Human language is a wonderfully intricate form of communication, with a vast array of languages, dialects and colloquialisms that constantly grow, change and evolve. Despite the innumerable differences in language from place to place and ethnicity to ethnicity, some elements of communication remain constant and universal.
The things that are not said and heard are often the easiest to understand, like a balled fist, a smile or a frown. How we hear and interpret the words spoken to us by other people can be drastically affected by how they sit or stand, how they move their hands, the tone we hear in their voices and even how much they blink. The ways in which the human body either reinforces or contradicts spoken words is just as important as the words themselves and these constitute non-verbal communication.
What is nonverbal communication?
Nonverbal communication (also known as non-verbal cues) can be defined as information that is passed without the use of spoken or written words, being conveyed instead by tone, inflexion, touch, movement of the body or facial expressions, not just through the communication systems of ears and mouth. It is just as intricate as verbal communication and can involve visual cues such as gestures, distance, eye contact, eye movement and even the speed of speech.
Nonverbal communication can be either conscious or unconscious, and it involves one making an expression or gesture and another interpreting it. This relies heavily on context and prior knowledge of the gestures being used. An example could be raising three fingers, whoever will interpret that will understand that to mean the number three because of prior knowledge.
Common nonverbal cues and what they mean
1. Crossed arms and legs:
This is usually a sign that someone feels fearful or defensive. Instinct tells us to protect our organs when we are afraid and this carries over even to situations that aren’t physically threatening. People with open arms and uncrossed legs are often friendlier and more open to interaction.
2. Looking away
In most cases, people associate looking away with lying but it can mean a lot more. The direction in which one is looking says a lot. Looking to the up and to the right implies one is accessing the imagination in the right hemisphere of the brain, which means they are probably lying. A look to the left often means one is trying to access visual imagery and are more likely trying to recall an actual memory. Looking down is a sign of submission or fear.
How much or how little a person blinks during a conversation can indicate their emotional state. Blinking too frequently can be a sign of distress or discomfort while blinking too little or not at all often indicates that one is hiding their emotions.
The closer a person stands next to you during a conversation, the more comfortable they are with you. The distance between two people can be a measure of the type of relationship. Sitting or standing far apart indicates a very non-personal relationship while close proximity can be anything from close friendship to attraction. However, coupled with the right mixture of posture, tone of voice and facial expression, this can be a very strong sign of aggression and a potential physical conflict.
Are nonverbal cues universal?
Most nonverbal communication relies heavily on social and cultural context and varies considerably. What may be a friendly gesture in one place might be very offensive in another.
Most African and Asian cultures rely heavily on nonverbal communication, using elements such as the closeness of their relationships, strict social hierarchies and deep cultural knowledge to convey meaning.
On the other hand, American and most European cultures depend largely on the words themselves. Communication tends to be more direct, relationships tend to begin and end quickly, and hierarchies are more relaxed.
Because of these key differences in communication, certain nonverbal cues have radically different meanings in depending on where you are. Eye contact is considered polite and is encouraged as a sign of confidence in most Western cultures. In sharp contrast, it is considered rude and inappropriate in many African and Asian cultures. The thumbs up gesture is positive in most Western cultures, often meaning something is good. In Latin American culture, the thumbs up gesture is very rude and offensive.
How to effectively use nonverbal cues
While it is important to note cultural context, there are a few ways to improve your nonverbal communication and appear more confident, pleasant and even attractive.
1. Mind your posture
It is always important to sit up or stand up straight, it is a sign of confidence and communicates that you are trustworthy. Slouching implies you are not very confident and if you are in a position of authority, this can impede your ability to lead.
2. Watch how you shake hands
A handshake is often the first interaction between two new people and is key to forming first impressions. Ideally, it should be firm and brief. A weak handshake with a limp hand can feel like holding a dead fish and this puts up a barrier very early in the interaction. On the other hand, you do not want to grip too tightly, this might cause pain.
This is by far the easiest way to appear inviting. A genuine smile lights up your whole face and it makes you come across as a sunny and pleasant person. It can ease tensions and help a conversation move along more smoothly.
Nonverbal communication is a powerful tool. Knowing how to read and use it effectively can drastically improve your communication skills and improve your interactions. It is also important to note it works even better in conjunction with verbal communication. Be sure to look after your hearing and always have great interactions.