“Actions speak louder than words.”
Everyone has heard that expression before. But have you really thought about what it means? According to research, approximately 80-90 percent of the meaning of a message lies in the nonverbal part of it. That’s why it is so important to communication, and even more vital to understand the nature of it.
But are you actually aware of your own body language? And how good are you at reading other people’s body language? In this blog, I want talk about five little-known facts about nonverbal communication that you might not know:
1. It’s culturally bound — mostly.
The only nonverbal behaviors that are universal throughout the world are facial expressions — the expressions of anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise and fear are basic to all humans. However, the rest of them are specific to certain cultures.
In the United States, eye contact is considered respectful. Parents tell their children to look at them when they speak because it is a sign that someone is paying attention to them. However, in some Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, eye contact is to be avoided because it might signal an inappropriate romantic interest — or it may be just plain inappropriate in a social interactions.
Moreover, certain hand signals mean different things in different cultures. For example, my sister used to travel to India a lot for business. At the time, her boss was a very enthusiastic fellow, and he always wanted people to give him a “thumbs up” sign at the end of every meeting. One day, during a video conference with people from India, he told everyone (including the Indians) to give a thumbs up. So of course, all the Americans put up their thumbs, but the Indians just stared with blank looks on their faces, seeming confused. But then the boss encouraged the Indians to give the thumbs up again, and so they slowly and reluctantly did. As it turns out, my sister later learned that in India, that is the same as giving the middle finger in the United States. Whoops.
2. The ability to read body language is related to emotional/social intelligence.
I have always been the kind of person who is very self-aware and is able to read people very well. Because of that, I used to be confused when some people couldn’t do that. As I progressed with my education, I realized that the ability to read language is linked to emotional intelligence (EQ). Therefore, for people like me, it comes easy. However, on the other end of the spectrum, many people with autism cannot read people’s nonverbals very well (luckily there are apps that help with that these days). Actually, there are many different kinds of intelligences. Some people can solve the Rubik’s cube with their eyes closed or solve calculus problems in their sleep (I’m not one of those people), but they can’t read people. It doesn’t make either type of person smarter than the other; they’re just different. So if reading body language comes easy to you, you might be frustrated with people who can’t do it well. But you probably should give them a break, because the chances are that they are not doing it on purpose. So you just need to be a more direct communicator.
3. Even experts can’t interpret body language effectively 100 percent of time.
Yes, there is a lot of research about the different meaning of nonverbal communication. And I’m sure you’ve seen the body language experts on TV who decode every little detail of a celebrity’s movement. While there may be some truth to what they say, it’s very likely that the experts are frequently wrong. For example, I look at my watch a lot. Most people would say that sends a message like “I don’t like being with this person, so I have to leave at my earliest convenience.” But that’s not true. I am just a very time-conscious person, so I have a weird habit of always checking my watch because I have a strong need to know what time it is. Therefore, body language is very ambiguous. I didn’t even know I checked my watch all the time until someone pointed it out to me.
4. It’s unconscious — for both the sender and receiver.
Just as I wasn’t aware that I was checking my watch all the time, most people are not usually aware of their nonverbal communication at all. Another example is the time when my sister kept making all these serious looking faces when I was speaking about something (we were doing some business together.) I kept thinking to myself, “Gosh, she HATES my ideas!” and “Why can’t she at least PRETEND to like my ideas.” So finally, I asked her, “Why do you keep making that face?!” And she said, “What face?” She had no idea she was doing it. But then she said that it was simply her “concentration face.” She was just very focused and so that’s why she was looking that way. But I thought it was a look of disapproval. Sometimes the receiver doesn’t even label someone else’s nonverbal as a specific meaning, but instead just get a feeling — either good or bad. Therefore, body language mostly occurs at the unconscious level of awareness because it’s difficult to control.
5. “Micro-expressions” are a better predictor of true feelings.
Micro-expressions are very brief facial expressions that last only a fraction of a second, and they are a sign of repressing or concealing an emotion. Normal expressions last from ½ a second to 4 seconds. An interesting study in the book Blinkby Malcolm Gladwell cites a lot of fascinating studies, and one of them examines micro-expressions of romantic couples on video. He had them talking about random things, such as their dog, a current event, or something that wouldn’t evoke negative interactions between the two of them. Then he looked at the interactions frame by frame to view each person’s micro-expressions. Just from looking at this information from their body language, he was able to predict which couples would last and which ones would break up, with about an 80 percent accuracy rate.
There are so many more amazing facts about body language, but these are just a few. Hopefully you can take this information and use it to benefit your relationships — and your life!