Beyond Words

What You Don't Say Says a Lot
By Ariel L. Noble
Health & Home, Jul-Aug 2000 Issue

In a conversation, a very large portion of the meaning of what we say is communicated nonverbally. Nonverbal cues can send the wrong signal to the listeners.

At a dinner party held in their grandparents' home, Edward commented about his cousin Albert's new girlfriend. "So you're seeing Irene?" he said, breaking into a smile that had an air of a sneer in it. "They say she changes boyfriends as often as she changes her clothes. Better watch out, kid."

Feeling insulted, Albert retorted, "So what! Who asked your opinion anyway?" He unceremoniously dropped his plate and walked out, leaving a waft of animosity hanging in the air.

Since their verbal tussle, Albert has refused to see or talk to Edward. Perhaps all Edward wanted was to give his cousin a fair warning. Instead, he reaped rancor, and his supposedly fraternal advice was taken as malicious blabber.

What went wrong? Edward's intentions for warning Albert must have been, to say the least, noble. The most civil act that his cousin could have done was to keep cool and give him the benefit of the doubt. But what angered Albert wasn't entirely the message; the way Edward delivered it did him in. the advice wasn't bad - it was simply ill-timed and communicated badly.

At some point in time, you must have been in the same boat as Edward was. Unwittingly, you must have said something with a grimace or a leer, a slumping posture, a very piercing look that gave the wrong impression to others. As Norwegian dramatist and poet Henrik Ibsen aptly put it: "A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed." In conversations, the meanings we attach to the messages we receive, more often that not, depend on the sender's actions, no matter how inconspicuous or harmless these may seem.

It's How You Say It

What's in a message that could mean one thing other than what you had intended it to mean? A lot.

What we communicate consists of two parts: the verbal and the nonverbal. The verbal element pertains to the spoken part while the nonverbal portion refers to the silent cues that we either knowingly or unknowingly convey when we open our mouths to speak.

In their book, Communication Works, Teri Gamble and Michael Gamble used the phrase "nonverbal communication" to refer to "all kinds of human responses not expressed in words." Our gestures, our facial expressions, our eye movements, the way we stand, our distance from the other person - all these and more form part of our nonverbal cues.

Experts say that in a typical conversation between two people, "the verbal channel carries less than 35 percent of a message's social meaning." In other words, a very large proportion of the meaning of what we say is communicated nonverbally. Indeed, actions speak louder than words. We should therefore pay attention to the message we convey as well as the manner by which we convey it. Otherwise, we'd be misunderstood by others.

Forms of Nonverbal Communication

Authorities on the subject have classified nonverbal cues into several categories. Most common among these are kinesics, paralanguage, proxemics, and tactile communication.

Kinesics, popularly known as body motion or body language, includes gestures, body movements, facial expressions, eye movements, and stance or posture. Unfortunately, there are people who have trouble controlling their body movements during a conversation and suiting their gestures with their words. So they end up being accused of feelings they didn't feel, simply because their actions are incongruous with what they say.

Paralanguage, or voice, pertains to the vocal cues that accompany spoken language such as pitch (highness or lowness of the voice), rate (speed at which you talk), hesitations and pauses.

Proxemics is defined as "the use of space by human beings." Douglas Ehninger and others noted that it is "one of the most important but perhaps the least recognized aspects of nonverbal communication."

According to Gamble and Gamble, the term proxemics was coined by Edward Hall in his book The Hidden Dimension. The duo described it as the "space that exists between us as we talk and relate to each other as well as the way we organize the space around us in our homes, offices and communities."

How close we are to people during a conversation manifests the extent of our involvement and concern for them. Hall identifies four types of human distances: intimate (zero to 18 inches); personal (18 inches to four feet); social (four to 12 feet); and public (12 feet up to the limit of sight).

Tactile communication, or touch, is one of the most basic forms of human communication. Our use of touch when we communicate tells a lot about us - our status, attitudes, needs. It sends many meanings to the person we make contact with. Some respond quickly to touch. Depending on the degree of our intimacy to them, coddling, caressing, patting and smooching are some tactile strokes that we can do to comfort them, express our love, and show that we care for them.

Watch Out for Those Nonverbal Cues

Below are some pointers on nonverbal communication that you should keep in mind when engaged in human interaction.

1. Be careful with your body language. Learn to match your verbal message with appropriate head and hand gestures. Nod your head when you agree to or understand what the other person said. Touch him or her to show your sympathy, appreciation or understanding. Quirks and mannerisms, no matter how innocuous they are to you, can distract, intimidate or turn off the other person. Clenching your fists manifests anger. Snickering while somebody is saying something serious is rude. Tapping your feet, drumming your fingers, glancing frequently at your watch, or scratching the back of your head suggests irritation or impatience. Pointing your finger at a person to emphasize something is not only insulting but also demeaning. Control these as much as you can.

2. Watch out for the tone of your voice. Vary your tone when you speak. Speaking in a monotone will bore the other person. It's the surest way to lose your listener's attention. Adjust your tone to suit the message you are imparting. Too loud a voice suggests arrogance and aggressiveness, giving the impression that you want to dominate the conversation. Avoid mumbling, a very soft voice implies that you are timid, incommunicative, uninterested or guilty of something. Speak in a pleasantly audible voice. Don't talk too fast. Give the other party a chance to grasp the meaning of your speech and absorb your ideas. Radiate enthusiasm, sincerity and certainty in your talk.

3. Be aware of your facial expressions. Normally, our expressions correspond to what we say. There are times, however, when people misinterpret us because of the way we look when we talk. Among others, squinting your eyes, batting those eyelashes, smirking, frowning, raising your eyebrows, rolling your eyeballs, staring at nowhere, and yawning can be misconstrued as signs of impatience, boredom, contempt, doubt or annoyance even if they're not. Convey your interest to your listener by maintaining eye contact. Smile whenever he or she says something pleasant and favorable.

4. Mind your posture and position. Avoid crossing your arms or placing them on your hips. You risk being misconstrued as arrogant or imperious. Lean slightly forward to make the other person feel that you're listening intently to him or her. Stand straight, placing your weight equally on both legs. Don't stand too close for comfort to the person you are talking to (unless you are that intimate with each other). This can be interpreted as an aggressive stance. Don't stand too far away from him or her either. He or she might take this as a sign of evasion or indifference.

From now on, observe the way you converse with people and set out to correct those obtrusive nonverbal cues that get in the way of your efforts to be understood. Be conscious with what you say. But be very cautious with the way you say it. It could mean a lot to others whether you say a few words or a mouthful. Finally, keep these words in mind: "Kind words are like honey - sweet to the taste and good for your health" (Proverbs 16:24).

When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost. -- Billy Graham