As much as you may try to maintain a bland expression on your face when you don’t want others to read your emotions, you may not realize how important it is to control your body language when you want to appear inscrutable. Perhaps you’re meeting someone you’ve identified on a dating app and now want to check out in person. As you sit in your local coffee shop waiting for that all-important first encounter, you compose your face into an expression you believe to be neutral. Unfortunately, you failed to take the same precautions with your body. Your feet are tapping, you’re leaning forward, and your hands are fidgeting. Your prospective date will now be readily tuned in to recognize that you’re anxious and insecure, and the rest of the event will undoubtedly not go as you had planned.
According to new research by Gijsbert Bijlstra and colleagues (2018) of Radboud University (the Netherlands), under some conditions people are better able to recognize emotions from body language than they are from facial expression. However, it’s rare to go into a situation in which you’re reading someone’s emotions from a completely neutral, or “bottom-up,” standpoint where your expectations play no role in interpreting that person’s body language. Instead, you may be more influenced than you realize by the “top-down” process of letting your expectations color your perceptions. Perhaps in that online dating scenario, you’ve already decided that the person you’re about to meet is going to be someone you will like. You’ll therefore be more likely to ignore or discount some of the qualities that might otherwise bother you, such as the fact that your date doesn’t smile as much as you would prefer.
Bijlstra and his colleagues propose that the process of reading other people’s body language is influenced by so-called “social category” cues that identify a person’s standing or position in society. In their study, gender became the social category cue that formed the focus of that top-down process. The authors note that gender is inseparable from the way others perceive you and, hence, the way they interpret your emotional expression. If you’re a man displaying a “typical” male emotion, such as anger, others should be able to identify your emotion more rapidly than if you’re a woman displaying the same “male” emotion. Conversely, a woman showing a “typical” female emotion of sadness should also be more quickly responded to than a man showing the same emotion.
To test their proposal that gender affects the perception of body language, the Dutch authors created stimuli showing silhouettes of women and men showing the same emotions. Their undergraduate participants conducted a speeded classification task in which they were instructed to identify the emotions depicted in these stimuli as fast as possible. The authors compared the speed with which they classified gender-congruent emotions with their speed in identifying gender-incongruent emotions. As they predicted, participants more readily identified anger in men and sadness in women than anger in women and sadness in men.
The Biljstra et al. findings demonstrate that the way you interpret people’s emotions is indeed affected by your expectations in the form of stereotypes about the social category they represent. Although gender was the only social cue investigated in this particular study, it would be reasonable to expect that categories such as age, race, and social class could play similar roles in affecting the way you interpret emotions.
Flipping this around, the findings also imply that the way you’re perceived is affected by the social cues you send to others by virtue of the social categories you represent. If observers are essentially programmed to see men as angry and women as sad, this means that even without your deliberately trying to show yourself as angry or sad, your gender might lead people to interpret your body language in a stereotyped manner. It maybe therefore be particularly challenging for women not to appear sad or men to appear angry.
The Dutch findings purposefully took other cues out of the equation that would normally be provided by the way people dress, what they actually say (and how they say it), and what their faces additionally communicate. The authors did find weaker effects in the data when the female stimuli did not have long hair, so this feature of appearance must also be taken into account when you see people in real life. Since you present a “total package” when others look at you, all of these factors can combine to influence the way people read your emotional cues.
It may strike you as somewhat depressing to think that people do not allow “bottom-up,” or experiential-based conclusions, to drive their perceptions of you. It would be preferable to think that your behavior alone, both verbal and nonverbal, drives your interactions with others, so that you can control what people think of you. Returning to the example of your first meeting with your online date, would he or she have you pegged before you even rise to initiate a greeting? It wouldn’t matter, according to this reasoning, whether you maintain a completely inscrutable set of nonverbal cues. People are ready to judge your emotion before you even slump your shoulders or stand with your elbows akimbo, pointing out from your hips.
To counteract these immediate judgments, your best bet when you’re in situations where you’re hoping not to have your emotions readily communicated is to adopt as neutral a stance as possible. As much as your facial expression matters, so does your head position. By the same token, when you’re reading other people’s signals, recognize that your own stereotypes can get in the way of your making accurate judgments. Your own previous experience can either heighten or reduce those stereotypes, making you even less able to read others.
In summary, body language is a form of communication that can cut both ways, either to help or hinder your relationships. Put it to your advantage by recognizing the biases that can keep it from functioning as adaptively as possible.