The London Olympics provides an opportunity not only to watch the pinnacle of sporting performance but also to observe human body language. Although this event involves people of all ages, cultures, sizes and nationalities, body language is so universally understood that we can perceive much of the athletes' and the spectators' state of mind simply by watching their posture and gestures. While the more demonstrative winners wave their arms or punch fists into the air in triumph, even the more subtle victors spontaneously lift their head and throw out their chests to stand upright, while the losers tend to drop their heads and adopt a slumped posture. This body language has been observed in blind athletes, which indicates that it is innate rather than learned behaviour. The same expression of triumph or disappointment can also be seen to a lesser extent in the spectators.
Although we tend to think of human communication as primarily verbal, it is estimated that most communication is non verbal through expression, posture, gestures, eye contact, physical contact and personal space. The study of this non verbal communication is called kinesics. Kinesics is conscious and unconscious, mainly spontaneous and innate, cultural differences are minor.
Charles Darwin started the science of body language in his descriptions of expression in man and animals; this was advanced later by the ethologists particularly the founding father of ethology, Konrad Lorenz.
Kinesics is important in our communications with other humans and also with other species. People who have contact with domestic animals, and who observe wild animals usually develop greater ability to communicate and understand the body language of other species. However even people who have little contact with other species have instinctive recognition of more obvious animal body language such as the menace of a crouching lion. The communication between animals and humans is the foundation of domestication. Recent studies found that dogs can interpret many subtle human signs and gestures, scientists were surprised by the findings, dog owners were not.
Konrad Lorenz observed that much of the body language and behaviour observed in animals is exhibited in humans and may become ritualised in culture. For example a sign of submission in some species of social animals is for the submissive animal to offer the most vulnerable part of its body to its adversary. Many human rituals, ceremonies and behaviour display and symbolise these signs of submission to communicate surrender and respect. A human appeal for mercy may be for a person to fall on their knees, or to yield or surrender by raising their arms in supplication which actually makes the submissive person more vulnerable but is anticipated to cause restraint in the adversary. Our signs of respect such as kowtowing, prostration, kneeling, bowing and curtsying are also symbolic of a submissive posture of voluntary vulnerability.