Body language and speed dating


Arms crossed and they don’t fancy you…….

We all think we know a little bit about body language, especially the basics. But this field of study was first laid out 50 to 60 years ago, so how has it changed in that time? Adam Smith goes speed dating with Dr Harry Witchel to observe a unique experiment in body language.

“It just sounded interesting. I sort of like the idea of speed dating and I also like the idea that it’s a kind of experiment and we also might find out a bit about ourselves and other people”… “Hi I’m Joanna and I’m a participant in the experiment tonight”.

“I tend on the Tube, to look at other people’s body language a lot. There’s nothing else to do on the Tube, so you have this quite amusing… see how people react in different scenarios, so body language is the key because you instinctively sort of do it. Hi, my name’s Dan Copley. I am a speed-dater-slash-lab-rat.”

Harry Witchel:  We’re about to run an experiment on speed dating. But we’re not really interested in just attraction. Its not really an experiment about speed dating at all. The real issue is about engagement, rapport, and interactional synchrony.

 AS: I’m Adam Smith. Welcome to Pod Academy.

HW: My name is Dr Harry Witchel. I’m discipline leader in physiology at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. My current research is on social signal processing and in particular on engagement and meaning of social signal processing, or body language.

AS: There’s a bit of a hubbub in the room here. People are meeting, shaking hands, clinking glasses to say hello.

HW: There’ll be about 90 minutes of speed dating, proper speed dating. There’ll be 15  tables, 15 men, 15 women, we’ll wire them up as unobtrusively as we can, which is to say not very unobtrusively – we’ll put stickers on their shoulders, we’ll make them wear microphones near their mouths so we won’t miss a single utterance, cough or any laughter. We’ll also probably put markers on their shoes and on their thighs. Markers are probably going to be very small, they’ll be black dots on white. And then we’ll have cameras everywhere. Cameras and microphones, then we’ll have lots of helpers to make sure that we don’t miss anything. The complexity of running an experiment where we have 15 film running simultaneously is just mind boggling to us…

So scientists have started to create corpa (individual: corpus) of data. Scientists now don’t just tell each other their results, but because of the web you can actually share your data with someone. So here we’re going to create – and this is the first time it’s been done – we’ll get 225 speed dating interactions. So you can get all the statistics you like. And for qualified bona fide scientists we will provide the original films so that they have the corpus of information that we started with so they can test their own hypotheses, they can do their own analyses and do completely different stuff from what we’ve done, that we wouldn’t even think of. And we can also re-rest our data. So science can make forward steps by having independent scientists work within one another and benefit from each other’s work while not necessarily having to agree with each other.

AS: When I, and a lot of people, think about body language I think we think very simplistically about folding their arms – you’re doing it now, I can see – folding the arms, leaning back, putting your chin down in the classic defensive mode. I think that is exactly what a lot of people think about. So could you give us some more examples of body language and how we notice it in the real world and what it means?

HW: So body language first of all can be a whole variety of different things. Not just physical movements, but actually vocal changes. So people when they’re really changing can change their voice if they have real stresses.

AS: And that’s classed as body language too?

HW: ‘Body language’ isn’t really an appropriate term. People sometimes call it ‘non-verbal communication’, but I don’t actually like that because it isn’t deliberately communicative. And some people call it ‘implicit communication’.

AS: That seems to make more sense.

HW: I don’t really like ‘implicit communication’ either because it’s still got the word ‘communication’. You’re not deliberately communicating anything, you’re actually doing something with yourself. So I don’t like any of the terms. The nice thing about ‘body language’ is that anyone understands what you’re talking about.

AS: So whatever we call it, can you give us some examples?

HW: OK. In addition to changes in voice tone or voice speed, which I think are the two most valuable things you can look for, there are all sorts of things with hand gestures, and facial expressions and leg movements and postural changes. The one that’s classic, from the 1960s book by Julius Fast called Body Language. There’s the one about arms folded. And they always do that with a woman, showing that she’s not very interested. She’ll have her arms folded and her legs folded. But the thing is it’s not just what you do but how you do it. I’ll give you an example, so here is what it looks like…

Harry Witchel in defensive pose

Harry Witchel in nervous mode

AS: I’m just going to describe. You’re standing up, folding your arms, legs crossed at the ankles

HW: …when someone is quite nervous. So my arms are folded, my shoulders are up. Even though I’m standing my legs are crossed so that my right leg is on the left and my right is on my left.

AS: You look very uptight to me. Uptight and nervous.

HW: So this is what people would describe as defensive and cold. And cold in both senses of the word. It can either be cold like in hot or cold as in unfriendly or distant. But arms folded is always assumed to be this kind of distant gesture, but if you look at this way…

Harry Witchel in bouncer mode

Harry Witchel in bouncer mode

AS: Now you’ve taken your legs apart, and they’re probably at shoulder width apart, maybe a little bit further, but you’ve still got your arms crossed…

HW: But now my arms are crossed and they’re much further down. And you should notice that this doesn’t look at all like somebody who’s uptight. This is actually standard bouncer position. Or big man on campus or big man on the beach. It’s a very territorial position. It means, I’m not going to move, and in a sense both cases the folded arms say, I’m relating to myself and I’m less likely to relate to you in terms of moving. But the one where everything is folded up as small as possible is based around, I’m taking up as little space as possible, where the one where my arms are folded and my legs are spread wide, this is meant to say, I’m taking up as much space as possible, without moving, so this is a very territorial gesture which is why it would be the big on the beach or the bouncer.

AS: I think the experiment is very close to starting. It looks like almost every speed dater is here. A lot of them are wired up and they’ve got little stickers on them marking various parts of their body that are going to be filmed. The organisers are probably about to open the proceedings.

 Man: Right, ladies and gentleman, your three minutes start… now.

AS: I’m not an expert like Harry, I can’t analyse their body language and tell you what they’re thinking, what they might be thinking, what my interpretation of their body language might be, but I am very interested in how they are really really buoyant and talking to each other. They’re jolly, almost everyone I’m looking at. Of course there are some people who are more dour, and that’s probably their natural disposition, but there’s a few people here who are laughing every other second really, but carrying on and talking. It’s really interesting how people seem to have gotten into the swing of things. They have three minutes to talk to each other, two minutes to fill in a form, and then move on to the next table.


AS: How do you defend this area of study against people who say, it’s just psychology that’s made up by researchers and there’s very little that we can derive from it?

HW: I wouldn’t. Non-verbal communication went through, has gone through a variety of different phases. It’s been known for a very long time. There were classic books in the 1800s. Darwin wrote his own facial expression book. James, the famous psychologist William James, wrote an entire series of papers which I think were in the 1930s. But the real breakthroughs in non-verbal communication, body language, started occuring in the 50s and early 60s. With some of the work from Edward T. Hall and other researchers who were out in California, anthropologists. What they were looking at were slow-motion films of people reacting. And what they say – but these are obviously anecdotal observations – is extraordinary small gestures that seemed to fit unbelievably well with people’s hidden agendas or their hidden thoughts.

AS: Gestures such as…?

HW: They could be anything from mouth touching or stepping back or moving away or they can be things like leaving a room or even things like covering their eyes or interrupting is another one. In the 1960s these ideas became popularised and they started to filter through to the therapeutic field as well as in Julius Fast’s book Body Language – I think he coined the term. Psychologists started making the earliest measurements of this. So from a scientific perspective, and from a psychology perspective, everyone wants to have precise statistics and reproducible numbers. Psychologists in particular are very interested in their stats and what they did was, I think they designed experiments to serve the stats rather than the other way around. So there are two issues here -either you can do laboratory experiments or the other, what we call today, is in the wild. But in those days it would have been ‘observational studies’. I’ll give you an example of a laboratory study to show that… it’s interesting to see how scientists try and work. So people have this thing called personal space. And personal space is how close you can get to somebody. So let’s say, Adam, I was trying to get really close to you because I wanted to say something to you that I thought was meaningful.

AS: You’re really close to me me now. You’re right in my face.

HW: I’m a full six inches from you. But I can see that you’re fantastically uncomfortable. Your mouth is making strange movements and your arm is on your shoulder doing a complete chest block like you’re terrified of what I’m going to do. And rightly so.

AS: You’ve moved away now and I feel a bit more comfortable.

HW: Yeah, now it feels much better now I’m further away. In our society that kind of personal space is based on, if you’re that close to someone it’s one of the two Fs, right? It’s fighting or the other F. And we don’t want to ever get closer than say, at a social distance, it would be three or four feet. In a more general distance it could be over six feet, in public or whatever.

AS: But doesn’t it depend on context, because I’ve been on trains and underground trains where people are that close to me?

HW: Yes it does. There are pictures from the psychological literature as well as the body language literature showing little circles around people like you’re a little spaceman and you’re walking around, beep beep beep beep. And there’s little signals, circles around you and each circle determines how close you can be and whether you’re safe. But in fact I would say that these should be completely redrawn as something like an egg, with you at the tip of the egg. You have very little need for social space behind you if you’re not looking. It’s when you’re face to face that it’s really devastating. And that is part of the issue of social space. I’ll tell you about the experiment that I… so this was from the late 60s, early 70s. What they would do is is they would get a experimental volunteer, who would usually be a 19-year-old psychology student, they would say, stand there. The professor would say, say stop when you feel uncomfortable and the professor would they walk up to them and take five or six steps up to them at a constant rate, so here we go. One, two, three, four, five, say stop, Adam.

AS: Stop.

HW: What they would then do is measure with a tape measure toe-to-toe distance.

AS: Toe to toe, not nose to nose?

HW: Or it could be heel to heel, it depends on what they were doing. But the point is they would grreat statistics from those experiments but it’s completely meaningless in my view because there is no natural circumstance where the only thing you think about is how close somebody is to you. It’s making conscious something which is normally unstated.

AS: That’s a laboratory experiment compared to in the real world, in the wild as you were saying earlier.

HW: Yes. That’s what laboratory experiments were doing through the 70s and 80s. They were designing experiments which nominally would be a way of measuring, with very accurate statistics a particular social construct, but they would have to create a wildly false scenario. Now it’s true, I run laboratory experiments now where people have cameras on them, but actually, they’re playing video games and it’s not that unusual. Admittedly there’s all sorts of equipment around them, they’ve got dots on them and stuff, but they’re doing an activity that’s normal. There is no normal activity where you have someone, just you stand still and somebody just walks toward you. Now that was the 70s, 80s and 90s. Starting in the late 90s and through to 2000 and onward, people started focusing on two things that have really broken through in body language. The first is that people have started accepting in the wild experiments. People have let go. Scientists have said, we still laboratory experiments but we also do this thing were we just put things out, have hidden cameras or what have you, and see what people do.

AS: That feels really recent to me that that’s only been in the last 10 years. I would have thought that scientists would have been doing that for years before.

HW: Well scientists have been doing bits and pieces of that, but they’ve not consistently done it an accepted it. Amongst each other. Up until recently that would have been called anecdote, so scientists would have dismissed the results as being meaningless, and to some extent many psychologists will still do that. So what’s exciting is this field of body language has become beautifully interdisciplinary. So there’s a big difference between interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. Multidisciplinary is say when a biochemist and a neuroscientist come together to understand a single molecule and how that influences the brain. But interdisciplinary is where you have say a neuroscientist, a historian and a dancer come together and try and come to some sort of reasonable conclusion. The groups that are interested in body language now have completely different academic cultures.

So in addition to psychologists, who are less interested because they’ve been there, done that it’s kind of boring to them now, as a physiologist I’m very interested in it. There are also lots of people from human computer interaction who are interested in effective computing, and those people have entered the field and they have completely different culture and interest. Linguists are now entering the field as well, so they not only measure words, they measure non-verbal vocalisations, so the number of people who have gotten involved and from the different corners. One of the people I work with is a dancer who’s used to looking at how the body moves. It’s going to make I think the research a lot more robust. We definitley are now using numerical techniques. And that’s because of the second thing that’s really been the breakthrough. Not only is it more interdisciplinary and in the wild, but we now have better sensors. So the psychologists made all of these measurements in the 60s and 70s by hand-scoaring films. They were eyeballing things. And the problem is there’s a lot of room for interretation and change. We now have these sensors. We can instruct computers to detect things and then there is no interpretation, the computer does it itself. And whether we can get the computers to work and get everyone’s data to interact, will be a big deal.

AS: You talked about in the wild experiments, but I just wonder as well, when you sit on a bus or a train are you looking at people’s body language as well? Is it something that you can’t escape from?

HW: Are you worried about that? I certainly have a lot of fun with it. Obviously it’s not a constant worry or bother for me. I enjoy it immensely, sometimes I will do nothing but look at body language. But when I’m talking to somebody I am just talking to them. What runs in the back of my mind I suppose is some way of detecting… little signals go off in the back of my mind when someone does something that doesn’t work.

 AS: Such as?

HW: So, let’s say someone is… it’s called ‘incongruence’, or ‘incongruity’, in the field of body language. So if someone is saying, I really didn’t do that. And they have a big Cheshire cat smile then I’d realise something funny is going on and I’d know there’s a good reason to circle back. Or when people have false smiles. “So nice to see you.”

 AS: You’re doing it now and it’s creeping me out. It’s a really fake smile.

HW: So there are loads of times when I’m just aware of things that look wrong. And then I investigate them more. But it’s not like every single second. So you’ve had your hand on your mouth a lot recently. I just haven’t even noticed that.

AS: There are definitely differences between the ways that some people talk to one another and what their body language does and how they talk. I’m looking at one chap and he’s shrugging his shoulders and throwing his hands up and laughing and moving his head from side to side while he’s telling a really active story. He’s using his hands all the time – loads – so he’s now miming with a machine gun, which is probably not the best thing to do. He’s put his hands together and now he’s listening to his date, the woman opposite him. She’s talking, and she’s using her hands a little bit, but not too much. He’s doing the thing where he’s putting his hands on his mouth, which I think Harry said to me, is about turn taking. It means he’s not going to speak while she’s speaking. Now there’s another couple over there who are hardly moving very much at all. They are talking but their bodies are not moving. Neither of them are using their hands while they’re talking to each other. And there heads aren’t moving very much at all. They’re just perhaps rolling from side to side, but not very much, just a little bit.

Man: That’s the end of your three minutes for this round, ladies and gentleman, the end of your three minutes…

AS: Coming up the stairs to meet you here I was thinking, how is he going to interpret when I meet him and shake his hand and nod and say hello and smile and all those things. Can you give me a bit more analysis now? I’ll permit you if you’re not already doing it.

HW: OK. In terms of your handshake, it was medium to soft. I would say that you come across as quite academic. It’s really pathetic but I’m looking at your clothes and there’s an element of geek chic about it.

Adam Smith 'Geek Chic'

Adam Smith ‘Geek Chic’


You’re doing what’s called load-bearing. So load-bearing is when you’re leaning forward but having at least one elbow on your knee. Now part of that is because you’re trying not to ge tired. There’s an element of body block about it so you’re obviously not open and expansive as a person, but there’s also a function or instrumental reason for you doing it because you are actually bearing a load, which is this tape recorder which is in your hand. I guess what I’m getting at is that there’s loads of signals being given but they’re all ambiguous. Some of them are instrumental, there’s a reason why you’ve got your elbow on your knee and that’s because you’re holding up this tape recorder. But then there are other things. You’ve got a hand across your body and that could either be a body block or a load bearer. And I would say in your case it’s probably a body block actually.

AS: Oh really? Because I thinking it’s a brace.

HW: It can be either.

AS: I wanted to ask you about politicians as well, and about body language there. Because over the past two and a half years with the coalition government there’s been a lot of talk in the press about the relationship between Nick Clegg and David Cameron, so have you looked at all at their body language when they’re together?

HW: I have done David Cameron, who over the two years that he’s been essentially running the country, has vastly improved.

AS: Oh really? Can you explain?

HW: David Cameron when he took office had what you would expect of someone who has quite a distant, possibly even arrogant body language. Someone from privilege. If you looked at his debate performances you would actually see him stepping back, so he would remain rigid and upright, but he would step back and it would look like he wasn’t engaged. And to some extent that was probably true. He was above it all, or trying to look above it all. And he’s obviously had some body language coaches and experts tell him that if you disengage you’re going to look wrong for the general public and the voters. So now what he does is he looks very carefully at camera, he’s very strong and confident.

AS: You’re doing it now, at me. Fixing your eyes on me and lowering your brow.

HW: Traditional leadership poses. Nick Clegg, when he first came into the major public light, which was during the debates, he’s got a natural ease about him. It made his body language better than any of the other three parties. But he’s got his own problems now which are genuinely political. And he’s always trying to come across as some guy who’s trying to speak directly form the hip. He’s not trying to control you or be a leader per se; he’s just trying to be straight. That’s the thing he was always trying to do. and if you watch the way he moves there’s an ease and grace, particularly with his shoulders, where he looks like he’s speaking directly. So the question is, do they get along, and you can see that they do, but they’re more distant to one another and they don’t look like at each now as much. So interactional synchrony is the idea that when people get along they will be moving at about similar items, so one person will lean in and the other person will lean in, one person will move out and the other person will move out. And they’ll be doing it almost at the same time. If you like, I can show you a film. These sorts of movements seem to be associated with people who are getting along well. And it’s assumed that they represent people being able to influence one another. Shall I show you one now?

AS: Yeah, let’s have a look. You’ve got three computers here, Harry. Is that enough?

HW: I used to have five or six that were out here. A lot of the work I do is… well, part of it is my secretary and I have a computers person but also we’re doing all sorts of analyses, numerical and quantitative, and I also have to do some work for the university, which requires that we’re all doing different things on different machines. Let’s see about…

AS: You’ve got lots of videos on your machine.

HW: I’ve got zillions of videos. That’s what I work from. So these are two women who are very much in rapport. And you’ll see they move forward. Lean back, lean forward, hands up, finger point, lean back, lean forward, eyes down, they lean forward, they both go eyes down, their hands go up and they stir at exactly the same time.

AS: Is this a genuine conversation you were filming?

HW: Yes, a genuine conversation. I just told two people to get in a conversation They were making movements together in synchrony for about 26 seconds, once every two seconds, whilst having a conversation. There’s no way that someone deliberately mimicking activity could create that kind of interactional synchrony. You’ve now see ‘interactional synchrony’, it’s about movement together. The question is does that have an influence? And there’s been a huge revolution in trying to make headway on that question.

AS: How do you think it went, did you get everything you need?

HW: For the most part, people were dating, no one was freaked out by the headphones, by the microphones they were wearing, despite the fact that I thought it was bizarre. And we had a full set of dates. I think we’re doing to have a massive amount of data. The most recent set of data on speed dating was published by Dan Jurafsky at Stanford this year. Dan Jurafsky at Stanford, he has access to any amount of resources you can imagine. And he’s published this year work based on dating events from 2005. So it takes a long time to analyse these things, I’m hoping I’ll be a little bit faster on the first go.

AS: Would you do something like this again, do you think?

HW: Definitely. I’d love to do this again, both in London, now that we’ve got all the bugs, we’ve figured out what was going on. But also I’d love to run it in foreign countries to see if people are different in different countries.

AS: Compare them.

HW: Yeah, I’d love to see in Japan, are things different? In South America, how are people different?

AS: In Japan I heard that people do speed dating events for marriage.

HW: And I think that that’s even more exciting, because then everything’s at stake and you really are judging someone as to their value is as a total life partner, rather than something as trivial as, are they fun.

AS: Well you’ve got a lot of data to process so I’ll let you get back to it.

HW: Thank you very much.


AS: You can read a transcript of this podcast and follow links to further information at Or follow us on Twitter @PodAcademy.




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