What is nonverbal communication? It is the messages sent, intentional or unintentional, without words—clothing, facial expressions, body language, etc. (Witt p. 57). All nonverbal communication is learned. How would we know to give someone a hug when someone looks sad or give a high five after scoring a goal? This form of communication varies across cultures (Witt p. 57). Did you know that the thumbs-up sign is considered rude in Australia and Iraq (Witt p. 57)? Good relationships consist of good communication—verbal and nonverbal. Nonverbal communication matters more than what people realize (Segal). They say, “Actions speak louder than words”. In this case, yes they do. If a person says that they that they will be at an engagement at a certain time then show up late, it sends the message, “This engagement is not important to me,” otherwise, she would have made the effort to be on time. If two people are having a conversation and one person says she is not angry, yet has a frown and furrowed eyebrows, she contradicts herself. The other person is then confused and mislead.
There are many forms of nonverbal communication: appearance, facial expressions, posture, gestures, eye contact, touch, and space.
We can send messages through our appearances. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” – unknown author. First impressions are important, not only what we say but also how we present ourselves. If I had a big job interview and showed up in sweat pants, torn shirt, and bedhead, the interviewer would probably be less inclined to hire me. Why? I sent the message that I did not care enough to clean up for an important meeting. What we feel on the inside is how we dress on the outside. Growing up in school I was always told, “dress for success.” As I am writing this I feel like a slob. I am wearing jean, running shoes and a sweatshirt. I have noticed that whenever I dress up, I feel all the more confident and presentable. This is also known as the dramaturgical approach that looks at social interaction as if we were all actors on stage. The “costumes” help actors get into character. Uniforms or work wear get employees into the respective role; props such as brief cases, cars, phones, or tools are all used to enhance our sense of role (Witt p. 78).
The appearances of our facial expressions provide a wealth of information. Facial expressions are universal—happiness, grief, fear, disgust, etc. (Segal). There are many ways of sending a message through an expression. Just the other day I told my sister a story that I found funny and I thought she would feel the same; but as I was telling her and chuckling along the way, her face portrayed the exact opposite—horrification. In the work force facial expressions can sometimes send more messages than words. If a person, we will call her Susie, represents an organization, she would want to send the message of friendliness and professionalism through her expressions. Let’s say that Susie is listening to a client. Despite her expression, she is interested in the topic; yet, she appears to be uninterested in what the client has to say by her blank expression. This not only reflects poorly on her, but the company too. (“Personal Appearance”). In this video, we can see how thoughts and emotions toward co-workers can be expressed through facial expressions. The Office: Faces of Jim
We do not have to read a peoples’ facial expressions to sense what they feel; people can communicate through posture. Have you ever felt angry in a situation? If so, how did you stand or sit? Most likely you had your arms or legs crossed. Defensive postures have been interpreted as such (Cherry). The other day I came to Biggby to work on this blog. There was a couple sitting at a table across from me and I couldn’t help but notice that the man had good nonverbal communication skills. He sat across from the woman with his feet flat on the floor, crossed hands on his lap, maintained eye contact, and nodded affirmations. He seemed to be interested in what she was saying.
This picture portrays communication through posture. The woman is turned away from the man in the background with the wide stance. What do you think she is expressing? Sadness? Prejudice? What do you think the man is portraying? Danger? Anger?
With posture comes proximity. Proximity is one of those universally known facts, but never discussed. Typically, if we are unacquainted with someone, we stand at a comfortable distance; between 18 inches to four feet spaced apart (Cherry). The better we know someone, the more comfortable we are around him or her; in other words, standing closer to someone is a way to communicate a close relationship without verbal communication. Have you ever entered an elevator with one other person, whom you do not know, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him? Probably not.
Our values dictate our codes of conduct. Our values—what we truly believe—become apparent through our actions (in other words, nonverbal communication). For example, if I truly valued a friend I would show her interest in a conversation. I try to avoid yawning, make eye contact, and affirm her through nods. Have you ever talked to someone who seemed uninterested in what you were saying? I have. It’s annoying, isn’t it? Values are the expression of what we believe, but Norms are the guidelines of our actions. Every society has a set of social norms. For example, “respect elders,” “Do not murder,” “Sharing is good,” etc. Social norms must be expected from every member of society in order for the norm to function. When we go to class we are not told what to do, yet every student sits down and waits quietly for the professor to begin the lecture. Another example is the movie theater. When we go to a movie, we expect viewers to be silent and to sit in the seats provided. Let’s say that you go to a movie theater and you wait quietly for the movie to begin. Then, an old man with large round glasses and white wiry hair enters and begins to shout and cartwheel. How would you react? Others would probably give him weird looks; bold people would maybe try to correct him. He broke the norm. The old man deviated away from expected actions. The movie theater norm is a folkway. Folkways are a set of norms that guide everyday expectations; if broken, the deviant is not severely punished. On the other side of the spectrum are mores. Mores are the social expectations that must be rigidly upheld in order to maintain societal order. The violators are severely punished. If the old man who cartwheeled in the theater were to pull a weapon on the crowd, the United States law would punish him. On the other hand, formal norms are written down, but violators are punished by the state. For example, many restaurants have the, “no shirt, no shoes, no service” rule. The United States government wouldn’t punish the violator; he or she would simply be turned away from the restaurant. Informal norms are those understood rules but never discussed or taught. I subconsciously sat with my back to the person sitting across a table from me at Biggby. It is not considered normal to face a stranger and make eye contact with he or she. No one ever taught me this, nor have I ever discussed with anyone how to act in a coffee shop. (Witt p. 59-60)
So what happens if nonverbal communication goes wrong? When nonverbal communication goes wrong it can be interpreted as deviance, such as the old man mentioned above. For example, I remember the first time I spoke with my friend’s mother. She stood very close and put her hand on my shoulder and did not break eye contact. It was less than comfortable. Another example is Ben. Ben is an articulate speaker; however, if you were to ask his colleagues they would say he is forceful and unapproachable. Ben speaks with his arms crossed, wide stance, and chin up. In meetings, while everyone is seated he chooses so stand and pace. While he may not intend to exude force, everyone reads it as such. (Segal).
Nonverbal communication can also act as a “saving-face” ploy, also known as impression management. In Japan, if the “company man”, or the breadwinner of the family, loses his job he continues to rise early, get dressed and head off to the working sector of the city. Instead, he goes to the library or other places to pass the time until he returns home at the usual time. He may do this to maintain the appearance of a workingman. He may be too ashamed to admit to his family that he lost his job (Witt p. 78-79). People do this more subtlety than realized. If embarrassed in front of friends or a crowd, a person may roll his eyes and shake his head. We can see this frequently in sports. If a goalkeeper fails to save a goal, the keeper shakes his head, places hands on top of his head or covers his face.
Can nonverbal communication skills be improved? Of course! There are many simple solutions. When you are in a conversation, maintain eye contact. This doesn’t mean never break eye contact-that would be unusual. Dress in a presentable way; others will be more prone to treat you in a respectable manner. When addressing a crowd or public speaking, do not look at the ground or mutter. Speak up and look them in the eyes. These are just a few simple tactics to improve nonverbal communication skills.
Cherry, Kendra. “Types of Nonverbal Communication.” About.com: Psychology. About.com, 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
Segal, Jeanne, Melinda Smith, Greg Boose, and Jaelline Jaffee. “Nonverbal Communication: Improving Your Nonverbal Skills and Reading Body Language.” Helpguide.org. N.p., Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
“Personal Appearance.” SkillsYouNeed.co.uk. N.p., 2011-2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
Witt, Jon. Soc. Ed. Gina Boedeker. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.
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