Why will a man splurge more lavishly if his date is wearing a red dress? What’s actually going on when Prince William crosses his right arm over to adjust his left cuff-link? And how do spectacles become pacifiers for grown men? Oh, well, it’s just one of those “things”.
The “things” – objects – that we handle in our daily routines, or accessorise ourselves with, from shoes and sleeves to pens and drinking glasses, can indeed tell the world much about us. One woman executive makes a routine of removing her glasses when someone makes a statement she disagrees with, tapping her teeth with the glasses as she frowns, and then replacing her glasses. The sub-text: “I don’t really believe what you’ve said.”
Through our waking hours, our clothes and accessories – and the ways in which we touch, fondle or fidget with them -- are sending out hundreds of messages that we are generally unaware of, and these signals form an important part of our body language. Here are some of the things they say:
“Get Me Out Of Here!”... Signals of nervousness
Sitting in the reception lounge, awaiting her turn in a competitive interview, a young lady repeatedly opens and closes the clasp of her bracelet. She is probably not even consciously aware that she is doing it. But the front-desk receptionist watching this on-again, off-again clicking can easily read the signs of nervousness. The transfer (or ‘displacement’) of the young lady’s feelings of nervousness to her bracelet makes this a ‘displacement’ gesture.
Interviews apart, another situation where you’ll frequently see objects signalling the body language of nervousness is the airport: passengers repeatedly checking their tickets, taking out their passports and then putting them away again, re-arranging their hand baggage, making sure their wallet is in place, even dropping things and picking them up. Superficially, they give the impression of making vital last-minute checks. But an experienced observer knows that these ‘displacing’ passengers are extremely tense, do not wish to admit that they are frightened of boarding the plane, and would probably like to flee if they could.
Observations carried out at railway stations and at airports reveal there are 10 times as many displacement activities in the flying situation.
Body language featuring cigarettes and ashtrays can often signal stress. They include the hardly-smoked cigarette crushed out in the ashtray as if its life were being snuffed out, and patterns drawn in the powdered ash.
In fact, the number of ways in which our use of objects reveals our inner conflict and stress are apparently endless. Some familiar images: the executive who habitually sucks on his spectacles or polishes them with a handkerchief before answering a difficult question at a committee meeting; the speaker who stands at the lectern with both hands in his pockets; the chairperson who doodles on his writing pad; the candidate who toys with a paperweight during an interview.
“Keep Your Distance”... Barrier gestures
If a social situation is in any way threatening, the covert fear or nervousness that is felt very often leads to the urge to put up an actual physical barrier – in which case, objects come into play once again. This ‘Barrier Gesture’ is virtually ingrained. A small child, faced with a stranger, will run to hide behind her mother’s skirts. If that is unavailable, then a chair or other solid piece of furniture will do. The pattern alters as a child grows up. Teenage girls, when acutely or jokingly embarrassed, will resort to the giggling cover-up, sometimes with the hands, but also often with an object such as a handkerchief or a piece of paper.
In adulthood, people still continue to metaphorically hide behind their “mother’s skirts”, but the cover-ups are less obvious. It is these that constitute the Barrier Signals of adult life. You can see these barrier signals on full display in the public arena – in fact, they’re dead giveaways in people who are constantly exposed to the public gaze: media personalities, politicians, royalty. Just because someone’s constantly in the public eye doesn’t mean they’re comfortable with being on show. Celebrities have their subtle anxiety-disguising gestures that they use when inside them everything’s screaming, “Get me out of here!”. Let’s look at the kind of thing that might happen when a celebrity alights from his car and has to walk across a length of space. A large crowd has come to watch and the cameras are flashing. Even for the most experienced celebrity, this is a slightly nervous moment, and the mild fear that is felt usually expresses itself when he is about half-way across. As he walks forward, his right hand might reach across his body to make an unnecessary adjustment to his left cuff-link. It pauses there momentarily as he takes a few more steps, and then, at last, he is close enough to reach out his hand for the first of many handshakes. The Cuff-Link Adjust is a trademark gesture of Prince Charles, who uses it to give himself a feeling of security when he engages in his public walkabouts in full view of the citizenry. Like father, like son: Prince William has picked up this habit of fiddling with his cuff-links from his father.
In the case of a woman, instead of the cuff-link adjustment, she might at the same point reach across her body with her right hand and slightly shift the position of her handbag that is hanging from her left forearm.
There are other variations on this theme. A man may finger a button or the strap of a wrist-watch instead of his cuff. A woman may smooth out an imaginary crease in a sleeve, or re-position a scarf or a dupatta or a saree pallav. But one essential feature is common to all these gestures: at the peak moment of nervousness, there is a Body-cross, in which one arm moves across the front of the body, not to hold the other arm in a self-conscious grasp, but instead to touch a personal accessory such as a shirt cuff, a watch or a handbag. The gesture has no purpose other than to disguise nervousness as it constructs a fleeting barrier between the celebrity guest and the lookers-on.
Of course, even those who are not celebrities often use objects as barrier protections when a covert threat or potential embarrassment causes nervousness in a social situation. Men wearing cuff-links are often seen adjusting them as they cross a room (such as a dance floor) or a stage where they are in full view of others. Other common examples of barrier protection include: clutch purse held with both hands in front of the body, or flowers clutched to the chest (female); papers (or a file) held across the chest; adjustment of tie, using an arm across the body.
“Here’s Where I Belong”... Dress codes
From the time that Neanderthal man first put on a hairy mammoth-print tunic and donned animal claws and teeth for jewellery, clothing and accessories have been used as more than just protection against the elements or as an aid to modesty. Whether it is the “power dressing” of the executive brigade, or the winged death’s-head patch on the back of the Hells Angels’ leather vests, or the flower tucked behind the left ear by the Tahitian nymphet to show she’s not yet been ‘taken’, people have used clothing and adornment to communicate status, intentions, sexual desire or availability, group allegiance, aggressiveness or playfulness.
It’s not only the style of clothing that sends out messages. The colours you wear, and even the fabrics, are potent non-verbal signals. One study at the University of Rochester found that women shown wearing red were rated significantly more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the very same women shown wearing other colours. The men also lavished more money on dates with women who wore red. And they were unaware of the role that the colour red had played in their attraction or their extravagant spending.
By the yardsticks of the Lüscher Colour Test (which links colour choice to personality), red is an energising, warm, intense, exciting, adrenalin-stimulating colour. The aphrodisiacal effect of red may be a product of societal conditioning alone. But the Rochester researchers argue that men’s response to red more likely stems from deeper biological roots. Studies have shown that non-human male primates are particularly attracted to females displaying red. The rumps of female baboons and chimpanzees, for example, become engorged with blood and redden conspicuously when they are ready for breeding, sending a clear sexual signal designed to attract the males.
What goes without saying is that context is important. Red may be great for that date where a woman wants to flaunt her sexuality quotient, but in an office setting it could send out signals she does not intend. A Forbes report on office dressing for women emphasised that low-cut blouses, short skirts, and the colour red can send out the message that you are not to be taken seriously.
“Kiss me, Stroke me”... Sexual signals
Contrary to fondly-held beliefs, the first steps in the human mating dance are made by the woman (not the man) 9 out of 10 times. In doing so, the female of the species sends out subtle unspoken signals, using not only her eyes, face and other parts of her body, but also a variety of inanimate objects.
Here are a few of the ways that women – and, to a lesser extent, men – use shoes, ties, combs, pens, wine-glasses, and other items of personal use to say that they are turned on and tuned in:
» Preening and primping. The Hindi film hero of yesteryear– as well as the real-life tapori -- would stylishly flick a comb through his hair to look attractive to a woman, thus effectively broadcasting his interest. Other male preening gestures include straightening his shirt or tie, adjusting his collar, or brushing invisible dirt off his sleeve.
At the beginning of an encounter, a woman might also “groom” herself, smoothing down her skirt or dress, caressing a long, dangling earring, or even sending out the “Closer Look” signal which works best with sunglasses and says, “You’re worth a closer look and I want you to know I’m looking.”
» High heels. They are murder on your feet, give you bunions, permanently warp your toes, and do unspeakable things to your back. But high heels have been around ever since they were invented by Catherine de Medici in the 1500s, and no number of dire health warnings are going to turn women’s hearts against their allure. As for men – duh, men love seeing women in high heels, always have, always will. That’s because high heels speak the language of heightened sexuality, and this has been confirmed in several research studies. It all comes down to the “uplifting” effect they have on a woman’s figure as they unnaturally arch the back, tilt the buttocks into sharper prominence, and thrust forward the bosom into a come-hither pose. As if that were not enough, they also lend an illusion of longer legs and, being shackles of a sort, exude a subtle fetishistic appeal that puts the wearer in a position of greater vulnerability and desirability. In the sexual accessories department, high heels may well be the winner by a long stride.
» The shoe dangle. This is another way that a woman uses her shoes to send forth libidinous signals. The Shoe Dangle is a subtle but strong message to a man. Translated unabashedly, it says: “By half-slipping off my shoe I’m saying that I am relaxed, comfortable and may be willing to undress further.”
» The crotch signal. This is one of the sexual signals that men use more frequently than women. When a man is sexually attracted to a woman, he will often, in one way or another, draw attention to his genital region. The props that generally come into play to send out this signal would be the loops of a man’s belt or the pockets of his jeans. The thumbs-in-belt gesture is one of the most aggressive male flirtation signals: it conveys authority and confidence even as it draws attention to his crotch area. In a variant of this signal, the man will hook his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans, with the fingers spread out – the overall effect being to make it look as if he is pointing to his genitals.
The female equivalent is the Vagina / Womb gesture. Again, by placing her hands in the loops of her jeans she is creating a frame for her vagina, “spelling out” what’s on her mind, which is, “This is the part of me that I want you to notice.” It is a confident signal indicating aggressive sexual availability.
“I am my own boss”... Power dressing
Rightly or wrongly, the way you dress at work “speaks” of who you are and what you’re trying to prove. So, an old sweatshirt and scruffy jeans may be fine if you’re the resident cyber geek and spend your entire workday in an air-conditioned corner cubicle at your office, interfacing only with bytecodes and shell scripts. It’s certainly not the attire that the CEO would like to see you in if you’re interacting with clients all day – he would be concerned that your indifferent clothing would send out the wrong message, not only about yourself, but also about the company.
Status and power are two other messages that emanate from your clothes. That’s how the term “power dressing” originated. But again, context is crucial. Each company has its own work environment and often unwritten dress codes. To tune in to the dress code of your office, take a look at the movers and shakers around you – the men and women who are making decisions in the boardrooms and who are presented as the “ideal face” of the company. What are they wearing? These are your fashion templates, the ones who have a sure grip on what kind of wardrobe spells success in your particular work environment.
The funny thing about dressing the part is that it affects the rest of your body language, too. You start acting the way you look. And you even start feeling the way someone dressed in those clothes would feel. Take a young mom whose everyday wardrobe comprises mainly jeans and T-shirts, and put her in a beautifully-detailed anarkali for her wedding anniversary celebration. She’ll feel more “feminine” than she has in ages, and you’ll see it reflected in her body language as she steps lightly around the room, doing her best to behave like a “lady” would. Or, put a guy in a leather jacket, heavy-duty denim jeans and motor-cycle chaps, and suddenly he’s not your mild-mannered brother anymore; he’s been transformed into a rough-and-tumble rider, complete with the commanding posture and tough-guy facial expressions.
And so it is in the workplace, too. Dressing like a shy, mousy person can make you feel that way, and you’ll project yourself in ways that reflect your lack of confidence. You’ll use timid body language (poor posture, little eye contact), which will keep you out of the sight and minds of the people who matter. New opportunities may pass you by because you don’t look (or, for that matter, feel) worthy of them. The bottom line: Someone who feels invisible is, for all intents and purposes, not visible. Instead, dress like you’re in the game, not sitting on the sidelines.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)