David Godot, Psy.D.

Knowing Your Tells: Body Language and Unconscious Communication

Photo by Tony Blay

People communicate with each other constantly, and in ways we hardly ever even realize. You heard that right: even a truly prolific writer is unlikely to ever match in written words the sheer volume of information that is constantly transmitted to the people around them, in the form of body language, expressions, small gestures, barely detectable fluctuations in muscle tone, in vocal cadence. Beyond these measurable types of physical communication, there’s another level of communication buried under and between the language itself. It occurs just as automatically as body language and just as pervasively. And, like body language, we usually don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Let’s look at an example. You’re walking down a busy street, and someone is walking toward you in the opposite direction. But for some strange reason, you can’t figure out which way he’s going to go. Left? Right? He’s looking at you as if you should know. You become confused and enraged. In your mind you are calling him a schmuck. So you tell him to watch where he’s going.

What a strange thing to say. Why would you want him to watch where he’s going? It seems like you only want him to make up his mind about what side of the sidewalk he’s going to walk on and then do it. Actually, the failure in this situation is not really a failure of decision-making, but of communication.

When we’re walking on a crowded street, we’re constantly looking into the spaces that we want to navigate our bodies into and between. At the same time, we are unconsciously noting the spaces that other people are eyeing and making automatic adjustments to accommodate them. When we ask someone to watch where they’re going, we’re effectively asking them to tell us where they’re going so that we can act accordingly. And even though we don’t know exactly what we mean—at least on any conscious level—we tell them in plain language exactly what to do. And they usually do it, too.

There are many more perfectly concrete expressions like this that we use all the time while never understanding or even feeling a need to understand their meaning. We don’t question them because they already make perfect sense to the parts of us that know what they mean. Which means, of course, that the conscious mind that you identify as “me” is not the only part of you that communicates with the other people in your life. Much of the time, it’s ‘someone else’.

This has real implications for our relationships, and for those parts of our livelihood which depend upon communication with others. It is not uncommon for people to unconsciously sabotage themselves by thoughtlessly communicating their fears, insecurities, or hidden motives. The way a poker player displays “tells” indicating the type of hand they are playing, and the way a pedestrian on a crowded street gives signals indicating their next steps, so are all of us constantly telling each other what kind of internal experience we’re having, what we want, and what we’re doing.

The only way to improve the chances that your unconscious communications will be in line with your conscious goals is to work on improving the overall integration of your personality. As daunting as that may sound, it can be accomplished through the use of things like meditation, spiritual practices, and psychotherapy.