Kinesics: Body Language Science

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“Actions speak louder than words.” This proverb exemplifies the importance of Body language in our lives. Past Studies into communication have indicated that around 70% of conversation is made up of entirely nonverbal elements. Kinesics is a field of study that deciphers body language to help better our understanding of nonverbal communication. The word kinesics, coined by anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell in 1952, is derived from the word kinesis, which means “movement,” and refers to the use of facial expressions, gestures, posture, and eye contact, to conduct nonverbal communication. 

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BirdWhistell’s approach to Kinesics and the study of body language was developed and modeled similarly to linguistics studies of written and oral languages. In “An Introduction to Kinesics” BirdWhistell created an annotation system for reading and recording body language. All body movements were simplified their basic forms and given symbols to represent them. This assumes that every body movement is significant and intentional. Further research into Kinesics would separate significant from the insignificant gestures and conscious versus unconscious actions into the interpretation of body language.

Birdwhistell considered the eyes one of the most powerful tools for expression and communication for body language. In the annotated system eyes were represented with a diamond for indicating an open eye and a line for closed eyes. After all the various body positions and movements were recorded in this manner Birdwhistell could analyze the combination of these symbols to find patterns in the symbols that were recorded, and ultimately use the combinations to interpret body language.

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Eyes have been called “windows of the soul” and are an extremely important part of ongoing Kinesics studies. The use of Eyes in body language can be both subtle like a quick glance or change in eye direction or overt like someone rolling their eyes at you. The most telling part of eye behavior is through the look or stare that someone gives another. When people are focusing on speaking, they tend to look at their listener very little, while people who are engaged in listening, tend to look at the speaker frequently. Also, when people begin speaking or plan to speak, they often look away from their conversational partner. There is a noticeable but slight pattern and rhythm to speaking, listening, looking, and looking away during conversation.

Staring is one of the more overt signals that we communicate with. A cold stare is often used to indicate contempt or loathing and the way it is performed can indicate whether we view the other person as a human being or not. It is common courtesy to not stare at others with stares being primarily used on non-human objects of attention. We stare at a piece of art or beautiful scenery because these items come without any problem but treating other humans in the same manner is disrespectful and objectifying. Detectives use the power of staring as a weapon directed at suspects to put pressure on them to give up information to be used as evidence.

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Kinesics Studies have also been applied for Marketing purposes to help define consumer behavior. Marketing companies use the subconscious interpretation of body language to help gauge customer reactions. Recent marketing studies have shown that the pupils in our eyes dilate when we see something pleasant. This unconscious eye dilation is used to test the appeal of certain TV commercials on consumers based on our visual reaction to the images that are displayed. Other body language that marketing companies have tested for are arm gestures, shoulders, and finger movements which can subtly suggest interest in knowing more about the advertised product or annoyance.

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However, just like any other intercultural or language barrier, small differences in body language between individuals can lead to misinterpretation. Body movements still convey a great amount of information but the frame by which we interpret that information may require a greater intercultural perspective. For example, the idea of Personal space or the area between other people and you during conversation is something that differs greatly by country. In the United States the size of the personal area is around one meter in size, but in places like France or Italy where the area is smaller, speaking from farther away may come off as impersonal or cold depending on the circumstance. Whereas in certain Asian countries with larger personal bubble, having conversations from a smaller distance could be considered more impolite or inconsiderate. This concept and study of personal space is increasingly relevant nowadays due to the increased importance of social distance in our current lifestyles.


Mehrabian, A., & Wiener, M. (1966). Non-immediacy between communicator and object of communication in a verbal message: Application to the inference of attitudes. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 30, 420-425.

 Birdwhistell, R. L. (1952). Introduction to Kinesics: An Annotation System for Analysis of Body Motion and Gesture. Washington, DC: Department of State, Foreign Service Institute.

Ekman, P; Friesen, W (1971). “Constants across cultures in the face and emotion” (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 17 (2): 124–9. doi:10.1037/h0030377

 Ekman, Paul (2004). “Emotional and conversational nonverbal signals”. Language, knowledge, and representation: 39–50.

McDermott, R. 1980. Profile: Ray L. Birdwhistell. The Kinesis Report, 2, 3: 1-16.

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