Printer Friendly

Body language speaks: reading and responding more effectively to hidden communication.

In a weekly status meeting with an employee, the director of communication observed that the employee began to gesture as he talked about a report he was preparing. He seemed to be putting things into "boxes" as he outlined various pieces of research. As the manager looked closer, she noticed that some of the areas he was gesturing to appeared disconnected. She asked him if he was having trouble figuring out how pieces of the research were connected, and he replied with amazement: "Yes, I am. How did you know?"

A manager at a large company did not attend to the body language of a new sales representative she was hiring, and her oversight became a costly mistake. When the manager gave the candidate the offer, he showed a quick expression of surprise. Because she did not want to read too much into his expression, she ignored it. Once on the job, however, the new sales rep's body language conveyed that he was often defensive in his interactions with his manager. He kept distance between them when talking, he often did not face her directly, and some of his expressions showed that he did not like her. The new hire also turned out to be a manipulative employee who liked to create chaos between staff members in the office. Before long, he proved not to be qualified for the job, which is why he showed the quick expression of surprise at the time of the initial offer. Ultimately, the company fired the sales rep, but not before he created havoc and wasted the company's valuable time and money.


In this fast-paced world, the spoken and written word sometimes take center stage. It's possible to become so focused on what is being said that nonverbal communication--an equally important aspect of communication--is overlooked.

Research indicates that although people may strongly attend to what is said, nonverbal behavior may constitute two-thirds or more of total communication. And although people have the option not to speak, they can never be uncommunicative nonverbally. Nonverbal signals are a rich source of information, and one's own nonverbal behavior can be useful in responding to others, making stronger connections with clients and colleagues, and conveying certain impressions about oneself.

One common misconception is that specific behaviors indicate the same thought for all people. Unfortunately, nonverbal behavior is more complex. Using a framework is the most useful way to decode others, because a combination of behaviors tells a story. One such framework is PERCEIVE[TM], which stands for

* Proximity

* Expressions

* Relative Orientation

* Contact

* Eyes

* Individual Gestures

* Voice

* Existence of Adapters.

Each aspect of the framework contributes a piece of the puzzle. Proximity and relative orientation are the building blocks. Proximity is the distance between individuals. Generally, people sit, stand and want to be near those they like. Increased proximity is an indication of feelings of liking and interest.

Relative orientation is the degree to which people face one another. A parallel orientation indicates that one is interested in and focused on the other person. As people become less interested in and less focused on another person, they tend to angle their bodies away. A good way to decode orientation is to observe where a person's feet are placed. Often people will point their feet in the direction they truly want to go.

Expressions are observed on the face and can last as little as 1/15 of a second. These very brief expressions are called micro-expressions, and they occur when people are trying to hide a feeling. Interestingly, when people begin to experience an emotion, their facial muscles are triggered. If they suppress the expression, it's shown for only 1/15 of a second. If they do not suppress it, the expression will appear prominently. The six universal expressions that all cultures recognize are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust.

Contact refers to physical contact. Generally, the amount and frequency of physical contact demonstrate closeness, familiarity and degree of liking. A lot of touching indicates strong liking for another person.

Eyes primarily show whom or what people are most interested in or like. One can gauge liking and interest by the frequency, duration and total amount of time spent looking.

Individual gestures can indicate an image in a person's mind that is sometimes not communicated with spoken language. Some typical gestures are ones in which people indicate what refers to them and what refers to others (e.g., the hands come near the body or motion away), gestures that describe an emotion or experience (e.g., sobbing gesture or frenetic moving of the hands) or gestures that identify where objects are in relation to one another. Gestures can provide information about how things are organized in a person's mind. They can also reveal how people are feeling, People tend to gesture more when they are enthusiastic, excited and energized. People gesture less when they are demoralized, nervous or concerned about the impression they are making.

Voice, or speech, provides much information about the demographics of a speaker (e.g., gender, age, area of origin, social class). Voice can also reveal emotions, which are transmitted through the tone of the voice, accentuation of words, rapidity of speech and number of speech errors. Typically, speech errors indicate discomfort and anxiety, A person who begins to produce a lot of speech errors may be anxious and ill at ease.

Existence of Adapters is the last piece of PERCEIVE. Adapters are small behaviors that tend to occur when people are stressed or bored with a situation. Examples are playing with rings, twirling a pen or touching one's hair. As meetings extend, an increasing number of adapter behaviors tend to emerge among the people in the room.


Although many aspects of nonverbal communication are similar across cultures, there are some differences in degree and in the rules of expression. For example, although six facial expressions are universally recognized across all cultures, societies may have different rules about when they can and cannot be displayed.

Eye contact is another area in which cultural differences play out. For example, Arabs tend to make more eye contact than do North Americans. Africans, in contrast, are taught to avoid eye contact when another person of higher status is speaking.

The degree of physical proximity that occurs in normal conversation may be greater in some societies than in others. Physical contact also varies by culture. For example, people in Mediterranean and Latin countries have much more physical contact (e.g., full embraces between men) than do people in the United States and Britain, who tend to shake hands.

Another important point to remember is that gestures communicate a specific meaning in some countries but indicate nothing elsewhere. If one is reading the nonverbal behaviors of people from a less familiar culture, it is important to look for changes in a person's behaviors, particularly changes from the norm, and to learn the particular rules of expression for that society.

Each aspect of body language provides an overall picture of what the other person is experiencing. If a person has close proximity, positive expressions (including micro-expressions), a parallel relative orientation, physical contact that is appropriate for the situation, eye contact about half the time, a small to moderate amount of gesturing, voice behaviors that do not include speech errors or emotional leaks, and very few adapters, then this person likes and is interested in what the other person has to say. Not all of these behaviors may be present, but a preponderance of them will tell a story.


Reading people is tremendously important, but so is using one's own body language. Because nonverbal communication is not highly controlled, people can sometimes reveal their feelings without knowing it. Silent language can expose nervousness, anxiety, lack of interest, or dislike of another person. Using body language effectively means using nonverbal communication to present an image that is most effective for the situation.

One of the most common impressions that professionals want to convey is competence, or credibility. People appear most competent when they exhibit few speech errors, speak with slight rapidity (about 125 to 150 words per minute), face the listener directly, sustain eye contact about half of the time (do not look away while making a point), and assume an open and relaxed posture. These behaviors indicate that the speaker knows the subject and is confident and credible.

Another impression many people want to convey is likeability and dynamism. Persuasive communicators are often extremely likable because they are good at expressing their liking of others. Those who are dynamic are interesting to listen to and observe when they're talking. The elements of likeability and dynamism are relatively close proximity (between 2 and 6 feet), positive facial expressions and micro-expressions, leaning toward others, a parallel orientation, moderate physical contact (as appropriate for the situation), eye contact about half the time, a moderate amount of gesturing (particularly to help the listener understand), a voice that is relaxed, not nasal or monotonic but vocally animated, and the absence of adapters. All of these behaviors increase perceptions of likeability and dynamism.

There are many useful business applications for nonverbal communication. One can use it to read others, detect deception, discern underlying emotions, determine interest in one's product or service, or ascertain degree of liking from another person. One can also use body language to convey certain impressions. But the most effective use of nonverbal communication is to read others and to respond to what one sees.


* "Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction" Mark L. Knapp & Judith A. Hall. Thomson Learning, 2002.

* "Nonverbal Behavior in Interpersonal Relations" Virginia P. Richmond & James C. McCroskey. Allyn & Bacon, 2000.

* "The Nonverbal Communication Reader" (2nd ed.) Laura K. Guerrero, Joseph A. DeVito, & Michael L. Hecht. Waveland Press, 1999.

* "Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought" David McNeill. University of Chicago Press, 1992.

* The METT (Micro Expression Training Tool) CD-ROM provides training to recognize micro-expressions on others.

Anne Beall, Ph.D., is president of Beall Research & Training in Chicago, Ill., USA. She specializes in training people on how to read and use their nonverbal communication more effectively. She can be reached at
COPYRIGHT 2004 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Beall, Anne E.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Previous Article:Employee connection: Australian tax office leverages technology to build culture and community.
Next Article:Awareness to action: connecting employees to the bottom line.

Related Articles
Speaking as a career advancement strategy.
Good nonverbal communication skills can reduce stress.
Media training: boot camp for communicators.
"...But can they read and write?" (promoting literacy)
In a manner of speaking: it really is how you say it. (Inbox).
Communication tips for the job search and on the job. (Career Management).
Communication strategy: conquer the hurdles that are inhibiting dialogue with your employees.
Read my gestures: body language can trump facial expressions.
Ensuring clear communication.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters