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Every move you make, everyone’s watching you

Published: September 14, 2012
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


Two weeks ago, I wrote a column that discussed the idea of learning from a liberal arts perspective, rather than receiving a seemingly more “practical” education. I mentioned learning things that seem totally irrelevant: “While I’ve certainly sat in class and wondered how learning about a honeybee’s waggle dance is ever going to be relevant, I know that I am in the right place at the right time.”

I won’t say I haven’t been able to get honeybees off my mind since then, but I have thought about them a little bit, and I think I’ve figured it out. Yes, I’m probably never going to need to know the differences between a round dance and a waggle dance (but if you ask me, I can tell you all about them).

It is, however, important to understand that if an animal as seemingly simple as a honeybee can communicate in such a complex way, using (apparently) only their body, then we must also put our communication methods into context by comparing humans to other species.
That is, however, a whole different column.

If bees can communicate with their bodies, so can we—and we do, every second of every interaction we have.

With every move we make, we broadcast signals about who we are, what we’re feeling, and our relationships with those around us. Being able to read these signals is a useful social skill, one at which most of us are mildly adept and a few of us are skilled.

This past week in one of my classes, my professor reminded us that the syllabus clearly lists the laptop rule for class: We can use them for anything class-related, including note-taking and looking over readings. We are not, she reminded us, to be using our laptops for email and Facebook—not an unreasonable request by any means.

I’m not sure if students think that professors don’t realize if and when we’re not paying attention, or if they don’t care, but if I spent multiple hours a week preparing for three hours of lecturing, I’d be offended if I saw my students looking at their computers, laughing at something. I’d know they weren’t chuckling to themselves about the rise of consumer culture in England during the Industrial Revolution, but rather at a humorous tweet instead.

I sometimes notice that even if I am paying attention in class, I might not look like it, and I’ve collected some suggestions for making sure you look like you’re paying attention. I want it to be very clear that I’m not condoning the habit of ignoring your professor, nor am I giving you ways to pretend to pay attention in class, but I do want to share a few things that I’ve found are important to remember.

The eyes are supposedly the window to the soul, and they’re also one of the ways your professor can tell in a heartbeat that you aren’t paying attention, especially if you aren’t looking at something like your notes or your professor. Even if your eyes are pointed towards the person speaking, make sure they don’t become dull or unfocused. Definitely don’t try to catch your friend’s eye from across the room.

I’m certainly not saying you should aim for constant eye contact with your professor. Please, please don’t do that. It’s creepy. Just look attentive.

Your posture is the second of the two most important aspects of your body language that your professor is going to notice. You don’t need to be rigid, but don’t be slumped back in your seat and sprawled all over the place.

If you’re tired, try to sit up straight, but don’t use your elbow to prop your head up. If you’re that tired, you will fall asleep, and your professor will notice your head lolling around on your fist.

With that said, however, leaning forward with your chin on your palm and looking up at your professor is a sign of alertness. As long as you’re able to keep your eyes open, it is best to be in this position.

Body language is extraordinarily complex, and everyone acts, responds and interprets differently. It is, therefore, important to be conscious of how others potentially perceive your body language, and also how you perceive others’ body language.

For the rest of your life, you’re going to be put in situations in which your body language, combined with the rest of your communication skills, will determine the outcome. Job interview? If you look bored, they’re not going to be interested. First date? If you’re checking your phone and looking around and looking like you would rather be somewhere else, they’re not going to ask you out for a second date. Words matter, but actions speak louder than words.