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Home Communication Body Language

Body Language in Communication

ABSTRACT: This article discusses body language in communication. Body language augments and enhances our verbal communication. The various eye movements, body postures and facial expressions that we use expand our capacity to express meaning. Whilst we all use these standard communication components in our encounters with others, it is evident that some people make greater use of them than others. You need only observe some of the more gregarious politicians to discover particularly fine examples of so-called dynamic non-verbal communication.

Body language

Non-oral and Non-verbal Communication

Human beings are able to communicate in a variety of ways other than by the use of spoken language. For example:

  • writing
  • semaphore
  • Morse code
  • British Sign Language
  • natural gestures
  • body posture
  • facial expression
  • cosmeye colouretic make-up

Whilst it is less likely that you will communicate by Morse code or semaphore it is, of course, more likely that you will make use of such things as natural gesture, body posture and facial expression.

Further, whilst all of the above examples are non-oral (i.e. they do not involve speech) they are not all examples of so-called non-verbal communication.

Consider the following spoken sequence of sounds:

“d – o – g”

This symbolises, amongst other things, “a member of the genus Canis (probably descended from the common wolf) that has been domesticated by man since prehistoric times” (WordNet).

Similarly, the following written sequence of letters symbolises the same thing:

DOG

Thus, both the sound sequence and the written sequence are symbols capable of directly substituting for verbal symbols (words) and conveying information. They are both, therefore, examples of verbal communication.

In contrast, neither a body posture (such as folding one’s arms across the chest) nor a cosmetic make up (such as eye shadow) are generally capable of substituting directly for words. For example, there is no systematic way in which a certain shade of rouge invariably signifies, for example, the word table, or happiness or quickly.

Body posture and cosmetic make up are, therefore, examples of non-verbal communication.

So, applying this reasoning to the non-oral examples listed above, we can separate them into two groups (1) verbal, and (2) non-verbal as follows:

verbal

non-verbal

writing

natural gestures

semaphore

body posture

Morse code

facial expression

sign language

cosmetic make-up


Example Non-oral Communication Components


Non-verbal communication components such as natural gestures, body posture, eye contact and facial expression are generally referred to as body language. Body language is particularly useful when communicating in face-to-face situations. It enhances our spoken communication (verbal communication) by signalling such things as our attention, whether we are bored, whether we intend to interrupt, and so on.


There are two broad divisions of non-verbal communication: (1) static, and (2) dynamic.

Static Non-verbal Communication

Static non-verbal communication components are those things that do not usually change during the course of an interaction: for example, clothes and hair colour. In themselves such things as clothes and hair colour do not necessarily convey particular meanings. However, we often associate meanings with these components based upon our cultural background, our biases and even our prejudices…

Are people with grey hair wise?

Are all people with red hair fiery?

Do gentlemen really prefer blondes?

Many of these associations are, clearly, cultural stereotypes. However, the point is that there is always the possibility that a static component such as hair colour can convey meaning, albeit unintentionally.

With respect to clothes we may be more ready to assert meanings. For example, many of us would contend that the way we dress ‘says something about me as an individual.’ Styles of dress are used by particular groups to express such things as group cohesion and an orientation towards authority. Consider the 1960s’ ‘hippies’, ‘punks’ of the 1970s and the ‘romantics’ of the 1980s.

Clothes are most readily seen to convey a sense of professional and/or institutional affiliation through uniforms. Examples of institutional identity marked by uniform are the police, nurses and footballers. The clothing conveys a meaning. Someone wearing a nurse’s uniform is likely to be viewed as an individual who would be willing to offer medical assistance. One wearing a police uniform is likely to be considered as one who will uphold the law, and so on.

Other static non-verbal communication components include the following:

  • hygiene (e.g. well groomed hair; unpleasant smelling breath)
  • eye colour
  • hair colour and length
  • face shape, shape and length of nose
  • skin colour and race
  • body shape and figure
  • gender
  • adornments (e.g. glasses; hearing aid)
  • cosmetic make up

Dynamic Non-verbal Communication

These are components that do change frequently during face-to-face interactions with others. Some of the more important are:

  • eye movement and direction of gaze
  • body movement
  • physical contact
  • facial expression
  • gesture

Eye movement and direction of gaze

There are large individual and cultural differences in the use of eye gaze. However, it is conventional to look at the person that one is talking to.

The use of eye gaze paces the interaction and people tend to look longer at the other person when listening as opposed to speaking.

The speaker makes brief eye contact with the listener whilst he or she is engaged in a stretch of talk. This serves to ‘hold the floor’, i.e. to signal to the listener that they are engaged in an extended unit of talk and that they are not yet ready to pass over the turn at talk to the current listener.

The listener, however, will be looking at the speaker much more consistently and thereby signalling that he or she is still attending to what is being said.

At the end of stretch of talk, the speaker may look up to make eye contact with the listener. This eye contact is held slightly longer and signals to the listener that the speaker has finished his or her stretch of talk and that the listener may now take up the talk.

In addition, we tend to look less at people if we dislike them, if the topic is difficult or embarrassing, or if we are lying.

Body movement and posture

As with many non-verbal communication components the use of body movements and posture may be conscious or unconscious.

You could probably provide an example of a sitting posture that signalled that an individual was withdrawn or upset. One might consider, for example, that a withdrawn individual may slump into the chair, arms folded across the chest, head lowered and shoulders raised, making little eye contact with others in the room. An upset individual may have a similar bodily posture but this may also be associated with facial grimacing and puckering of the lips, and small intermittent shrugging of the shoulders.

The point is that most of us have some idea of what different body postures and orientations can signal.

We can, therefore, exploit this knowledge. For example, in an interview situation, in order to appear keen and motivated, we may sit forward in the chair and even lean forward when answering questions. Much of our body movement, however, is unconscious in that we do not actively sit, stand or walk in particular ways in order to ‘send’ particular messages. We unconsciously adopt certain movements and positions which reflect our current moods, aspirations and needs.

The orientation of our body towards others is an important factor and indicates the nature of the encounter. For example, will the encounter be co operative or competitive? We are more likely to confront someone sitting opposite us than sitting to the side of us. We tend to sit to the side of people who need our support: consider how a teacher might assist one of their pupils or how a nurse might comfort a distraught patient or relative.

Orientation also indicates the relative status of each person and demarcates the limits of a group.

As well as how we orient our bodies towards others we also tend to stand or sit at particular distances from the people we are interacting with: this is known as proxemics. As a rule, extroverts tend to stand closer than introverts.

Again there is a wide cultural variation in the distances that different peoples approach each other. Persons in the United Kingdom, for example, generally prefer to stand further apart from each other when talking on a casual basis than do some persons from the Asian continent. For persons brought up in the United Kingdom the distances set out below typically apply.

Body posture
 
type of interactiondistance (cm)
intimate0 - 45
casual friends75 - 120
acquaintances120 - 150
public encounters300+
 
Interaction Type and Proximity

Physical contact

Once again, the cultural variation in the use of physical contact is great. For example, in casual interactions there tends to be much more physical contact between Mediterranean peoples than there is between persons from the United Kingdom. Physical contacts between the latter are rather limited and tend to be restricted to symbolic contacts such as shaking hands.

Gender and familiarity will also influence the nature of physical contact.

Typically, within the UK, physical contact between females is greater than between males. Any physical contact between males and females will be influenced by familiarity, the environment and the emotional bond between the pair.

Contacts outside the family are largely confined to the use of the hands and persons tend to contact only the other person’s hands, shoulders, arms and upper back. The site of physical contact, and the strength with which the contact is made, may be variously construed as aggressive, sexual, leading or dominating.

Facial expression

Facial expressions are used to signal a wide range of emotions and information. Such signals may be attained by singular movements of the eyebrows, eyes, mouth, forehead or any combination of these.

To illustrate the relationship between movement and the signalling of particular emotions consider the examples below and note how a small, sensitive movement of just one part of the face can signal a variety of emotions.

eyebrow movementemotion
high raiseddisbelief
half raisedsurprise
normal(neutral)
half lowpuzzled
full lowangry

Eyebrow Movement and Emotion

Gesture

As with most dynamic non-verbal communication components, gesture is culture-bound, i.e. the meaning of a physical gesture to one group of people may be completely different to the meaning of exactly the same gesture to another group of people.

Gestures are often thought of as being natural, in the sense that they do not follow any complex, formalised rules. They typically signal only a very limited vocabulary, e.g. yes, no, good, bad, happy.

Most people use some form of natural gesture when communicating with others. Gestures can expand and clarify the context of the talk and they are a way of providing visual punctuation to what is being said.

Dynamic non-verbal communication components that are not formalised into a system, where a particular movement means just one thing, are sometimes referred to as standard augmentative communication components

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