The Magazine

Bodies in Emotion

'What does she mean by that?' The mystery is solved.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By JOE QUEENAN
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The Power of Body Language

by Tonya Reiman

Pocket, 352 pp., $25

Every once in a while an author comes along who can not only change our lives, but save our lives. Marcel Proust is one, Kahlil Gibran another. To their august ranks can now be added the prescient, wise Tonya Reiman.

I say this because of an event that occurred one recent, glacial winter night when I found myself in the parking lot outside Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. I'd been given tickets to a basketball game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Nets, and for reasons that still worry me, had accepted them. Arriving at the Izod Center, which stands a few hundred yards away from the stadium both the Giants and Jets call home, I learned that the multilevel parking lot adjacent to the arena was full. A cop told me to cross the bridge that spanned the highway, park in the lot next to Giants Stadium, and take a special bus back to the Izod Center.

It was an awful lot of work to see two crummy teams play a crummy basketball game.

The parking lot was relatively empty, with just a handful of cars clustered in one area. Emerging from my vehicle, I realized that I was not alone. A few yards away sat two pickup trucks, surrounded by nine men and three women. They were wearing New York Giants regalia, drinking heavily, and making a fair bit of noise. They were tailgaters, getting tanked up a full 18 hours before the Giants played the Chicago Bears the next day. The game was to be played 700 miles away at Soldier Field. The Giants were not expected to win.

In short, I was parking my car a few yards away from a dozen drunks who were tailgating for a game that would not even be played in the stadium outside which they were partying, and would be returning to the same spot in a virtually empty lot three hours later, by which time the hypothermic Giants fans would have consumed even more alcohol, and worked themselves up into an even more bellicose mood. Moreover, I was wearing a Philadelphia Eagles cap. So I wisely got back into my car, drove off and deposited it all the way over on the other side of the parking lot.

A few months ago--naive, trusting sort that I was--I would have parked my car right beside the belching, marauding Giants fans assuming that people are basically good and that my vehicle was less likely to be stolen if it was parked near other cars. But armed with the skills I'd acquired by reading Reiman's electrifying volume I realized that there was something about those fans that wasn't quite right.

Having mastered the murky "paralanguage" that enables human beings to read secret messages transmitted by other people, I knew that the section of the brain called the amygdala, which detects fear in other humans, had been activated in the tailgaters' skulls as soon as I emerged from my car, and that they could literally smell vulnerability and victimhood-in-waiting.

I knew this because the mirror neurons in my right parietal operculum--yes, those very same neurons identified by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese in their breakthrough work at the University of Parma in 1996--were enabling me to crack the mysterious code conveyed by the body language of the boozed-up Giants fans. And what the "secret signal decoder" that my mirror neurons were arming me with were saying, was this: "These clowns look like mean drunks. Take off the Eagles cap, and get the hell out of here."

I did not start reading The Power of Body Language specifically to handle situations like this; I read it because I thought if I mastered paralanguage, and paid more attention to input from my right parietal operculum, it might help me figure out when John Edwards was lying, when Mitt Romney was telling the truth, and when Fred Thompson was awake. And so it did.

Reiman, a brilliant, charismatic body-language expert who appears regularly on The O'Reilly Factor, has advanced a revolutionary theory that only 7 percent of communication between human beings is verbal, perhaps even less in northern New Jersey. The other 93 percent is expressed in a kind of skeletal, epidermal, neurological, abdominal, and physiognomic code that most people cannot understand because they are paralinguistic illiterates who have not read her book.

Armed with the latest cutting-edge data from such publications as The Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, Dermatological Surgery, and The Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, Reiman makes a convincing case that when women cross their legs, it is often to draw attention to their bodies, and that jiggling your car keys or playing with your water bottle cap may send a message to another person that you are not interested in having a sexual relationship with them. (This is probably even more true if you are doing it while in bed with them.)

Reiman also contends that an upper lip raised in a sneer may be a sign of contempt, and maintains that upbeat people are better liked than mopers. As she puts it, in her deceptively authoritative way: "Numerous studies have found that people who smile are believed to be more warm, honest, polite, kind, sociable, happy, flirtatious, successful and attractive."

Not one study, mind you, not two studies, but numerous studies.

Those who do not feel like wading through an intensely technical, occasionally abstruse volume filled with discussions of such exotic constructs as the "Pinocchio Effect" should turn to the back of the book, where Reiman answers a number of "frequently asked" questions that have perplexed mankind since we first emerged from the caves.

"Is it true that men who put their thumbs in their belt loops are more prone to be perverts?" she asks, rhetorically. No, is the answer--though regrettably she does not address the corollary: "Is it true that men who put their thumbs in your belt loops are more prone to be perverts?"

Yet by far the most intriguing subject is broached by the anonymous social leper who queries: "I have a problem. In general, people take an immediate dislike to me before I have even spoken. I can sense the atmosphere. Please don't say it's my imagination. I often think maybe I give off bad vibrations, and they detect it."

How Reiman got Hillary to participate in this book is beyond me.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.