NEWSLETTER EDITION: JANUARY 2019
Tone of voice and body language make up 93% of human communication. While some people are unconsciously adept at reading nonverbal cues, many are not. When your nonverbal cues don’t match with what you’re saying, you may find yourself experiencing interpersonal conflict with others or your intended message may be misinterpreted.
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, with more than 700,000 possible motions and movements within the broad categories of gesture, posture, eye contact, and facial expressions—Reading body language is not only important, but can be very complicated.
In many cases, body language is more important and conveys more information than verbal communication. Nonverbal vocal elements of body language include volume, pitch, and inflection. This article will focus on other nonverbal aspects of body language.
The Use of Space
Proxemics is the study of how we use space when we’re communicating, such as how close we stand to someone as we talk. Politics is a particularly enlightening arena when studying how body language and communication work together. Politicians and other public speakers are often coached on how to appear most effectively on stage in order to appeal to their audience. President Trump’s continued appearances with world leaders and at campaign-style rallies offer glimpses of his unique body language when speaking to his audience: he’s known for aggressive handshakes, expansive hand gestures or pointing, and looming or pacing around the stage. His use of space at the rallies by pacing and gesturing widely suggest dominance and projecting of an “alpha male” position. When placed in a group situation, such as group photos or meetings with other world leaders, either Trump or his handlers attempt to place him in as central a position as possible, again suggesting dominance or a place of top importance.
Posture is another source of potential miscommunication. Good posture, with your shoulders back, spine straight, chin parallel to the floor or slightly up, communicates confidence and energy. Poor posture, evidenced by slouching or hunched shoulders send a message of disinterest, fear, uncertainty, or lethargy. First impressions in face-to-face meetings are partially determined on a person’s posture.
There is a huge 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 in 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, involve the whole body, may convey nervousness, excitability, or aggressiveness. 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.
But the type of gesture is just as important as the frequency. Pointing is a gesture with many different interpretations. In the United States, pointing with the index finger is common and generally accepted as a non-threatening, neutral movement when used to point to an object or to emphasize a point. But pointing with the index finger in Japan, where pointing is accomplished with 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.
Eye contact is a major cue 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 meant to convey the opposite. This may lead to confusion for your audience and uncertainty on their part in 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, or boredom. It can also be a sign of concentration while processing information.
Understanding Body Language is Vital
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 practice to become continually aware of your unconscious body language, but is worthwhile to study to become a better communicator.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Ms. Kandell is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She has been a leader in the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution. She provides mediation services, group facilitation, neutral evaluation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.