Non-verbal communication & the art of lying

The first Recruitment Society meeting of the year was held on Wednesday at Linklaters Alliance. Psychologist and researcher Professor Adrian Furnham of UCL addressed an audience of more than 70 on the subject of ‘non-verbal communication’, or body language, as it is more commonly known.

All those involved in recruitment know how instructive an interviewee’s body language can be. Unusually for one who writes books and gives lectures on the subject, Furnham argued that such communication is not actually the fully comprehensive – and comprehensible – language that many psychologists claim.

He debunked the myths of what he labelled ‘Sunday Times Psychology’ that all action must symbolise something and that body language is all-powerful. ‘If that was the case, charades would be easy,’ said Furnham.

Body language is relative to each individual but it is an important aspect of communication, we were told. It involves more than gestures – non-verbal communication may include eye contact (too much, rather than too little, may indicate that someone is lying), the distance a person stands from the person they are talking to, their smell and their posture, for example.

Aspects of non-verbal communication are cultural or local, said Furnham. Only facial communication is universal – all people cry and laugh in a similar way, and a blind baby smiles in the same way as one with sight.

Non-verbal communication may support the words a person speaks or even replace language – a raised eyebrow at a dinner party can speak volumes, for example.

But in order to glean information from watching people, you need to concentrate, he warned. Of a group of people receiving the same information from TV news, radio and print, those who made the most effort through reading had the greatest ‘depth of processing’ and remembered the most. Body language can be a distraction or a decoy as much as an aide to understanding.

With reference to recruitment, Furnham claimed provocatively that ‘the job interview is a charade’ with each side presenting themselves to the other in a pantomime of ‘impression management’. He further ingratiated members of the audience by proclaiming the CV ‘a fantasy world of dishonesty.’

It is when examining the art of lying – a concern for interviewers as much as police detectives – that non-verbal communication gets really tricky, Furnham said. Despite recent media coverage of new forms of lie detection machines for airports, there are no concrete tests for catching liars. Major verbal cues include a lag in responding to a question; talking about a situation abstractly to distance the individual from the situation; an increase in stuttering or slurring; too many raises in the pitch of their voice or, the old Clinton favourite, nose touching.

The body does not have a language all of its own with vowels and punctuation, but it is important, says Furnham. Non-verbal cues can indicate the disparity between what we think and feel and what is said.

At drinks following the talk members self-consciously tried not to gesture while furtively analysing their companions’ non-verbal messages.

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