The first book I ever read on body language was Allan Pease's Body Language: How to Read Others' Thoughts by Their Gestures. I must've been about twelve years old, and I got it out of the library thinking it would give me super powers. Instead, I'm pretty sure it messed me up for life.
In the intervening years I've read a fair few books on body language, interpersonal skills and the like, ranging in quality from spurious hokum to solid gold. In spite of this, I am still yet to develop super powers. This post is about what I've developed in their stead.
Once you notice that you point your feet at people you fancy, you'll never un-notice it. It's like becoming aware of your own breathing. When an unconscious action is brought to your attention, you'll second-guess how much of it you're supposed to do and lose all sense of what's natural. Where's your gaze going? How much are your hands moving? You're totally mirroring that guy. How obvious would it look if you shifted your position?
I think I've internalised quite a few of these cases of awkward posture-awareness, and in some cases developed some odd physical habits as a result. Still, every now and again I'll notice myself entering some textbook body language position, and then instinctively exiting it. This must look bizarre to observers.
I once read a very simple magic trick in a best-selling book. In spite of the fact that its explanation is on a modest fraction of bookshelves up and down the country, I have regularly performed this trick for friends, on dates, or while trying to demonstrate a point, and not once has anyone said "you got that from [this pretty well-known book]". In spite of this experience, in the back of my mind I still expect everyone to have read it and know how it's done. Prescriptive people-skills advice feels quite similar.
Much like the above posture-awareness example, I've probably internalised any such advice to the point where it's become habit, but when you're first starting to apply something, it's easy to feel as if what you're doing is glaringly obvious. That book you read it in is freely available in shops. Anyone can pick it up and read it. Why don't they all know?
On the other hand...
I've had quite modest gains from my reading on this subject (by which I mean I'm disappointed that I'm not a combination of Derren Brown and Professor X by now), but one advantage of covering an assortment of material is that I am usually aware of when it's being used on me. With moderate regularity, I'll be talking with someone and realise they're trying to handle me with something they read in a book.
It's worth mentioning that the most naked attempts are the ones using methods from the most questionable sources1, but even adept people-handling has a certain feel to it. I am never entirely sure of the etiquette of saying "you learned that on a management course, didn't you?"
Just the right amount of sexism
At the beginning of this post I mentioned Allan Pease's book on body language. In collaboration with his wife, Barbara, he has written several books with titles along the lines of Why Men Eat Monster Trucks, and Women Can't Resist Ponies and Hair Brushes.2
Gender politics are a real, complex and salient feature of the social landscape, but even a "factual" approach to them involves walking a line between moronic overgeneralisation and cautious neutering into non-existence. Many of the people recommending Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People3 suggest getting a copy printed before 1960, as more recent updates to the book allegedly haven't fared well through various periods of heightened political sensitivity. My personal approach has been to include questionable material in my reading and trust my better judgement. That said, I'm not sure I'd trust the better judgement of a general readership (c.f. the pick-up artist community4).
Exciting new frontiers of awkwardness
I'm fairly sure I am never going to run out of awkward physical habits to gradually become aware of. One of my more recent endeavours in a similar vein is public speaking. Recording yourself perform and then watching it back is an exquisite form of torture that will never stop horrifying you. Once you start training yourself to notice your disfluencies ("um", "uh", and every other gormless-sounding noise that can come out of your mouth) or semantically null words ("like", "well", "basically", "right"), you craft this amazingly versatile stick to beat yourself with whenever you open your mouth. While you're struggling to keep them under wraps, you end up leaving what feel like enormous pauses when you talk, just begging to be filled with whatever stupid words pop into your head.
(I have fairly recently discovered I possess a very odd habit of speech: when I talk without any good idea of where I'm going, I tend to end phrases with a high-rising terminal. This creates an expectation [not least in my own brain] that I'm going to keep on talking, so I say something else. Before I know it, I'm locked in a huge, rambling sentence that I feel aesthetically compelled to prolong. When I realised why this was happening, and that I could just stop talking by saying something in a concluding tone of voice, it was like magic. I'm convinced there's some area of presentation skills or media training or speech therapy that deals with how patterns of speech impact the content in this way, but I'm yet to stumble across it.)
For all my misgivings on this cluster of subjects, I can't really dismiss its value. It would be difficult to describe how spectacularly socially-awkward I was in my young adulthood. While it's hard to say how much of my current relative social competence is simply maturity and further life experience, theory is a core part of how I operate. Having explicit functional models of how people work is undeniably useful if you're that sort of person. You obviously can't develop social skills just from reading books, but the books can definitely help.
I should probably end this with some book recommendations for the socially apposite and destitute alike. I would heartily recommend the recent What Every Body Is Saying by Joe Navarro as an introduction to body language. The author's credentials are quite solid, and he's satisfyingly conservative about the realistic applications of body language. It's consistent with my other reading on the subject, but self-contained and sensibly broken-down by topic.
I would also recommend the aforementioned How to Win Friends and Influence People, though I am not currently in a position to comment on whether you should read a version printed prior to 1960. I listened to the Andrew MacMillan audiobook, (currently available in full on Youtube), which I would recommend as an agreeable medium for the material. Off the back of this post, I've ordered a 1953 copy off AbeBooks, so I may retract this recommendation in this light in a few months time. Especially if it gives me super powers.
neurolinguistic programming, I'm looking at you. ↩
While these books might not be totally devoid of valid observations, (I've never actually read any of them), in the absence of Alan and Barbara Pease having any substantial research credentials in this area, I'm going to suggest they most reliably offer insights into the domestic lives of Allan and Barbara Pease and their friends. ↩
which is a lot of people, incidentally ↩
It's worth mentioning that while I would draw into question the basic human decency of many PUA proponents, I wouldn't be as critical of their scholarship. If you can overlook the outrageously shitty attitude towards women, they have quite a few genuine insights about patterns of human behaviour. ↩