of sports, marketplace advantages can be gained by locating data streams that competitors undervalue. But even as we are aware of the tantalizing possibility that we can access greater knowledge by looking a little bit deeper, the truth is that very few of us have the skills or training to be able to practically do this. On the other hand, most of us have a little bit of practice at interpreting body language. It's easy enough in some circumstances to learn about people by watching their reactions to stimuli. But might we be a little too eager to apply judgments in other circumstances?

Also, we may be becoming a more nonverbal society. Given the ease with which we can now communicate with people by nonverbal (and nonpersonal) means, there may be even more of a premium placed on the nonverbal cues that go with those communications. But as a generation comes of age with a different cultural context for communication, do the old "rules" for judging engagement apply? I'm not convinced that the adolescent who isn't making eye contact isn't paying attention.

And another thing that strikes me about the above quotations is that they are all applied in hindsight. Granted, athletes and coaches aren't interviewed in the middle of a competition (though a time may be coming when in-game tweets won't be viewed as taboo). But can you imagine a coach saying "We won in spite of our body language"? Or "We showed some really good body language out there, but the results wouldn't follow"? Of course, it is presupposed that poor performance results from poor energy exertion, and poor energy exertion may be diagnosed by analyzing body language.

Yet isn't it more likely that poor performance results from a combination of inferior talent and random bad luck? And isn't it probable that bad body language is a consequence of poor results, rather than the other way around?

But at the rate we are going, maybe body language will someday be known as "language," and utterances will be known as "spoken language." So in the final analysis, I think we may have a market inefficiency that can be exploited by those who are savvy. It may be a crazy thought, but by paying attention to actions and words, be just might learn more than those who are hung up on studying postures, twitches, and gaits.


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