U of M football and crossed arms: the mechanics of conversation


Body language is just as important in conversation as what you actually say. The person you are talking to interprets and responds to your body language on a subconscious level, which can either enhance or undermine a conversation.

Imagine you are talking to someone you don’t know very well. You are speaking animatedly about something — for the sake of our argument, let’s say it’s your sorrow over the University of Michigan football team’s 31-0 humiliating loss to Notre Dame. You are a college football fanatic, so you naturally assume that the person you are talking to will have as strong an interest in Devin Gardner’s passing game as you do.

As the conversation progresses, however, your partner begins to rock back and forth on her feet. Her eyes begin to roam about the room, frequently landing on the clock. A minute later, she crosses her arms. Not sensing the good vibes you were hoping for, you end your sentence with an awkward “So . . . yeah.” As soon as your lips stop moving, your companion acknowledges that you have said something with a quick “totally” and begins a long rant about the swim meet she competed in last weekend. You zone out, knowing nothing about swim.

What went wrong?

A successful conversation requires both parties to put forth a lot of effort. Most of us can do this subconsciously, but we all still experience the notorious Awkward Pause from time to time. In an interview with The Week, Catherine Blyth, author of The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, gave some tips on human interaction that can make a conversation feel effortless.

“Whatever the context, old friends or new, it is best if speakers respect five principles,” she said. “Put others at ease, put yourself at ease, weave in all parties, establish shared interests, and actively pursue your own interests.”

Haley Schultz, a junior, has experienced a violation of the fourth principle, establish shared interests. When someone begins to talk about something she has no interest in, she finds it hard to stay engaged in the conversation.

“I let them finish what they’re talking about, but I don’t reciprocate the conversation,” she said. “I might just change the topic or something.”

Sophomore Karina Lloyd has noticed much the same thing about herself.

“I get kind of quiet,” said Lloyd, “or I try to change to topic to something I know.”

Blyth notes in her book that it is helpful to listen more and talk less while engaged in a discourse. Schultz agrees.

“I think it’s better to listen more,” Schultz said, “because then you can better understand what they’re trying to tell you and have a better response when it’s your turn to speak.”

While it is certainly helpful to talk about a common interest and to be a good listener, the way you present yourself during conversation is just as important. According to Improve Your Social Skills, a website created to assist the socially awkward, people subconsciously react to your body language even if they are not registering it on a conscious level. For example, crossed arms may be interpreted as a sign of disinterest or even hostility.

“If your body language exhibits warmth and friendliness, your partner is likely to sense that and relax,” said Daniel Wendler, founder of Improve Your Social Skills. “If your body language demonstrates disinterest or boredom, your partner will think twice before sharing something personal with you.”

Schultz also considers body language an important factor in conversation.

“Eye contact is important,” she said, “and having them facing you and looking at you.”

Aliya Hakim, a freshwoman, sees hand gestures as welcoming.

“People like to talk with their hands a lot, and that’s welcoming,” said Hakim. “I use my hands a lot when I’m trying to explain something.”

Sophomore Abby Bays considers “being happy” and “having a smile on your face” important body language rules, but also ranks eye contact as crucial.

“Eye contact helps connect two people,” she said.

There is one other factor that, according to Bays, helps a conversation run smoothly: humor.

“It makes the conversation more interesting,” said Bays.

Hakim also values comedy as a conversation tactic.

“Especially if they’re new and you’re trying to be friendly,” Hakim said. “Then it’s nice to be funny.”

Successful conversation requires hard work, whether we are aware of it or not. Next time you talk to someone you don’t know very well, think twice about that Michigan football rant that no one understands but you, and watch the quality of your communication skyrocket.