Typically I don’t get excited about new book releases, especially if they aren’t fiction and very particularly if they are published by the MIT Press. Not saying that the MITP hasn’t published some sell-out rousers in their day, but that my personal interests generally lead me elsewhere. Coupled with a very basic knowledge of the hard sciences, most of the material they publish is out of my league as well as out of my general purview. Thankfully, a recent title that caught my interest is in the soft science of psychology, which even I can get my head around.
The name of the book is Honest Signals. Basically it’s about the way people talk to each other and the amount of gesturing they do as an indication of the outcomes of the conversations and the relationships between the people participating. I could bore you with the details of how research on this topic was conducted and what the specific statistical results were, but I won’t. I do have some loyalty to the MITP – you’ll have to buy the book. But i will tell you some of the more obvious generalizations coming out of this research.
First, there is supposed to be a correlation between the correspondence of speech patterns and the way people relate. Basically, if you talk with the same sort of rhythm in the same sort of patterns as me, I’m predisposed to like you and favor your ideas. We’re all aware of this to a certain extent – that person who talks much slower or faster than you is hard to understand, and therefore you don’t communicate as effectively. You lose something in the relationship. But the degree to which correspondence of such patterns determines genuine likability is something worth considering. The thought that a potential boss or love interest could be spoken to at a pace that would seriously positively enhance your chances at what you want is striking.
Second, there is the ‘level of physical activity as people talk’. This isn’t quite body language, and using the term ‘gestures’ is a little too narrow. Most of us gesture to a certain extend without looking like a ship with loose and flapping sails. It’s unclear from the article just what impact moving around while you talk can have, but there’s obviously something there. After all, actors, singers, and public speakers have been aware of such movement as a tool for quite some time. In less public places, I’d be eager to see what the study concludes.
Finally, the issue of tone. The one who dominates the tone, the one who sets and maintains it, is the one who ‘wins’. This also seems somewhat self-evident, but the mechanism for establishing such a dominant tone remains unclear, whether or not the establishment is intentional. It can easily be seen in ‘popular’ talk shows or court shows like Jerry Springer or the People’s Court. The one who carries the tone, carries the crowd. A tone could be calming as well as enraging however, and either one would work to establish dominance.
The final question, of course, is that of who comes out the victor in a case where both sides of an argument are aware of these three points and are able to use them effectively. For myself, I think I might just read the book, or at least give further thought and observation to the ideas. After all, I have quite a bit of life left where all three might come in handy.