Of all the media industry cliches, getting a body language expert to comment on a situation is perhaps the strangest. Major international relations talks? Let’s get the body language experts onto it. Reality television finale secrets? Get a body language expert here stat.
These oft-derided experts may well be worthy of mockery but here at Crikey we wanted to know a bit more about how the so-called industry worked before we jumped to conclusions. We approached Australian voice coach and body language expert Dr Louise Mahler for what turned out to be an informative and colourful right of reply.
What’s it like being a body language expert?
“I get attacked every time I say something,” said Louise Mahler.
For example, a video of Mahler assessing Trump’s body language on her website explains the president’s “effective” style, pointing out he has a consistent use of emphatic hand signs for good, bad etc. The response?
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“If I say something about Trump, I [get] full on attacked,” she said. “I’ve had people do videos of what I’ve said and speak over the top of it. They see it like some sort of astrology or something like that.”
Mahler’s day-to-day work varies from helping executives seem more powerful to people going to court. “I met a man the other day who is going to court, he had a lip that went up in a snarl on one side. I said to him that lip curl in a court environment, it will be seen as deceptive and evil. Perhaps in a nightclub environment that asymmetry would be seen as sexy, but not in court. This man was not deceptive or evil so I said quite frankly for the court case I’d put botox in your lip to change that perception.”
So are there qualifications to become a body language expert?
“It’s like presentation skills: there is no particular qualification in non-verbal skills,” Mahler said. “It’s an American study, there are courses here and there, but there are no courses in Australia.”
Lillian Glass, an American self-help writer and body language expert, has developed training courses for the subject. “She’s very protective about the area; anyone who doesn’t have the course she doesn’t consider a legitimate practitioner,” Mahler said.
“Australian body language expert Allan Pease wrote a prominent book, and then there are some detectives who study body language for criminal investigations.”
Mahler has a different background than other body language experts. Indeed all career tracks in this field are unique given the lack of standardisation, but Mahler began her working life as a musician. “I studied opera and I have a post graduate degree in music, teaching and performing. I studied the voice and blockages and I toured the world doing courses for actors,” she said. “I also have a masters and a PhD applied science which is in body language and para linguistics. I would say I’m a world expert in para linguistics based on that”.
However, Mahler agrees the industry is poorly regulated. “Frankly anyone can call themselves whatever they want. I’ve had people call me up and once they hear my qualifications, they tend to back off,” she said.
Does body language have any basis in fact?
Mahler believes much of the problem is that many people have little knowledge of it, “which is a dangerous thing”.
“The classic example is that if you fold your arms you are perceived as closed. Trump knows this, and he opens his arms. Does that mean you are closed or open? What you have to realise is there is research into human perceptions. There’s the perception and the reality, and you need a lot of study to understand and make some kind of sense of that.”
Mahler gave another less commonly known assumption in the body language world: that if humans look to the right, they are lying.
“We tend to look up and to the left when we’re thinking visually for remembered information, up and to the right the patterns show we’re looking for created and constructed information,” she said.
“It could be lying, it could be rethinking the future, it could be a habitual pattern, it could be you’re a left hander and everything is switched, it could be that your mother always did it and therefore you always do it. So are you? Not necessarily, you need to know quite a lot more to make a judgement.”