Although there is no consensus about the exact definition of "nonverbal communication" among experts, it is generally regarded as any communication conveyed through body movements (the "body language") and the intonations and emphasis that are given to words (also called the "paralinguistics"). The term
"nonverbal Communication" may itself be relatively new but its importance has long been realized. Martin Luther, the 16th century protestant reformer, often advised his followers, "not to watch a person's mouth but his fists." (Quoted by Bull, 2001) Charles Darwin discovered commonalities in facial expressions among humans and animals in his 1872 study, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which is still read with interest among researchers. In the present day, nonverbal communication evokes the interest of a broad spectrum of academic disciplines including psychology, sociology, anthropology, communications, and linguistics, and has a similarly wide scope. Most research in the field of nonverbal communication, however, has focused more on the process rather than the skills aspect of the subject. In this paper about nonverbal communication skills, I shall discuss the following questions:
Why learn about nonverbal communication?
What are the challenges of interpreting nonverbal messages?
Why is it important to understand nonverbal communication code?
How does nonverbal communication help us improve our interpersonal communication skills?
Why Learn About Nonverbal Communication?
Although nonverbal communication is the first thing that a human being learns and practices, before he has learnt to use oral or written communication, its importance is often not fully recognized in human communication. This is despite the findings of a famous study carried out by Professor Albert Mehrabian of UCLA in the 1960s which indicated that people's attitudes and meanings are communicated more through body language and facial expression (55%) and through the way words are spoken -- also called paralinguistics (38%) than by the spoken word (only 7%). Even if the study exaggerates the importance of nonverbal communication somewhat, most experts now agree that it carries great importance in our everyday lives. Who can belittle the importance of a glance, a meaningful stare, a smile, a frown or a provocative body movement, especially if they involve the interaction between people of the opposite sex? Several common phrases in the English language too recognize the importance of non-verbal communication, e.g., "a picture is worth a thousand words" and "actions speak louder than words." Other body-oriented phrases such as "keeping one at arm's length," "giving someone the cold shoulder" or to "grit your teeth" are also indicative of the recognition that body language plays an important role in the communication process. (Trimby, 1988)
Just why we should learn about non-verbal communication should be obvious by now: knowing the principles of nonverbal communication can be extremely useful for us in our everyday lives and help us in communicating effectively with others and to understand people better. Possessing nonverbal skills help us in forging better relations in our personal lives and are instrumental in successful everyday social interaction.
In the business world, learning about the nuances of nonverbal communication is doubly important. For example, managers can better understand the behavior and feelings of their employees by observing their "body language" and non-verbal mannerisms than by simply listening to what they say. (Ibid.) Moreover, managers who are well-aware of the nonverbal communication techniques can use them to effectively communicate with their employees. It is for this reason that students of business communication are often taught to "listen with their eyes as well as their ears" and to refine and hone their ability to "listen" at a deeper level by closely observing the behavior of speakers.
It is a particularly difficult subject to study mainly because of the fact that at least some of the nonverbal communication may be unintentional or occur at a subconscious level. The development of sophisticated recording equipment in recent times, however, has made the study of the discipline easier as it is now possible to observe patterns of meaningful body movements through video and film recordings that are unobservable to the naked eye.
What are the Challenges of Interpreting Nonverbal Messages?
While it is important that we should learn about nonverbal communication, there are formidable challenges that face us in interpreting nonverbal messages accurately.
For example, some people may be sending a positive message "verbally" while their "non-verbal" gesture may be indicating a negative message could be confusing for the receiver who would have to decide whether to believe his ears or his eyes. For example, the boss may say that she is free to talk to you about a raise that you may have been seeking, but her nonverbal "signals" may indicate otherwise. A person who is intermittently glancing at his or her watch during a conversation indicates that he/she would rather end the conversation even though the verbal conversation may be indicating otherwise.
When learning about interpretations of non-verbal actions, one should be wary about interpretations that are too narrow and specific. It is often useful to look for more than one sign about a nonverbal message or to make certain that the non-verbal message that you are observing or interpreting is reinforced by a verbal message or some other facet of the nonverbal message before arriving at a definite conclusion.
Cultural differences also constitute a formidable barrier in interpreting nonverbal messages. A gesture or action which is generally perceived as a positive gesture in a certain culture may represent the complete opposite in another culture. For example, in some Asian and even European countries it is perfectly normal for business acquaintances to stand quite close to one another while conversing in a business situation. Such business-like distance would be viewed as "intimate" indicating sexual interest or aggressiveness in North America. (Robbins 2002) Another important culturally different aspect of a common non-verbal gesture is the appropriateness or otherwise of "eye contact." In most Western cultures, particularly the United States, making of eye contact is considered to be very important. Americans perceive people who do not make eye contact during conversation as evasive and untrustworthy; they are often considered to be hiding something. Most American business communication books recommend it as vital for success during interviews and during making of speeches or business presentations. Making direct eye contact in several Eastern and African cultures, on the other hand, is considered to be extremely rude and insulting -- especially if the people involved are different in status, power or age. Children in many Asian and Latin American cultures are taught to show respect to authority figures by avoiding to look into their eyes. Teachers in the U.S. classroom would probably consider such behavior by children as insolent or not paying attention. A smile, which is generally an expression of happiness or pleasure in most cultures may be used as a mask while dealing with an unpleasant situation in some Asian cultures. This may lead to completely misleading interpretation by those not familiar with the cultural difference. (Dunn, 1999)
Hand gestures too may send entirely different messages across different cultures. The "V" sign, for example, made with the index and middle fingers of one's hand with the palm outward represents "victory" in the U.S. And most other Western cultures. In other cultures it may mean just "two." If the gesture is made with the palm of the hand facing inwards, it may even be construed as a vile insult. Another common gesture in the United States -- "the thumbs up" sign -- which means "okay" is considered to be extremely obscene in Iran and is the approximate equivalent of "screw you." Interpreting nonverbal messages is, therefore, a culturally sensitive task that should be handled with care.
Why is it Important to Learn Nonverbal Communication Code?
Learning about the nonverbal communications "process" is different from learning nonverbal communications "skills." Traditionally, much of the research work on nonverbal communication remained focused on the structure of nonverbal communication (or the nonverbal communication process) rather than on the "skills" involved in the process. It was only in the late 1970s that Rosenthal and his colleagues carried out research in the "skills" approach to nonverbal communication. (Riggio 1992)
Encoding and decoding of non-verbal messages are two of the three basic dimensions of nonverbal communication. "Encoding" is the skill in sending the message, while "decoding" is the skill in receiving messages; the third is the skill in regulating or controlling nonverbal communication. Theses three, according to Riggio "constitute the basic building blocks of more complex nonverbal interaction skills." (Ibid.)
Another term for nonverbal encoding or sending skill is expressiveness. Encoding of expressiveness can be done trough facial expressions, eye movement, paralinguistic cues (i.e., the way in which something is said) and through body movement or posture.
The second basic nonverbal skill, i.e., the ability to decode nonverbal signals is also called sensitivity to nonverbal behavior. It is the skill in receiving and decoding the coded nonverbal cues of others.
Both these skills (the ability to encode and decode nonverbal messages) may be innate or can be…