“When you run your hands through your hair like that it makes me think you’re flirting with me,” a colleague said recently.

I replied, “Maybe I’m not flirting, but I’m getting my hair out of my eyes, or detangling my hair, or it’s a nervous habit, or I have dandruff, or I’m readjusting my wig.”

Someone’s been reading those self-help books about so-called “Body Language”…

Linguistics, kinesics and semiotics are among the disciplines that attempt to observe and describe gesture and other forms of non-verbal communication.

On the other hand (excuse the pun), Body Language “experts” claim they can “read” posture, facial expressions, and other body movements. But people try to conceal their thoughts and emotions, and our own bodies reveal too much. It’s a conspiracy. Authorities on Body Language can supposedly decode these thoughts and feelings, disclose innermost desires, unlock the powers of intuition, provide searing insights, expose secrets, and uncover the hidden meanings behind our behavior.

These self-proclaimed specialists fancy themselves as behavioral scientists, or detectives who see clues in our cues, inspired by Sherlock Holmes and TV shows such as Lie To Me. They are motivational speakers, authors of self-help books, and gossip-mongers of tabloids and the talk show circuit. They ‘analyze’ photographs of celebrities to decipher personality traits, to guess who’s in bed with who, and predict who’s dumping who. They ‘interpret’ footage of political debates, speeches and interviews, to find underlying meaning and detect deception.

With the help of Body Language experts, you can be a success. Buy their books, attend their workshops, follow their programs, systems and methods and you too can harness these techniques to achieve your goals. They will provide you with the tools you need to give you confidence, to catch a liar in the act, to ace that job interview, to attract love, and to stop sending out those “wrong messages”.

Advocates claim there is standardized meaning in the way you sit, stand and walk, how you shake hands and lick your lips, or run your hands through your hair. Like a visual polygraph test, they believe that answering a question and touching your nose a certain way, or an involuntary subtle shift in your eye, betrays a lie. Crossing your arms indicates defensiveness, or a lack of openness; while rubbing the stem of a glass suggests that subconsciously, you want to rub something (or someone) else.

Body language gurus (“Wellness Coaches”, “Personal Impact Coaches” and “Master Communicators”) promote the use of their techniques in conjunction with other alternative therapies. Tonya Reiman also practices hypnotherapy, Allan and Barbara Pease recommend Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and Elizabeth Kuhnke uses chromotherapy (i.e., color therapy). Followers of Bioenergetic Analysis claim that Body Language can heal, while Shelly Hagen’s Everything Body Language Book reeks of Feng Shui; “Cashmere and cotton, for example, are soft and inviting, suggesting that the wearer is a gentle soul. Hard materials, like leather or boiled wool, keep others at a distance.” (p.173)

Like Infomercials that claim we only use 10% of our brains, Body Language theorizes that only 7% of our communication is verbal (or 15%, or 20%, and so on). There has been much research on this topic, but no study has categorically proven there’s a precise ratio of verbal to nonverbal communication.

Overall, the literature is unconvincing. Books about Body Language are full of anecdotal evidence and sound bytes. They include pages of references, but no citations or footnotes. Their claims, theories and models are unsupported by evidence. They invoke the names of legitimate scholars and irrelevant research to validate the practice. Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex addresses the importance of gesture and sign language, and suggests that gestures are relevant to the origins of language. Body Language books seize this reference, and misinterpret and overextend Darwin’s arguments.

Some claim the universality of gestures, expressions and behaviors. Tonya Reiman’s Body Language University has developed the Reiman Rapport Method, a “ten step process to master universally pleasing body language”. Yet the infamous “Smiling Bomber” Amrozi demonstrated that a smile can also signal confidence and defiance; and while the thumbs-up gesture favored by hitchhikers might get you a ride in the States, it could get you beaten up in Greece. There are immense differences in habits and customs across cultures, making Body Language about as scientific as physiognomy, (the belief that the facial appearance indicates personality).

Body Language is not a legitimate study or a solution to your problems. Some readers might still think, “There’s something to it! I know when someone’s angry or happy!” Some even worry that reading Body Language is an invasion of privacy, or a type of manipulation.

This article doesn’t dispute that nonverbal actions carry meaning, or that we are receptive to nonverbal communication. But there is no formula for understanding behavior, and every act has numerous potential meanings and causes. Behavior is subject to context, intent and interpretation. It can be affected by illness, and is influenced by culture and socialization. It changes at the level of the individual. Reading behavior is simply the observer’s subjective interpretation, and is open to misinterpretation.

The analogy to ‘reading’ is helpful. The study of Body Language is a kind of cold reading or body divination to predict thought; but it’s superficial, unreliable and potentially risky.

So be careful the next time you approach the woman who seems to be looking at you and stroking the stem of her wine glass. You might just get that wine thrown in your face.