The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language

By Desmond Morris

2002 Vintage Books version Nov. 30, 2012, also copyrighted as Manwatching in 1977, review based on eBook version.

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

Peoplewatching is an older work, but since human behavior is not so much changed as to outdate 45 year old observations, this author’s ideas are still valuable, both from the concepts presented in this month’s lead article by Dr. Wendy Saxon, but also from the study of violence as we have discussed with leading trainers so often in previous journal issues. Indeed, quite a few terms used evolved from Morris’ study into various aspects of human behavior, so wanting to fill in gaps in my understanding, I turned to the original study.

While Dr. Saxon’s references are concerned with internal conflict in jurors, I also wanted to learn about unconscious indications known to occur before an attacker initiates violence. While that’s only briefly addressed in Peoplewatching, I recognize that of the innumerable human exchanges occurring every moment, only a miniscule number are violent. Besides, better understanding other human beings improves our interactions and helps us avoid conflict.

I’ve read a lot of facile articles and even books about body language and been taught, for example, if someone glances to the right while speaking, they are being untruthful. Heard that one before? Morris explains eye movement and other indications that what is being said is not just tripping off the speaker’s tongue.

A glance to the right is not necessarily indicative of lying by either verbal or non-verbal means; it merely reveals inconsistency between what the person wishes you to hear, see or conclude and the speaker’s private thoughts, Morris emphasizes, adding that he is not spelling out lie detection cues. Through his commentary, the reader learns to value being attuned to “body actions [that] do not agree with one another, or with his verbal signals.”

Now, I will admit that I became bogged down in Morris’ extensive details about gestures, through which the early pages of Peoplewatching establish the foundation for later material about contradictory signals and non-verbal leakage. Later, I had the same trouble wading through chapters exclusively concerned with social gaffes. This is a long book, and only a fraction is directly related to physical or legal safety.

I was interested, though, in Morris’ detailed descriptions of status displays. In a social context, this has many manifestations from what Morris calls “muted” displays by powerful men in grey flannel, to business posturing, to the displays of the nouveau riche. People also establish and hold status by behavior, assuming roles like the group’s joker, flatterer, the incessant talker, or the arguer, Morris defines. Each of the foregoing tries to dominate, just as the use of violence to dominate is another way to establish status, he continues, discussing how violence in muggings or sexual assault allows the perpetrator “if only for a few brief moments, to feel the thrill of violent domination over another human being.” Animals also practice sexual dominance displays, but without the “traumatic and brutally damaging assault” suffered in human rape, he adds.

Next Morris discusses territoriality, another topic that should be familiar to students of danger avoidance. He posits that actual territorial violence is rare, and territoriality is primarily played out by gesture and social adjustments, although even the least dominant member of a group may turn violent if his or her home territory is violated.