Book Review: Book of Tells

Book of Tells by Peter Collett is a book based primarily on body language, but also includes some linguistic and vocal insights.  This book is best described as an attempt to categorize and catalogue non-verbal communication.  It is essentially attempting to isolate and document individual behaviours and their associated meanings. It conceptualizes these distinct behaviours as “tells”. The term “tell” is borrowed from the poker playing sub-culture and popularized in various Hollywood films.

On starting this book, I was surprised to find that the author was a resident psychologist on the TV show Big Brother.  I read and reviewed another body language book back in 2009 called Visible Thought – The New Psychology of Body Language. That book was written by a previous Big Brother psychologist who Collett also makes reference to in this book, Geoffrey Beattie. This link between reviews was a pure co-incidence, so I’d like to make it clear that I’m not a Big Brother obsessive. I did watch the first couple of series, but lost interest as contestants rapidly learned to play and manipulate the game. I was much more interested by the first couple of series which were much closer to objective social experiments.

I have to admit, this book was a hard read, there isn’t much structure to it.  There is no enlightening journey to follow where chapters build on chapters, it is very much written like an encyclopedia.  This means you have to be committed to reading repetitively, there is no evolution of concept. Barring the first and last chapters which have been shoehorned in as wrappers, you could easily read the chapters in a random order without losing any comprehension at all.  This is not a criticism. It’s more like guidance of what to expect. I guess the clue is very much in the name of the book.. “Book of Tells”, I’m assuming is a play on words for a “Book of Spells” which you would expect to find in this format.

If you are willing to grind through it and understand the format it comes in, it’s quite a good book.  I have seen some reviews complaining about the lack of originality in this book, stating that it’s rehashing other people’s work. This is somewhat true, but I don’t see any point in re-inventing the wheel and it does do a good job of pulling some those other texts together. I would recommend it as a beginner or refresher book on body language.

Some of the highlights for me were the real-world examples used to highlight and underscore the definitions used. I particularly liked the one about politicians kissing babies, who it seems don’t do this for popularity, but out of a fear of being hit. In short, they’re using the babies as a Saddam like human shields. Another great example was centered around Sir Alex Ferguson, Manager of the Manchester United Football Team. It suggests that a better way of understanding the fortunes of the team during a match is not to watch what’s happening on the pitch, but to monitor the speed at which Sir Alex chews his gum. I’ll be looking out for this at the next game.

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