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“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” -Henry David Thoreau

We can learn so much about people by tuning into their body language. Through the use of non-verbal signals, body language significantly impacts how we communicate. It includes gestures, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, attention, tone of voice and rate of speech. It can vary greatly between individuals and between different cultures.

Non-verbal cues can often reveal more than the spoken word

World news reports continuously remind us that observing non-verbal behaviors of others can aid in spotting, and even preventing acts of terrorism. In our everyday encounters, increasing our awareness of the signs and meaning of body language will help us to better understand, empathize and connect with other people. We can also become more aware of our own body language in order to express ourselves more effectively.

If words are the voice of the soul then our body language can be thought of as the vehicle for echoing, supporting, demonstrating and clarifying that voice.

Observing Non-Verbal Communication

Every gesture, facial expression and body movement has the potential to communicate something important. “That is,” as my social psychology professor once said, “If we are willing to listen with our eyes.”

Non-verbal cues can often reveal more than the spoken word. If we receive a written reply that says, “I’m just thrilled to hear that” we may be compelled to take this statement at face value. We might assume that the sender’s words match the positive sentiment expressed. But when we are face to face with the person uttering these same words, their body language could convey a drastically different message.

For example, when this same phrase is said with wide-open eyes, a spontaneous smile, followed by a warm hug, we would instantly understand the joy being expressed. On the other hand, if this phrase is said with a shouted emphasis on the word “thrilled,” accompanied by a sneering facial expression, arms thrown up in a despairing gesture, and a dismissive shake of the head, the intent is recognized immediately as angry and sarcastic.

Understanding the words people speak is contingent on the ability to observe and decipher the non-verbal messages that accompany those words. When there are no words, body language becomes a primary and critical means for sending and receiving vital communications.

Observing Facial Expressions

Anthropologists believe that the body language used to convey danger, dislike or aggression has always been the key to human survival, long before we developed the ability to talk. They hypothesize that our ancient ancestors learned how to communicate a state of emergency, feelings of disapproval and negativity through the use of facial expressions.

In his book, Emotion in the Human Face, researcher and psychologist, Paul Ekman wrote, “The complexity of the face is apparent when we consider its sending capacity, the information it can convey, and its pivotal role in social life.” Through his ground-breaking research he observed that facial expressions used to communicate fear, anger, sadness and happiness are similar throughout the world. He found that, in many cases, cultural differences dissolve in the universality of how body language is expressed.

In a study published in the journal, Cognitionresearchers from Ohio State and Purdue Universities identified a single, universal facial expression that is interpreted the same way across many cultures. They refer to this expression as the ‘Not Face’ because it conveys the negative sentiment, “I do not agree.” It consists of a furrowed brow, pressed lips, and raised chin that combine to indicate discontent, disgust or anger.

The study subjects included 158 Ohio State students divided into four different groups. The groups consisted of native speakers of English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language. They sat each student in front of a digital camera. The students were filmed and photographed as they carried on casual conversation in their native language with the person behind the camera. They were then asked, “A study shows that tuition should increase 30 percent. What do you think?”

Through complex computer algorithms they reviewed thousands of images, frame by frame, to find commonalities among the responses. The researchers found commonality in all four groups. The subjects exhibited the very same negative facial expression as the muscles in their faces responded in exactly the same ‘Not Face’ way. Regardless of the language spoken, the study validated the powerful similarities we share when expressing the universal body language of the face. Recognizing the existence of this shared blueprint of facial expressions can boost our confidence in developing the ability to better understand and interpret the body language of others. Focusing on our similarities instead of our differences can pave the way for greater communication and acceptance.

We can also learn to stay open to the feedback of trusted others when they attempt to call our attention to and question “That look I see on your face.” Provided we can respond non-defensively to their inquiry as an invitation for further exploration rather than taking it as a criticism or accusation, their observation can open the door for further discussion and sharing. The face is not just a reactive display system. It can function as a demonstrative window encouraging us to look more deeply and compassionately into what matters most to us and to every person we encounter.

Observing Gestures

How we hold and move our bodies is an important part of body language. How we respond to gestures can unite us or divide us. Crossing the legs, while keeping the arms crossed and close to the body may signal feelings of self-protection and defensiveness. It could also signal that the room is too cold or that one is sitting in an uncomfortable chair with no armrests. Expanding the arms widely in commanding gestures can be perceived as an attempt to appear welcoming, powerful or demanding of attention. A clenched fist can be indicative of anger or solidarity.

Americans consider the OK hand sign (touching the thumb and index finger together while extending the other three fingers) to be a positive gesture. But this same gesture has different translations around the world. Deciphering how it may be perceived differently depending on the culture is the key to fostering more understanding and connection. It can mean, “okay” or it can mean zero. In several countries in South America, it’s taken as an offending slur.

In her book, You Say More Than You Think, Janine Driver wrote, “We call these gestures emblems. Often they can be specific to a particular culture. It’s not enough for us to understand and respect these emblems. We need to accept them if we want to succeed in international relationships.”

Posture can convey a wealth of information. When we sit up straight, we indicate that we are focused and paying attention. When we sit hunched over or turned away in a slouching manner our body language can convey an attitude of boredom or indifference. When shoulders are pulled back and the chest is lifted, one appears open and friendly. A contracted-in posture can send messages of anxiety, fear or even hostility.

In her book, PresenceHarvard professor, Amy Cuddy, cites the science behind the power of body language. She instructs, “Presence is the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential. It’s not a permanent mode of being. It’s a moment-to-moment phenomenon. Presence emerges when we feel personally powerful.” She explains that when we feel present in this manner, body language comprising facial expressions, postures and movements align, synchronize and focus. As a result, we feel harmony, inside and out. She suggests that we can make small tweaks in our body language to achieve this presence.

Cuddy has garnered millions of viewers with her 10 minute TED talk on Power Posing. She demonstrates that body language can be adjusted in simple ways for a short period of time in order to feel more powerful. When you feel powerful, she explains, you naturally adopt power poses. But you can also induce feelings of power by adopting power poses. Her research showed that two minutes in a high power pose (think Wonder Woman stance with arms on hips) simultaneously causes stress hormones to decrease and hormones of dominance to increase significantly. On the other hand, two minutes in an inferior or low power pose created the opposite effect. Cuddy was able to prove that consciously practicing power poses before giving a presentation, for example, can significantly improve one’s performance.

Honoring Personal Space

The term proxemics refers to the distance between people as they interact. In a new situation we may find it uncomfortable and alarming if someone approaches us too quickly, or stands too close to us. However, when watching a scary movie together, the opposite is usually true; we may choose to hold onto each other for dear life with not even a hair’s breadth between us!

The physical distance between individuals can communicate a great deal of non-verbal information. Renowned cultural anthropologist, Edward T. Hall is well known for his theory of social cohesion, which includes how we define personal space.

In his theory, Hall described 4 levels of social distance and what they can indicate.

  • Intimate Distance is 6 to 18 inches: This degree of physical distance usually indicates a close relationship. It can include forms of physical intimacy like hugging and touching.
  • Personal Distance is 1.5 to 4 feet: This level commonly occurs between people who are family members or close friends.
  • Social Distance is 4 to 12 feet: This amount of physical distance is found between acquaintances. With someone such as a neighbor, shortening the distance can feel comfortable. However, with a service person that you see infrequently, increasing the distance within this range may feel more appropriate.
  • Public Distance is 12 to 25 feet: This level is often used when speaking in a public forum or teaching situation.

Hall’s measurements of physical distance were never meant to be strict guidelines, but rather a studied observation of the effect of distance as a non-verbal indicator of communication. It’s always important to remember that the level of personal distance that is needed in order to feel comfortable varies from culture to culture.

North Americans are well known for a having a need for personal space. Generally speaking, the closer that one can stand to another while interacting indicates a greater degree of intimacy in the relationship. The utilization of physical space allows us to set appropriate boundaries with others. It’s important that the degree of physical distance accurately reflect how we are feeling emotionally. When we feel safe, the physical distance between others and ourselves decreases, softening our boundaries. However, when we feel self-protective due to confusion, doubt or mistrust, the physical distance will increase, strengthening our boundaries in order to ensure greater comfort and safety.

Observing, appreciating and honoring our own personal space as well as the personal space of others will foster more effective communication. This can lay the foundation for the possibility of expanded, respectful interaction and more meaningful connection.

The Intention to See

The late Peter F. Drucker, business philosopher, management expert and social commentator has been described as “The Founder of Modern Management”. He analyzed economics and society for more than 60 years. In his book, The Essential Druckerhe offers this compelling advice, “The most important thing in communication is to see and hear what isn’t being said.”

The degree to which our relationships can benefit from our observations of body language is less about aptitude and more about attitude. It is the sincere desire to understand another person that is the catalyst for increasing social and emotional intimacy. When our intention is fueled by our desire for greater connection, tuning in to body language can reflect our willingness to see with our eyes, but also with our hearts.

How has your own or someone else’s body language influenced your interactions?

Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

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