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When we come in contact with other people, we always communicate. This can take place through using words, via our voice - spoken language - but also without, or alongside the use of words - non-spoken language or non-verbal communication. Posture and movements, our place in space, use of time and intonation when we speak are all part of this. Non-verbal communication is better known as body language. However it is more than just body language.
We always use body language! Looking at someone for example means something completely different than not looking at someone. Even our very presence conveys a message. In our contact with other people it is impossible not to communicate. Several investigators estimate that at least 70% of the communication between people takes place through body language and tone of voice. The best known theory is that of the American psychologist Mehrabian. He states that when it comes to expressing feelings:
If this is the case we express 93% of our feelings in a non-verbal way!
First of all it is good to realise that we do not talk continuously, but do give out signals continuously through body language when we are in someone else's company. Furthermore it is useful to look at the different levels on which we communicate. For the most part we communicate on the content as well as relational level at the same time. Specifically we express the content through words and the relation through body language.
Of course we are talking about something when we talk to other people. We want to make something clear to the other person about a particular subject. This is the content of the conversation. At content level we say, or portray, what the message is about. It is usually the easiest to convey the content of a message through spoken language or commonly understood gestures. Due to the fact that the meaning of words, figures or signals that we use have been agreed to unilaterally, its form of expression does not need to bear any resemblance with what is denoted. The word clock for example has nothing to do with time. To understand the other person you need to speak his language. When the words or signals that we use to communicate do not bear any resemblance with what it denotes, we call this digital language.
Content however is not the only thing that we convey through communication. Through our words we give signals that indicate how we view the other person as well as how he should interpret our message. At relational level we express how we relate to the receiver of the message and what the message means. For expressing feelings and relations, the aforementioned digital language is quite inadequate. It is not so easy for us to express only in words exactly what we mean. How we feel about the other person is even more difficult to make clear. Words for example can come across a lot tougher than they are meant to. To make our feelings and intentions clear, we therefore prefer an expressive language. Hereby what is being expressed can be recognised in the gesture or signal itself, without having to learn this or having to agree on it especially. For example pointing at your watch has something to do with time. Apart from seeing what time it is on a watch, we can use it to give a signal that can be understood by everyone, without having to agree on it. We call this analogue language.
Through communicating on a relational level, we can clarify the meaning of a message or even our relation with the other person. This can take place with or without words. In both cases this is called meta communication. Meta communication means communicating about the communication itself. However, talking about relations, mutual relations and feelings is often difficult for us. How do we find the right words to express what we feel, without hurting the other person's feelings? For this reason we often postpone criticising the other person and perhaps we also do not give enough compliments. However, we use meta communication through body language the whole day through and it is usually more effective as well - an angry look, a dismissal with the hand, a smile or a friendly pinch can often express more than a difficult evaluation conversation.
Body language is an easier way of expressing feelings than spoken language. For example you do not say to someone easily that you do not like him or her, but through body language you can show them clearly. So the (digital) spoken language is limited, which is why we need the (more analogue) body language so much in our communication. Almost all verbal communication is digital and practically all body language is analogue. Spoken language and body language go mostly hand in hand. When someone says something, information is conveyed through body language at the same time. This extra non-verbal information can support the content of the message or may contradict it. An example of the latter: a patient in the dentist's waiting room is rocking on his chair, but says he's not nervous. What do you believe? When someone contradict his words like this through his body language, his non-verbal message is almost always regarded as the most true because it is very difficult to lie through body language. Most people are not very aware of their body language. When someone is lying, we get the feeling that something is not right through his behaviour. For the most part we are inclined to rely on this feeling and not to believe him. So body language has a larger reliability value.
The fact that body language is granted such a high reliability value might be due to the fact that a lot of non-verbal behaviour is hereditary or is taught to everyone in the same way at a very young age. It is ingrained so to speak. This means
It could be that we have already noticed so many times that body language gives more of a hold-on than words, which makes us automatically doubt the words when they do not correspond to the non-verbal signals.
How you come across, is not only determined by the words you speak. Communication control is important, for example to leave a good impression behind after a job interview. Hereby attention for your own body language is also important. Body language often just leaves an unclear feeling behind with the receiver. For example: "I have the feeling that he likes me" or "I doubt his sincerity". It is not easy to express these feelings in words and the assumed meaning is not easy to prove. According to Oomkes the reason for this is the fact that digital and analogue language are processed in the left and right side of the brain respectively. The right side of the brain deals with the more instinctive processes among other things, which are coupled with the recognition of total images (the analogue language). Therefore the so-called intuitive recognition of another gesture, or behaviour pattern - the so-called subconscious understanding of the actions of another person - has nothing to do with a subject as unclear as intuition, according to Oomkes. Since the left side of the brain deals with the language of words and is less suitable for putting the images from the right side of the brain into words, it is very difficult for us to put in words the impressions of body behaviour of other people. Still we can learn to recognise and translate this non-verbal behaviour.
text: Frank van Marwijk.
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