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Eons after words, why do humans still need body language?

U.S. swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale (L), shown with Michael Phelps, demonstrates the universal and time honored signal for victory at the Beijing Olympic Games on August 11, 2008.
U.S. swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale (L), shown with Michael Phelps, demonstrates the universal and time honored signal for victory at the Beijing Olympic Games on August 11, 2008.Timothy Clary / AFP/ Getty Images

Flat screens, phones and laptops soon will blaze with a body-language blitz: sweaty palms clasping mouths in disbelief, muscled arms folded in disagreement and – the sweetest Olympic pose – two fists hoisted aloft in displays of golden bliss.

“That position – the arms raised high – evokes triumph and it’s very ancient,” says Margaret J. King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia.

That traditional victory stance, rooted in the older, limbic portion of our brains where base emotions are fueled, may have been flashed when the earliest humans celebrated their first conquests, King suggests. Simply put, it pretty much predates Rocky,  "The Breakfast Club" and Notre Dame's "Touchdown Jesus." 

“I’m a cultural analyst but I use anthropology and I would bet that comes from a good hunt, from having successfully hunted and killed prey,” King said. “The Plains Indians’ dances used this as well, where the arms were over the heads, and that’s really, really important for group morale: ‘We won!’ ”

Scholars speculate that Neanderthals some 30,000 years ago had neck structures that gave them the ability to produce sounds similar to modern humans. If that’s so, why is body language still such a rich and vital part of our communication? Why didn’t evolution long ago wean away our need to silently reveal our inner feelings through postures and gestures?

“We still use body language because that’s the way our brains worked (eons) years ago when we first became human,” King said. “That brain is still ticking away; all research based on evolutionary psychology demonstrates that we are living in the 21st century with that same ancestral brain. This is what is called hard wiring. We still have the same bodily workshop. We just do different stuff in that workshop.”

“Body language is not an either-or situation,” adds Dennis Kravetz, a Scottsdale-Ariz.-based psychologist who specializes in male-female communication and body language. “If speech is more sophisticated than body language, then why haven’t chimps, dogs, and other animals developed speech as part of their evolutionary history? Rather, body language enhances communication.”

Evolution may have stripped away many outmoded human parts and proclivities that we no longer need but body language remains an essential tool in our modern communication kit, both Kravetz and King contend.

“We send out signals because that's the way it has worked for millennia: anything human beings have been doing for that long is not likely to change anytime soon,” King said. “It’s the language of sociability: You can tell if someone likes you. Can we work together? Can I trust you?

“We’re looking at body signals all the time to tell, first of all, if people are safe or unsafe. That’s one of the first things we look for in business is trust - is this a safe person to deal with?”

Likewise, if someone is marrying into a family, that person’s initial body language is carefully scanned by the family, she added, as they “look for the signals that say this is a consistent person, or that his words and language are not matching his body language, meaning he is not a person you can trust.”

Fair enough, but according to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, certain traits are passed from generation to generation that allow human offspring to be better suited to survive this world. How does unintentionally broadcasting your anger, sadness or frustration through “negative body language” help you – or your great-great grandchildren – endure? Why hasn’t evolution sapped those awkward poses (hands on hips, crossed arms) from our nonverbal playbook?

While those signals subliminally convey bad feelings, they also alert others around us – hopefully friends or colleagues – that the person fidgeting, fumbling or looking forlorn may be in some emotional trouble. These unintended expressions are, in a sense, silent 911 calls.

“Communicating anxiety or sadness is not bad at all,” said Kravetz, author of "Relating Effectively.” "These are just as important … as feeling happy, excited and other positive states of mind. Body language helps us more fully communicate with another humans irrespective of what we are (saying).”

And in the workplace, if such “negative” body language is expressed among close company allies, “the sense of the group is: this guy is frustrated; something is off base here,” King said. “It’s a signal that the group needs to address this issue together – that we need to do something

“We have to work in teams. Human life is highly social and highly territorial. It explains a lot of our behavior,” she added. But like our ancient ancestors, "body language helps us relate to other people.”

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