The Art of Non-Verbal Communication
Both what and how you say something goes beyond what physically comes out of your vocal folds. Non-verbal communication — known more colloquially as body language — provides a deeper, more subconscious level of communication that can actually make or break a person’s delivery, regardless of his or her speaking ability.
Non-verbal communication, which includes not only physical gestures but also eye contact, spatial recognition, and tone and volume of voice, comes from multiple disciplines, including neuroscience and psychology. It is so deeply ingrained in behavior that many people exhibit the most obvious gestures and recognize the most subtle signals without realizing it. First impressions are key because even the smallest nuance can result in a snap judgment. Often, a person will be able to tell if something is “off” almost immediately based on these small cues, without being able to conciously identify what exactly makes that detail not quite right. This phenomenon can be the decision-maker in many instances.
As a component of social interaction, body language plays a large part in everyone’s daily lives. A particular sensitivity has to be applied in cultural and professional applications. As globalization increases, an understanding of body language will be even more vital because of the necessary interaction on both cultural and professional levels. An understanding of non-verbal communication is imperative because the stakes are higher in business; a wrong move could mean the difference between deal and no deal.
Body language has a strong footing in culture, changing drastically according to region. Therefore, it is important to keep these differences in mind, particularly in a professional setting.
Danette Johnson, professor of communication studies at Ithaca College, said the “use of space, what’s an acceptable distance and eye contact” are all culturally derived. Johnson also said that, in any situation, it is important to keep in mind that body language is made up of several different parts, and “if you want to understand what people are communicating non-verbally, you can’t just look at one channel.”
Your mother was right when she told you that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.
Ithaca College freshman Sarah Browne studied in Spain her senior year of high school and even though it was a less formal setting than a business negotiation, many of the same aspects applied.
“People tended to use their hands and bodies to express themselves much more so than in the United States and other English-speaking countries,” she said. She adapted these habits while she was in Spain and explained that her parents noticed an increase in expression and vocal volume when Browne spoke to her host family while talking to her parents via Skype.
Many cultures exhibit similar non-verbal communication patterns, such as facial expressions. The differences such as formality, volume or spatial awareness, can create a discomfort that will hinder the proper communication. Even a mistake as simple as giving the “OK” hand gesture in Brazil, where it is the equivalent to giving “the finger,” can create a lot of unnecessary misunderstandings.
These skills need to be built early on, even as soon as one enters the work force, and the college’s career services are there to assist students in their professional endeavors. Caryanne Keenan, the assistant director of career services at Ithaca College, said that the program offers mock interviews that monitor both content and body language.
“It’s the majority of how people communicate,” Keenan said, explaining that the Career Services staff works with students and “goes through what each [type of body language] portrays to people.”
Keenan explained that body language and the registering of such is innate, but it comes easier to some people than others.
“Some people naturally have good interpersonal skills, and others have to be more conscious,” Keenan said. She added that many students “totally underestimate the power of eye contact and smiles,” which can ensure a positive connection by appearing friendly and approachable.
Body language is a key component to all communication whether you are in the United States or the United Arab Emirates, and awareness is key to portraying the proper meaning — wherever the discussions may be. Experts warn against using it too frivolously or excessively because it might detract from — or even contradict — what you intend to say, but for the most part, body language is a natural supplement to what is already being said.
After all, as Keenan said, everyone is “always projecting.”
Amanda Hutchinson is a freshman journalism major with a simple message: “Parlez-vous Français? Konichiwa, come and move-a my way.” Email her at ahutchi2[at]ithaca.edu.