Emma Samms: Speaking fluent body language

Try talking to someone who has their arms crossed and you're not going to feel very welcome (c) javi

Try talking to someone who has their arms crossed and you're not going to feel very welcome (c) javitrapero / Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘I seriously doubt my acting skills go as far as micro-expressions. I’m just happy to remember my lines and not bump into the furniture.’

Having been an actress for some 40 years, it would be a bit odd if I didn’t know a thing or two about body language. Many experts claim to be able to discern likeability, honesty, deception and attraction from a tilt of the head or what we are doing with our hands. There are also, apparently, ‘micro-expressions’ that sit on our faces for such a short time that unless our behaviour is watched back in slow motion, are impossible to perceive. Hopefully no one has replayed my performances and looked for those because I seriously doubt my acting skills go as far as micro-expressions. Frankly I’m just happy to remember my lines and not bump into the furniture.

A few years ago it became apparent that a body language expert had been recruited by the Conservative Party, when a few of their parliamentarians started adopting an unusual and frankly comedic stance with their legs so far apart that they looked like they were limbering up for a gymnastic routine. What they were trying to convey was power and confidence but what they were really conveying with this ‘power stance’ was that that someone in Conservative Head Office had wasted a lot of money on a dodgy body language expert.

A handshake can be a useful tool to assess an unknown personality. The limp handshake being such a source of scorn that many men over-compensate with an equally off-putting bone-crusher. An advanced, over-compensatory handshake has been famously demonstrated by Donald Trump, whose ‘shake-and-pull’ technique seems designed to pull its recipients off their feet and off their game. Political pundits took great pleasure in noting the braced position that both Macron and Trudeau adopted when meeting Trump in order to successfully thwart his playground antics.

Some men exude an air of confidence in the way that they sit with their upper legs requiring at least a half of the seat next to them in both directions. I find this position is most prevalent on tube trains, though I can’t really complain too much, as I’m well aware that I do exactly the same thing with my handbag. Airplanes too are an excellent breeding ground for ‘manspreading’ behaviours with the elbows as well as the knees of both men and women getting involved. Standard British etiquette doesn’t really cover the rules of armrest occupancy or the correct way to reclaim an armrest after it’s been illegally taken by a neighbour. The diplomacy of negotiating these disputed territories usually starts with pointed ‘harrumphing’ and occasionally escalates into full-blown nudging.

If you have no stories to tell about manspreading, if you’ve never been aware of anyone in your vicinity doing such a thing, then I’m afraid to say that you are likely the perpetrator.

Encroachment on our personal space can certainly make us feel uncomfortable but body language alone can be unsettling. Try talking to someone who has their arms crossed, who’s body is turned away from you and who won’t look you in the eye and you’re not going to feel very welcome. Conversely, a good sign that someone is interested in you and what you have to say is if their body position mirrors yours and they maintain good eye contact. More obviously, if someone touches your arm, plays with their hair and licks their lips when they’re talking to you, well, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what that means…

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Marriage guidance councillors say that one of the most reliable indicators that a relationship will ultimately fail is if one of the couple rolls their eyes when the other is talking. So I suppose we should all be careful about what signals we are sending without even thinking about it and also be careful not to imply something that we don’t mean at all. Averting our eyes could be read as disinterest when actually all someone is suffering from is shyness. I know that I fold my arms a lot but that’s because, having moved back to the Cotswolds after living in California for 13 years, I’m almost always feeling cold.

But now that I’ve pointed this all out to you, I don’t want you to think about it too much. I’d say be self-aware but not to the point of being self-conscious. Be yourself and don’t try to fake anything. None of these things will work if they’re not genuine. And whatever you do, do not, under any circumstances, attempt the ‘power stance’.

Follow Emma Samms on Twitter @EmmaSamms1 and Instagram @emma.samms.