"We move our hands when we speak because it helps us to think, to get the thought out of our heads and into the big wide world."
Pablo Picasso once famously said “There is nothing more interesting than people,” and I have to agree. Human behaviour is endlessly fascinating. When I was 10 years old, my family took a trip to Italy. There were so many great things about it – the food, the weather, the beaches, the gelato. The other big item was the language. Italian sounded beautifully musical to my young ears. But there was one more thing I noticed and never forgot: it was the way Italians use their hands and bodies so expressively when they talk. Darting eyes, myriad facial expressions, shrugging shoulders, arms waving in the air. But most of all, their hands. I was enthralled.
Years later, I noticed that everywhere people use their hands when they’re speaking on the phone. Why is this, when the person they are speaking to at the other end of the line can’t see them? Why do we do it? Is it something we learn? Or is it innate human behaviour? The answers to those questions are what we explore in Body Language Decoded.
In recent years I have been lucky enough to travel a lot, indulging in one of my favourite past times: people watching. In Japan, I noticed that most people are quite reserved when it comes to body language. In China too. So there are obviously cultural forces at play. But essential expressions of emotion, such as fear or joy or sadness – these are universal to all cultures. They are not learned, they are hard-wired. People who are blind from birth – who have never seen a smile or a grimace – make the exact same facial expressions as sighted people.
In San Francisco, Dr. David Matsumoto walked myself and the camera crew through these basics. During the interview there was another light bulb moment. Matsumoto explained the essential reason why humans talk with their hands, and it isn’t what you might think. It’s not just for the communicative value of it (so that you can better understand what I’m saying.) It’s because neurologically, the same nerve impulses that reach our voice boxes and lips also go through our hands. We move our hands when we speak because it helps us to think, to get the thought out of our heads and into the big wide world. Which explains why we talk with our hands while we’re on the phone.
I spent time with former FBI Agent Joe Navarro in Florida, a veteran investigator. He has a toolbox of observational tips we can use to decipher what is happening inside the minds of people we come across. Navarro’s expertise includes detecting whether a person is comfortable or uncomfortable in any given scenario, including interrogation, and then probing areas of inquiry accordingly.
Since shooting this film, I do find myself looking at people differently. What is their gait? How do they greet someone? How are they sitting? Getting to know someone just about always involves talking and listening, but there’s a whole other level of conversation happening at the same time, whether we’re aware of it or not. In Italy, all those years ago, I had no idea what I was seeing, but I do now. Body Language: the most widely used language of them all, used the world-over since the beginning of human kind, and one of the things that make people truly interesting.