Exploring Nonverbal Communication

Updated: Jul 25

Author: Kaz Shuji

“Actions speak louder than words.”

What exactly does this mean in the context of interpersonal communication? When we interact with others on a day-to-day basis, we are continuously giving and receiving wordless signals [1].

Nonverbal communication is a means of transmitting information through physical behaviour, expressions, gestures, postures, and mannerisms [1]. In fact, it comprises approximately 60 to 65 percent of all interpersonal communication [2]. It sends strong messages about how we feel in the moment and can either help build trust or offend and confuse others [1]. And yet, we seem to be much less aware of nonverbal communication compared to verbal communication, simply because we aren’t trained to do so.

Practicing nonverbal communication is critical for self-image [1]. As scientists, we may be asked to present data to a large crowd and convince other scientists of the significance of our findings. Medical doctors are constantly judged by how they appear to others and how they interact with their patients. As interviewees, the way we nonverbally communicate and present ourselves can make us stronger or weaker applicants. As interviewers, choosing the right person to hire requires not only judging what they say, but also how they portray themselves.

Examples of nonverbal communication [3]

So how do we look at nonverbal communication? It is important to keep in mind that we are not experts in the field and that there are thousands of nonverbal cues that are too subtle to make inferences about [4,5]. However, research in psychology has shown some of the more obvious cues that have unanimously become excellent examples of nonverbal communication.

The Legs

The legs are the most honest part of our body [4,5]. This is because, for millions of years, our legs functioned not only as of the primary means of locomotion, but also as an adaptation to environmental threats without the need for conscious thought, especially before shoes existed [5]. This adaptation has carried on today as a more subtle but extremely honest form of nonverbal communication [5]. Although there are hundreds of variations in leg behaviours, there are both common positive and negative behaviours worth mentioning.

Perhaps the most standard and “appropriate” leg behaviours to adopt include the parallel stance, where both feet are placed on the ground, and the leg cross [6]. Both seated positions display stable, neutral behaviours, and are very effective during any form of conversation [6].

John F. Kennedy (left) sitting with legs crossed; Richard Nixon (right) sitting in parallel stance [7]

Seated positions to avoid: interlocking the ankles and wrapping the ankles around the legs of the chair [6]. Studies have shown that these positions give off a higher sense of insecurity or anxiety [5]. When people feel uncomfortable, they may suddenly adopt these positions without even realizing [5]. Although these may be unavoidable in high-stress situations, the least you can do is to prevent them from becoming a natural habit.

Example of interlocking ankles [6]

Perhaps one of the worst seated positions to habituate to is splaying [5]. Although this may be comfortable on a couch in your home, bringing this behaviour to the workplace shows a lack of respect and should be avoided altogether [5]. Evolutionarily, it is a nonverbal display of territory and therefore it is natural for people around you to feel threatened by this behaviour [5].

Example of splaying [8]

Arms and Hands

Have you ever noticed when standing in line to order food or waiting for the elevator that many people have their arms crossed? During meetings, you may have also noticed people suddenly crossing their arms after a certain statement was made. This is a natural instinct when we feel uncertain, indecisive, or even annoyed and impatient [5]. Symbolically, both arms folded across the chest is an attempt to put a barrier between us and someone or something we don’t like [9]. Evolutionarily, this is a defensive mechanism to protect our chest, one of the most important parts of our body [9].

Example of crossed arms [8]

Alternatively, many people find comfort in putting their hands in their pockets when they are waiting in line or conversing with others. While it is natural for us to put our hands in our pockets when we don’t know where else to put them, how you place them can subtly alter your self-image. Those who put their thumbs in their pockets but let their fingers hang out on the side are viewed as significantly less confident and less comfortable than those who put their fingers in their pockets but let their thumbs hang out [10]. There is a reason why the saying “thumbs up” is known as a positive sign.

Example of thumbs out, which displays confidence and status [10]

While on the subject of hands and thumbs, speakers such as politicians are trained to use their hands to their advantage during speeches. Speakers who speak with open palm gestures or hands interlaced with thumbs up are seen as much more convincing and a better overall speaker than those who do not utilize hand movements or specifically hide their thumbs [5]. You may have noticed high-status individuals use steepling while addressing others and this is often associated with power and status [5].

Open palm gestures [11],

Steepling [12]

Thumbs up [13]

The Handshake

Handshakes can be used as an incredibly powerful nonverbal communicator that can give off strong first impressions without beginning any form of verbal conversation [5]. An example would be President Trump’s notorious yanking handshake.

There are dozens of different methods of handshake one can learn, and often high-status individuals or politicians use these to their advantage [5]. Examples include the glove handshake and the palm up handshake [6]. The former method uses the left hand to sandwich the receiver’s hand, trapping the receiver’s hand and making them seem helpless. The latter takes control of the receiver’s hand by twisting it so that their palm faces down while yours faces up. Remember, open palms are more powerful than closed [5, 6]. Of course, for me [KS] and you, there is no need to mimic these methods. A firm, symmetrical handshake is certainly enough [6]. However, be wary if someone attempts these aggressive handshakes.

Example of various forms of handshakes [6]

The Smile

Facial expressions can be an extremely challenging nonverbal cue to observe [5]. Some people are incredibly good at maintaining neutral facial expressions or masking their true feelings by faking positive facial expressions [5]. However, even though it is possible to trick other people, you simply cannot trick your brain [14].

For instance, what makes a genuine smile different from a fake one? The genuine smile, also known as the Duchenne smile, involves the voluntary contraction of the zygomatic major muscle and the involuntary contraction of the orbicularis oculi muscle, resulting in the raising of the corners of the mouth and the cheeks to produce crow’s feet around the eyes, respectively [14]. A fake smile involves the contraction of only the voluntary zygomatic major muscle [14]. Someone who is fake smiling simply cannot produce crow’s feet around the eyes no matter how big their smile is [14].

Example of a genuine smile (left) and a fake smile (right) [15]

The Eyes

The eyes never lie [5]. The release of dopamine during feelings of happiness can cause the pupils to dilate even if the person keeps those feelings to themselves [16]. This is another involuntary response that can be used in nonverbal communication [5]. Although it may seem difficult to observe a dilating pupil, it certainly is possible. When I [KS] first introduced my then-girlfriend at the time to my mother, she told me she already knew I had liked her for quite a while. When I asked her how she knew, she said “because your eyes would light up every time you spoke about her”.

Symbolically, we widen our eyes and dilate our pupils when we experience something we enjoy because more light can enter our eyes and hence, we can “see more of what we like” [5]. The opposite is true as well: when we experience something we dislike or feel troubled, our eyes tend to squint to block out the light or in other words, “see less of what we don’t like” [5]. Squinting can be as short as 1/8th of a second or much more obvious [5]. Regardless, it is practically an unavoidable instinct that can be an excellent example of nonverbal communication [5].

Example of eye squinting [17]

Another fascinating behaviour revolving around the eyes is our blink rate. Our blink rate increases dramatically when we are aroused, troubled, or nervous [5]. This is done to maintain attention, maximize the amount of information entering the nervous system, and is a product of the sympathetic nervous system [18]. Although we shouldn’t make a causative link between the blink rate and lying, if you notice someone suddenly blinking profusely to a question or statement that normally shouldn’t be stressful, chances are they feel uncomfortable about something that’s been said [5].

Eye-Contact

At this point, you may be wondering why I [KS] haven’t included eye contact as an obvious form of nonverbal communication. Many of our relationships begin with the moment our eyes meet [19]. It is a powerful event where two brains simultaneously process one another in a split moment [19]. As adults, locking eyes with another person immediately triggers an increased state of self-consciousness [19]. It is such an intense experience that studies show it consumes a significant amount of our energy, making it difficult to perform challenging tasks simultaneously [19]. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, looking away during a conversation is not a sign of insincerity [19]. Although consistently failing to maintain eye contact may indicate dishonesty, a sudden lack of eye contact for a brief moment may simply just mean that the person is trying to find the right words or make a tough decision [19]. On average, we are most comfortable with eye contact that lasts just over three seconds at a time [19]. Much shorter or much longer than this and it becomes uncomfortable [19].

Although eye contact is powerful, it is a poor nonverbal cue [20]

In Summary

When it comes to human behaviour, there are two universal forms of communication: verbal and nonverbal [5]. Strangely, we are significantly better at detecting emotions and behaviours through verbal communication while being much less aware of various forms of nonverbal communication [5]. The reality is, both verbal and nonverbal communication is crucial in understanding the complexity of human behaviour [5]. Fixing our bad habits can ultimately make us better communicators and can significantly merit us in basic conversation, important speeches, and formal interviews. Observing voluntary and involuntary nonverbal cues in other people that go beyond the simple observation of their choice of clothing and appropriate grooming is important in truly understanding the world around us in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Editors

Alison MacPhee, Rhea Verma

Designer

Web design by Majd Al-Aarg

Additional Credits

Cover photo provided by Shutterstock

References

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  17. Johner Images, Getty Images. Woman squinting [Internet image] [cited 2020 Oct 12]. Available: https://www.gettyimages.ca

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