A Simple Guide to Non Verbal Communication
The other language
Everyday, we communicate with those around us in an other language than the one we speak with. We not only use this language to express ourselves but we also read this from others.
We make judgements, assumptions, decisions, assessments based on this language. The words we speak, strangely, account for only a fraction of the message that we want to communicate. The gestures and expressions of our face, the movement of our hands, our posture and demeanour convey far, far more than the spoken word.
The tone, the pitch and the speed of our speech convey more than the actual words themselves.
Despite this fact, we receive very little training and education in our formative years on the subject of human expressions, body language and aspects of non verbal communication.
Here is a simple guide to the art and science of non verbal communication. Here we will look at elements of non verbal communication, the origins of this science, its everyday use and how it can impact on our personal and professional life.
In doing so, we will also learn
- How to become more aware of what we say and how all we say it
- How to ensure our non verbal and verbal messages are aligned
- How to ensure we are reading others correctly
- How to give feedback to those around us when there is a mismatch in their verbal and non verbal content
- How to become aware of cross cultural aspects of non verbal communication.
And hoping that you are nodding vigorously and giving me a thumbs up, Let me start...
Consider the last time you were having a conversation with someone new. How quickly did you judge their character, intentions, personality and purpose based on the way they dressed, their facial expressions, their hand gestures and general posture. Were you aware of this happening or did you do this subconsciously?
Were you aware that the other person is doing the same with you?
Non Verbal communication is so ingrained in our daily interactions we are unconscious in our own abilities and shortcomings. We may be someone who may instantly put someone at ease or make them uncomfortable. We may be someone who can complement our spoken message with appropriate gestures that convey enthusiasm and passion. We may be saying one thing while the other person is 'reading' something else.
Our brain is hardwired from our infancy to read expressions, gestures and other non verbal cues. Some of this is universal across all cultures. Some others are culture specific where one gesture means something completely different to one group of people as opposed to others. A pointing finger gesture which is acceptable in one country may be rude and unacceptable in another.
I was born in South India where a vigorous side to side headshake can mean assent, agreement and to show 'I'm listening'. Whereas in England where I now live, I have learnt to 'control' my head, as I know that it may imply disagreement. It can distract the person speaking to me. Westerners often find it difficult to figure if the Eastern headshake means yes, no or maybe!
So when and where did the study of Non Verbal communication originate...
The Origin of Gestures
You may be surprised to know that it was the grand daddy of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin, who first published the definitive theories on body language in the book The Expression and Emotions in Man and Animals ( 1872).
Darwin had recorded many of his thoughts on behavioural science, emotions and expressions in his journal. He drew upon many scientific works of his time and arrived at the conclusion that irrespective of race and ethnicity humans all over did use similar muscles to express emotions - he circulated a questionnaire concerning such emotional expression and also looked at hundreds of photographs of actors emoting.
The book was also one of the first to have photographic illustrations in the publishing world. It was very well received, despite the public difficulty of the time in accepting Darwin's evolutionary theories. A shared ancestry with animalia was not an easy one to assimilate.
Later proponents of evolutionary biology and human expressions, such as Paul Ekman, have actually re-presented Darwin's theories for the modern audience.
Goes to show what a pioneering mind Darwin had.
The force of language is much aided by the expressive movements of the face and body ...— Charles Darwin
Types of Non Verbal Communication
There are several ways to classify non verbal communication - I haven't come across a single universal classifying system. I will attempt to collate the various elements of non verbal communication I have come across as a simple reference guide.
There are some that are already defined, for purposes of uniformity, I have coined a couple of new names for elements such as static body posture and colour and clothing styles that send out signals intentionally or unintentionally.
Types of Non Verbal Communication
Type of NVC
This relates to body movements and gestures
Relates to eye gaze, eye contact , blinking etc
Related to touch during interaction
Related to personal space, proximity
Rituals related to time, punctuality, multi-tasking etc.
Related to vocal communication separate to language itself- tone, pitch, loudness etc.
I have coined this for static posture and general fixed expressions
I have coined this for use of color and clothing styles
The word Kinesics was coined by social anthropologist Ray Birdwhitsell ( bet he had fun at school with his surname!) for how people communicate through posture, gestures, stance and movement). He filmed many people in social situations and developed a 'grammar' for movements or groups of movements that he called a 'kineme' ( like a 'phoneme').
Although Birdwhistell argued that these 'kinemes' are not culturally congruent- ie., gestures and postures vary across cultures - Paul Ekman later proved that certain kinemes, especially those involving facial expressions can be similar across cultural divide.
As many of the 'kinemes' are dictated at a subconscious level there is substantial danger in being misinterpreted by others. Becoming more aware or being made aware of our 'kinemes' would be helpful in social communication across cultures. I once underwent a media training course public speaking where the trainers videotaped my presentation and played it back. It helped to use 'kinemes' to a positive effect- this is what public speakers and TV presenters are be taught. There could be a danger that it can also make us look rather robotic if we were all to mimic and use same gestures to illustrate our speech.
However, there are those with complete mastery of their kinesics. They are powerful communicators who use gestures to punctuate, illustrate and heighten their expressive power. There is considerable evidence that mastery over such gestures ( naturally or learnt) is a powerful tool in interpersonal communication.
Kinesics can be subdivided into the following categories...
Becoming more aware or being made aware of our 'kinemes' would be helpful in social communication across cultures...
Type of Gesture
These are non verbal signals that can directly translate into words to convey specific meaning. For example holding out the thumb and little finger with other fingers folded close to your ear will covey 'call me', a 'V' sign for victory
These gestures are used to illustrate and augment the verbal message. Patting the seat next to you and saying ' sit here', ' I caught a fish 'this' long'
Gestures and expressions big grin, standing tall, slouching that convey mood, boredom, enthusiasm, anger, frustration are called affect displays. This may be conscious or subconscious
Holding a palm out to say 'stop', lifting a hand to request your chance to speak, nodding the head to indicate your listening are all termed regulators as they help regulate communication
These are subliminal gestures that help cope with inner emotion. Gritting your teeth, biting a pencil, scratching your head etc.
The study of eye behaviour in communication is called Oculesics. There are many dimensions of using the eye to communicate consciously or subconsciously. We all know how an exchange of communication through the eyes can initiate relationships, convey layers of emotion and reveal the inner 'soul'.
As with other gestures, eye behaviours can also vary between cultures. There are also cross cultural similarities in certain eye behaviours.
Eyes up - may indicate boredom, frustration or deep thought.
Eyes down - may indicate avoidance, disinterest, shame or respect.
The lateral movement of the eyes - may indicate a sign of distraction, a way of escape. In NLP parlance It can also mean that the person is trying to remembering a sound( looking right) or making up a sound ( looking left), looking up and right ( remembering an image), looking up and left ( imagining/constructing an image) , looking down and right ( recalling an emotion, taste, smell, touch) , looking down and left ( recalling an internal instruction or dialogue ' I told you so!' , ' Done it again!')
Staring can mean aggression or affection, combined with the strength of the gaze; Squinting can mean focus or confusion; Glancing can mean desire; Gazing sincere emotion; Blinking can be confusion or lying or flirtatiousness; Winking a mutually shared secret or understanding'; Eye moisture and tears- intensity of emotion, sadness or feeling overwhelmed; Dilated pupils sexual excitation or attraction ( or death if fixed and dilated!) and so on.
While direct and persistent eye contact is a sign of honesty and assertiveness in Western cultures, in some Eastern cultures it can be a sign of aggressiveness and disrespect.
The eye is the window of the soul, the mouth the door. The intellect, the will, are seen in the eye; the emotions, sensibilities, and affections, in the mouth. The animals look for man's intentions right into his eyes. Even a rat, when you hunt him and bring him to bay, looks you in the eye.— Hiram Powers, American sculptor (1805 - 1873)
Direct, Indirect, Duration etc.
Changing direction, focus, following, squinting
Voluntary or involuntary pupillary responses
Intensity and direction of gaze to convey desire
Haptic communication is all about touch - touching is vital to human intimate interaction and psychological well being as well having social connotations. Done well, it helps to augment communication but can equally lead to misconstrued behaviours in some circumstances.
Tactile stimulation - whether intimate or platonic is essential to human emotional health and positive reinforcement. In social interactions some cultures tend to touch ( England, France, Netherlands) less than others ( Greek, Italian).
Heslin, in 1974, presented a paper on the Taxonomy of Touching.
Haptic communication is divided into the following categories:
Taxonomy of Touch
Type of Touch
Functional / Professional
Task orientation in professional communication in a hierarchical or peer to peer interaction.
Social / Ritual
Ritual interaction in social circumstances among contacts and social circle.
Friendship / Warmth
In friendly relationships with some gender variations
Love / Intimacy
In emotional attachments and close relationships
Sexual / Arousal
Expressing sexual intent and in sexual relationships
In this context, touch has the potential to be interpreted differently in the work place, in social interactions and in intimate circumstances. While it can help emphasise empathy, friendship, affection, positive messaging and reinforcement it can also be subject to altered meaning, harassment and discomfort.
Touch is also highly culture sensitive- some cultures have a higher touch quotient in their interpersonal communication while in others it is reserved more towards friendship and intimacy. Touch can also be gender specific in some cultures, a handshake may be considered inappropriate in cross gender contact in Middle Eastern and Far Eastern cultures. Touching someone's head while acceptable in some, may be insulting in some Eastern cultures.
When used appropriately touch can convey support, appreciation and affection.
These are called Positive Affect Touches in a classification by Jones and Yarborough.
Touch is highly culture sensitive - some cultures have a higher touch quotient in their interpersonal communication while in others it is reserved more towards friendship and intimacy.
The concept of 'personal space' is now well established. In most western cultures there are clear parameters of what constitutes 'personal space' and this is learnt through implicit understanding. While the rules aren't explicitly stated, discomfort is expressed when personal space is invaded and perceived as an 'invasion'.
Cultures may view and display the distances during interactions differently. Depending on the cultural context what is a perfectly acceptable social distance in a linear culture may be viewed cold and distant in others. While the distance maintained some friendly and accommodating cultures maybe viewed as 'invasion of personal space' by a more linear culture.
The study of use of time in interpersonal communication is called Chronemics. The perception of time is viewed differently across cultures. There are two distinct variations in the perception of time and its influence in interpersonal communication.
Monochronic cultures ( largely British, German, American) rely on the clockface and the precision of scheduling, arranging and perceive concepts of punctuality and precision as dependable, trustworthy and organisation. This is viewed as stemming from the shadow of the industrial revolution where productivity depended on precision, tight rotas and scheduling. Time is viewed as a precious resource not to be wasted. Punctuality is valued highly the the scheduling standards are scared.
Polychronic cultures ( Latin American, Many Asian , Some European cultures) view time in a less precise manner and focus on task outcomes, the productivity of relationships and focus less on the precision of time. The clockface is less sacred - they have no problem is lateness and multitasking, changing priorities and may schedule multiple appointments.
Each culture may view the other as obsessive or lackadaisical, pedantic or imprecise based on how they perceive their chronemic behaviour. This can lead to misunderstanding and assumptions. Awareness and adapting to the other cultures chronemic perception is key to avoiding miscommunication.
Here is how monochronic and polychronic people may differ:
Cultures include Germany, Switzerland, UK, Canada, Scandinavia, USA, Japan, South Korea
Cultures include India, Pakistan, China, Spain, Mexico, Egypt, Philllipines and parts of Africa
Committed to one thing at a time
May Commit to multiple things, and schedule more than one appointment at the same time
Focus and concentration are valued high
Distractible, and interruptions are a way of life
Focus on time commitments and scheduling seriously and less on objectives
Value achievements, objectives and less focus on time
Religious adherence to plans and schedules even at the cost of relationships
May change plans and schedules based on relationships and objectives
Rules of privacy followed, interruptions are forwned upon
Rules of relationships where interruptions are allowed
Promptness is valued more than task accomplishment
Promptness is implied by the value of the relationship and subsequent tasks
Accustomed to short term relationships
Invest in long term relationships and value longevity in social links
It is important to understand that that while both cultures can be successful in achieving their tasks and objectives- the way they go about in doing this differ vastly. The monochronic culture may alienate a polychronic person by being too precise on time and schedules at the cost of relationships and social values. While the polychronic person may imply lack of commitment and imprecision due to less emphasis on punctuality to a monochronic individual.
A polychronic person may lack punctuality but can be highly productive in developing relationships and 'getting things done'. they develop long term contacts, work around problems and can go out of their way to help.
A monochronic person can bring precision, organisation and promptness to decision making. But may equally focus too much on the 'time' element and miss nuances of relationships, social lubricants and accomplishing objectives that seem insurmountable.
It is important to understand that that while both monochronic and polychronic cultures can be successful in achieving their tasks and objectives- the way they go about in doing this differ vastly.
The study of the non verbal elements of speech is called paralinguistics. Speech requires voice and voice has its characteristics such as tone, pitch, rhythm and modulation. The way we speak out words can covey different meanings. Elements of empathy, irony, sarcasm, anger, urgency, frustration, encouragement and endearment can all be expressed by para language where the words themselves, spoken free of any such nuances, may fail to convey.
Paralanguage conveys emotions and attitudes. While attitudes may be conveyed intentionally, emotions tend to arrive subconsciously. However, self aware speakers may control such emotional expressions to an extent that they may make/fake an emotion where none exist.
The Cross cultural aspects of paralanguage become apparent when the speaker tries to convey a message in another language but using the pitch, tone, rhythm and pacing of their native tongue.
Elements of Paralanguage
Rising, falling or flatness of voice
Fast, slow or changing pace
Loud, soft or breathy
Nasal, whiny, growly, harsh etc.
high, medium or low
Absence or presence of pauses, organsied pauses or disorganised pauses.
The Cross cultural aspects of paralanguage become apparent when the speaker tries to convey a message in another language but using the pitch, tone, rhythm and pacing of their native tongue.
Where loudness in one language may convey enthusiasm and accentuation in another language/culture may mean rudeness or brusqueness.
While certain western cultures provide audible clues ( uh huh, yes) to encourage a speaker in a conversation, Certain eastern cultures may be silent and frozen as a mark of respect. this can lead to communication issues and confusion.
Utterances such as sighs, gasps and emotional 'noises' such as 'aww' and ' oh' may be absent in one culture while present in another.
Some may express excitement by speaking rapidly while in others it may be a sign of nervousness.
Lack of awareness of paralinguistic cues may lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation in cross cultural communication.
Many resources include postures in kinesics. It seemed strange to use the word kinesics to indicate postural aspects of body language. Kinesics by definition indicates movement. But how about the static posture while sitting, standing, listening, speaking - such as leaning forward, leaning backward, slouching, crossing arms, standing with legs akimbo, militaristic postures where the static posture conveys much meaning to the persons mood, intention, emotion and authority.
I think we should call these poses 'Statics'.
Statics are situation dependant. A posture that conveys one meaning in a situation can convey a completely different one in another. Sitting with arms crossed may mean 'closed' and 'defensive' mood while in another context may indicate 'subservience' and 'listening'.
Congruence and mirroring of posture shows alignment of communication. While nervousness, distraction and misalignment are shown by lack of mirroring.
Anyone who has agonised over what colour clothes to wear for an occasion will know that colour can communicate fun and vibrancy, calmness and assurance, earthiness and joy, sadness and sobriety.
Use of a certain colour will convey an intentional or unintentional non verbal message. It may signal intention and rebellion, coolness and seduction, suaveness and sophistication or boredom and brevity.
The aspects of colour in communication may also have cross cultural connotations. Being aware of taboo colours in social occasions when visiting other cultures and events is important to avoid social faux-pas.
For example the colour mourning is black in most western cultures whereas in many asian cultures white is the colour of bereavement and mourning.
In China writing someone's name in red ink means that they have dies or have left your life. However it is also customary to give gifts in a red envelope in China.
The colour green is often associated with wealth or nature in many cultures, however in Romania green eyes are seen as a colour deception, it is also used as to describe envy or sickness in some cultures.
An awareness of 'Chromics' is important in non verbal communication.
Nonverbal communication assessment Tool
The Ladder of Inference
By now we will realise that our worldview of 'normal' communication is very much a result of our own cultural upbringing and experiences. We are likely to misinterpret and misunderstand nuances of non verbal communication. This can have far reaching consequences in assessments, observations, decisions and inferences in a seemingly straightforward interaction between two cultures.
Organisational psychologist Chris Argyris postulated a theory of how we draw conclusions from our observed reality and facts and make decisions and actions. He called this the 'Ladder of Inference'.
This high speed decision making and deduction may help in situations where our observed reality is aligned and fast tracked through our previous assessments and experiences. This 'instinctive' decision making helps us to speed up our actions.
However, such high speed inferencing has got consequences where our 'observed reality' is interfered with our belief systems.
For example if we have preconception that a certain person is not punctual ( based on an event or hearsay) , we selectively look for the times when they are late, ignoring the times they may be early. Once we selectively seek these circumstances, we perpetuate our perception further and 'confirm' our belief that they are 'never on time'. This perception bias will lead to unfair assessments.
When faced with a situation where reality and facts are put before us, we select 'our reality' to observe. We then seek to interpret that selected reality as our interpreted reality. This then leads to application of our assumptions even without considering alternatives. We then draw conclusions based on our interpreted reality and our assumptions. We go onto draw conclusions based on these, and the conclusions lead to our actions.
The world is full of these assumptions and conclusions. Age bias, racial bias, interpersonal bias all stem from bypassing the ladder of inference and being stuck in 'recursive loops'. The ladder of inference may save our lives by quickening up a conclusion such as observing that the bus speeding out of control may run us over, ensuring we jump out of its way. But a process that may save our life in high danger situations may lead us to wrong conclusions in another scenario.
As we have seen from the variables in non verbal communication- if we are filtering other peoples actions through our beliefs of what a non verbal gesture means in our context, we may make assumptions and bad judgements.
The world is full of these assumptions and conclusions. Age bias, racial bias, interpersonal bias all stem from bypassing the ladder of inference and being stuck in 'recursive loops' where our beliefs lead to how we select the reality we wish to see.
How to avoid wrong conclusions?
The key steps to avoid wrong assumptions is to :
(a) Expand your ability to understand gestures, actions and speech patterns in a cross cultural context
(b) Questions your existing assumptions and beliefs - make sure you are open minded and knowledgeable of variations in how people communicate
(c) Seek contrary data - if your assumptions of making you select a specific set of reality, try to look for counter examples. If you think someone is coming late, look for how often they come on time, or early.
(d) Be aware of nuances in non verbal communications both to help you understand the true reality and to help you avoid misunderstanding
(e) When describing reality or behaviour of another- stick to the facts - if someone was loud, don't describe it as ' he was rude' or 'she was angry' these are filtered through your assumptions - by doing this helps us to understand whether that person was loud from enthusiasm, frustration, fear or anger.
(f) Be aware of multiple realities - our reality may not be the same as someone elses. Don't short circuit your ladder of inference, pay focused attention to the rungs.
There are good communicators and there are those who could do better. Rather than a natural trait, good communication is a learnable skill. Many communication skills teaching focus on words and phrases. As we can see from here, we ignore the non verbal communication elements at our peril.
Being aware of the variety of non verbal aspects helps us communicate better, understand others better and avoid making assumptions in our assessments.