In many cases, body language is more important and conveys more information than verbal communication. Last month I wrote about the nonverbal vocal elements of body language: volume, pitch, inflection. This article will focus on other nonverbal aspects of body language.
Body language is the use of movements and nonverbal elements to indicate attitude, emotion, or reaction to a situation or statement. It encompasses a wide variety of human movement.
Gestures, posture, eye contact, facial expressions, and other body movements are the main types of body language. However, there are more than 700,000 possible motions and movements within these categories—meaning that reading body language is not only important, but can be complicated.
More than half of your message reaches your audience not with words, but with posture, gestures, or facial expressions. It also includes proxemics, which is the study of how we use space when we’re communicating, such as how close we stand to someone as we talk. The political debates this season contain multiple examples of communication through position and space. According to the New York Times, many viewers of the October 9 presidential debate commented on Mr. Trump’s use of space during the debate. At times, Mr. Trump would appear to tower over Mrs. Clinton while she spoke, or would appear to loom behind her. His body language and use of proxemics in these instances could be interpreted as threatening, domineering, akin to stalking. Both candidates used proxemics in how they used the debate floor as well, with both showing a tendency to continually move around the floor to approach speakers in the audience or place distance between themselves or the audience. The New York Times also mentions that Mr. Trump’s use of the space to walk around, fidget, or sway at times had a distracting effect while Mrs. Clinton spoke.
Let’s look at an example of body language versus verbal communication. A young woman is asked how she feels.. She responds verbally with “I am fine.” But her body shows crossed arms, shoulders hunched forward slightly, and a sideways gaze. While her verbal communication seems to answer the question adequately, her nonverbal responses would indicate that she may not be fine, may not be receptive to the questioner, may feel defensive or fearful, and may not want to continue the conversation. Her nonverbal cues communicate a far more detailed message than her verbal message.
Posture is another source of potential miscommunication. Much of the discourse about improper posture deals with the health ramifications, but a negative posture can also send a nonverbal signal that is more adverse than you may intend. Slouching or hunching shoulders tends to indicate disinterest, fear, uncertainty, or lethargy. Posture and other nonverbal cues are the true first impression in face-to-face meetings. Good posture—shoulders back, straight back, chin parallel to the floor or slightly up—indicates confidence and energy.
There is a big cultural element to nonverbal communication. Gestures, facial expressions, touch, and other body movements may have one meaning in one culture and a completely opposite meaning to another. Hand gestures are often brought up in the context of public speaking. Speakers who use too many gestures, or use gestures that are wild, involving the whole body, or frequent in number may convey nervousness, excitability, or aggressive. In contrast, gestures that are stiff, too small, or hide the hands (such as putting your hands in your pockets while you speak) may indicate to your audience that you are shy, nervous, insincere, or uncertain. Your gestures can help or hinder your ability to accurately convey your message.
Pointing is a gesture with many different interpretations. In the United States, pointing with the index finger is common. But pointing with the index finger in Japan, where people point using the entire hand, is considered rude. Becoming aware of cultural differences with body language may be difficult for some, especially those who already struggle with understanding nonverbal cues, but cultural misunderstandings may be avoided with a little study and conscious awareness of your own body language.
Many people experience difficulties in making themselves understood. Eye contact is one of the major cues of nonverbal communication and is often a key source of discomfort and misunderstanding. If you have difficulty meeting another person’s eyes or holding eye contact long enough, you may be unintentionally conveying the message that you do not want to talk with that person, even if your tone or words are conveying the opposite. This may lead to confusion for your audience and uncertainty on their part on how to respond.
Some common eye contact behaviors are eye blocking, increased blinking, gaze aversion, and squinting or narrowing. These behaviors may have different connotations according to cultural norms, but blocking of the eyes with your hands or an object may indicate frustration, defensiveness, or another negative emotion. Increased blink rate or fluttering the eyes may mean that person is nervous or under stress. Squinting or narrowing the eyes may indicate concentration or focus, or sometimes stress or discomfort. And averting one’s gaze can have multiple interpretations depending on the situation, but in American culture, this may reveal discomfort, shame, boredom, or even concentration while processing information.
Why understanding body language is vital for your success
Nearly everyone has been in some situation in which you suddenly become very aware of your own body language. Perhaps you gestured too broadly and become aware that your gestures have become too animated. In response, you might cross your arms, sit on your hands, or clasp your hands behind your back. These movements convey discomfort to some degree, but also make it possible for you to control your gestures—at least for a little while. However, you would eventually fall back into the habit of gesturing without the same level of conscious awareness.
It takes time to change such habits. These instances of sudden awareness would not be enough for most people to begin to change a habit like this.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.