For millions of years, our early ancestors ambled on this planet, effectively navigating a very dangerous world. They did so by communicating effectively with each other their needs, observations, and desires. Impressively, they achieved this through the use of nonverbal communications; more specifically body language. Through chemical scent (musk glands we still possess), physiological changes (flushed face), gestures (pointing hand), facial reactions (quizzical look), symbols (drawings of animals), personal markers (tattoos), even vocal noises (shrieks and grunts - are not verbal communication) they succeeded in a complex environment (Givens, 1998-2005). So much of this remains with us as part of our DNA and paleo (ancient) circuitry within our brains that we still primarily communicate nonverbally, not verbally (Knapp & Hall, 1997, 400-437).
Our limbs, our faces, our eyes, even our hearts are controlled, at all times, by our brain. We do nothing without our brain and when it comes to nonverbal communications, there is interaction between the mind and the corporal self. Because body language is intimately intertwined with our psyche (what is inside the brain) we can use our corporal behavior to decipher what is going on in our heads as far as comfort and discomfort, thoughts, feelings, and intentions. This in essence is what my book, “What Every Body is Saying” is about (Navarro 2008, 1-35; Ratey, 2001, 174).
When we explore nonverbal communications we must do so from the perspective that all communication is governed by the brain. And that the study of the brain, literally “psychology,” must be done with the widest context. That is, from the study of the brain as a complex organic entity: physiologically, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, and intra-psychically. It is from this perspective that we begin our analysis of the relationship between psychology and nonverbal behavior. As we look at the psychology of nonverbal communications, it is useful to invoke images of a neonate and its immediate needs, in order to realize just how psychology and nonverbal behavior (communication) are interwoven.
A child is born into this world shivering and crying, which prompts the mother to swathe the child in warm clothing to relieve the child from the cold. The child is therefore immediately satisfied of its need for warmth; innately, it has communicated its first message nonverbally (shivering, crying) quite effectively. From this initial need for warmth, we have a window into all future communication and interaction between the brain and the body, each elegantly choreographing and building a repertoire to insure survival through effective communication (Ratey, 2001, 181; Knapp & Hall, 1997, 51).
Crying and shivering are soon followed by thumb sucking, a behavior the child learns while still in the womb. This is a self serving behavior on the part of the brain eager to be tranquil and pacified. The brain, for reasons yet unknown, will engage the physical body (in this case the thumb) in its quest for tranquility, which the body will be more than willing to accommodate in order to maintain homeostasis (Navarro, 2008, 21-49). This action (thumb sucking), will take place thousands of times in the future to release pleasure inducing endorphins (opiate-like substances) in the brain (Panksepp, 1998, 26, 252, 272).
At the same time the child communicates to the observant mother that it is pleasantly occupied in oral bliss. As the child grows, it will develop other adaptive behaviors to pacify himself during stressful situations. Some will be obvious (e.g., gum chewing, pencil biting, lip touching) others not so obvious (e.g., playing with the hair, facial stroking, neck rubbing). And yet, they satisfy the same requirement of the brain; that is, for the body to do something which will stimulate nerves (releasing endorphins) so that the brain can be soothed (Panksepp, 1998, 272).
Progressively, the newborn will seek to find the mother’s nipple by awkwardly moving its head in the direction of the milk glands which it can accurately sense through very sensitive olfactory nerves in its nose. As the child begins to feed, rhythmically sucking the milk from the breast, the hands of the child instinctively press and massage the breast to assist in the process of lactation, as well as generating a sense of comfort and well-being on the part of the mother and the child.
This also begins the process of bonding between mother and child; what is often referred to as proto-socialization (the beginning of social harmony). It is both a physical (corporal) process and a psychological process (Givens, 2005, 121). Both parent and child receive great reward from the intimacy of breast-feeding, for as the child is fed, the mother begins to be rewarded for her efforts: milk is released, relieving pressure which builds within the mammary gland causing the release of oxytocin which soothes the mother as well as the child but more importantly helps them to bond.
Thus, the child begins to communicate its pleasure in being comforted by the mother, while at the same time, the mother begins to observe and decode every nuance of the child’s behavior. This time spent close together will help the mother and child to understand each other and to communicate more effectively. The mother soon learns the various cries (nonverbal communication) of the child reflecting hunger, cold, disgust, sickness, or sadness, essential for the child’s survival and well being. Likewise, the child (within as little as seventy two hours) begins to follow and observe its mother, mimicking facial behaviors, useful for developing facial muscles but more importantly for communicating needs and sentiments (Ratey, 2001, 330). Within days, if not hours of birth, we begin the process of communicating (crying, sighing, smiling,) our needs and sentiments. Eventually the child will be able to communicate more complex observations of the world around him.
As our behaviors are decoded and re-enforced both by parent and child, they each learn to interpersonally communicate more precisely with each other. Eventually, the child will respond to spoken words, even other languages. And yet, how words are spoken and delivered (tone, loudness, speed, sentiment, eye contact, posture) are even more significant than the words themselves (Knapp & Hall, 1997, 400-425; Givens, 2005, 85). The nonverbal component of speech, in essence the psychology of the message, will remain consciously and subconsciously significant to us the rest of our lives. From how words are delivered we will derive comfort, discomfort, or indifference.
From the warm intimacy of interacting with its mother, the child will also develop communication tools for socializing with others. The child, without benefit of a guidebook or directions, comes exquisitely equipped to communicate nonverbally its likes and dislikes. Sensing something it dislikes, the brain, without conscious thought (subconsciously) immediately constricts the pupils and turns the body away (ventral denial) from that which is perceived as negative (Navarro, 2008, 179).
These are very subtle behaviors which are part of our survival mechanism (limbic system). Thus, the brain, through the use of the body, transmits very precisely, its negative feelings and sentiments which family and friends will soon recognize (Knapp & Hall, 1997, 51). For example, when the child’s torso stiffens away from the dinner table and the feet turn towards the nearest exit, the mother will have no problem precisely identifying the culprit (child’s dislike for a particular food) and the message (I won’t eat it). These key discomfort displays reflect what is in the head without having to say one word.
Conversely, when the brain likes something, it will again subconsciously compel the child to communicate those sentiments. So, when the mother enters the child’s room in the early morning and looks in, the child’s eyes will open wide, the pupils dilate, facial muscles will relax (permitting a full smile), and the head will tilt, exposing the vulnerable neck (Givens, 2005, 63, 128). These “comfort” behaviors will be useful in the decades to come in developing and maintaining friends as well as to facilitate courtship, ensuring a new generation to propagate the species.
It is in many ways wonderful that our brain requires us to act physically on its behalf to express sentiments. Anger, sadness, fear, surprise, happiness, and disgust manifest nonverbally, are universally recognized and are essential so that we may be attended to even when we can’t speak (Ekman 1982, 1975, 2003). In fact, our brains are so resourceful that children who are born deaf and grow up together in the absence of adult instruction, will develop their own “sign” language in order to communicate complex thoughts with each other (Ratey, 2001, 262).
This interconnectedness between what is in the head and our nonverbal transmission of those sentiments, is not unique to us. All animals do this, principally to insure survival of the species. But our brains transmit a lot more information nonverbally than just emotions (supra). For example, when the brain is healthy and emotions are in check, the brain makes sure that we look well, healthy, and contented. When emotions or illness in the brain manifest (picture a homeless schizophrenic), our bodies and that of all animals reflect the malady through lack of grooming, poor posture, troubled countenance, or erratic-shunted behavior. All reflected nonverbally, demonstrative of this elegant interconnectedness between our mind and our body language.
From birth to death, our bodies form an important communication link with the brain. Not only for dealing with the immediate needs to maintain life, but also to communicate with the outside world. And while we have developed the unique ability to communicate extraordinarily precisely verbally as a result of our abundantly large brain, we still, after millions of years, communicate primarily nonverbally. Hardly anything transpires in our minds that is not reflected in our nonverbal communications. From emotions, to bodily needs, to dislikes, to illness, to status displays, to intentions, our bodies are exquisitely equipped to communicate on multiple levels. By carefully studying nonverbal behavior we gain great insight into that hidden dimension of our mind’s psychology.
For additional information see the below bibliography, www.jnforensics.com for a more comprehensive bibliography, or follow me on twitter: @navarrotells.
Ekman, Paul. 1982. Emotion in the human face. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ekman, Paul. 2003. Emotions Revealed: recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Times Books.
Ekman, Paul. 1975. Unmasking the Face. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Ekman, Paul & Maureen O’Sullivan. 1991. Who can catch a liar? American Psychologist, 46, 913-920.
Givens, David G. 2004. The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues. Spokane: Center for Nonverbal Studies (http://members.aol.com/nonverbal2/diction1.htm).
Givens, David. 1998-2005. Love signals: a practical field guide to the body language of courtship. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Knapp, Mark L. and Judith A. Hall. 1997. Nonverbal communication in human interaction, 3rd. Ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.
Panksepp, Jaak. 1998. Affective neuroscience: the foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Ratey, John J. 2001. A user’s guide to the brain: perception, attention, and the four theaters of the brain. New York: Pantheon Books.
Body Language Tips for Students
In today’s world and with the way communication has and is changing, it is indeed essential to acknowledge that language is not man’s only means of communication. People communicate differently and especially with their bodies. From simple hand gestures to facial expressions to even body language, people are able to let their feelings and emotions known. On some occasions, one can say that these are more important than verbal language. One researcher by the name of Albert Mehrabian even did a research on body language or nonverbal communication in the 60s. In his results, Mehrabian discovered that only 7% of man’s communication is verbal while 38% is preverbal and the remaining 55% is non-verbal. This simply means that it is essential that one understands which body language techniques to use to convey a message. It also affirms that by interpreting a person’s words, it is indeed difficult to understand or fully comprehend what a person intended.
The truth is that body language makes up what most of us use to communicate. That shrug of your shoulders or a roll of your eyes goes a long way in communicating or conveying a particular message. Compares to words, body language is indeed a more accurate basis for judging of meaning. Actions do indeed speak louder than words and unknowingly, you say much even when you do not open your mouth.
What is Body Language?
Body language is simply the use of gestures, facial expressions, and any other body signal or organ to communicate. One can also define it as a language without words or as many people refer to it, non-verbal communication. People use it all the time and the truth is it tells more or conveys a message more clearly than when people use words. People often think that they are aware of the signs and signals they give with their bodies. However, the truth is we give off more or communicate more with the unconscious signals we give than with the ones we often seem to be in control of.
Powerful Body Language Tips for College Students
It is indeed essential that people learn the right body language skills. For students especially, these skills will be of great help when one is employed or is trying to enter into the corporate world. Learning these skills is the first step to knowing how to communicate effectively. Additionally, it is also essential that you know which skills to use and at when to use them. Not all the skills can be used at all times. For example, while in a meeting, it is indeed essential that your body language exhume or show interest in what a person is trying to say. Your boss will indeed be furious with you if they are talking to you and your body language indicates or casts a figure of a disinterested person. Additionally, having the wrong body language can also be detrimental to your chances of landing that dream job. You may be tempted to think that learning body language is a waste of time. If you are the kind that believes your charm and bravado will earn you that dream job or internship, you need a change of heart because having the wrong body language will indeed hurt your chances. Body language skills may not be part of your syllabus but believe me, you need them as much as you need writing and speaking skills.
Therefore, you need to learn these skills now and here are some tips from our team:
- Avoid crossing your arms and legs. Everything you do often conveys a message and when you cross your arms and legs, there is indeed a message. When you cross your legs and arms you are often asking people to keep off or to find other people to talk to. In other words, you seem defensive and guarded and people unconcsioulsy register this as unwelcoming. Therefore, no one will talk to you.
- Ensure that you maintain eye contact. Eye contact is indeed important when you are conversing. When you look at your partner’s eyes, you are showing them that you are indeed interested in the conversation. Additionally, you need to nod as well and show that you in the conversation. However, you need not stare since it is considered rude. As you try and maintain eye contact, ensure that you avoid staring because it will come out as rude.
- Smile (this always works). Ensure that you smile during a conversation. Smiling however should not be with your mouth only but should also include your body. Fake smiles are always easily detected and as you can bear witness, people often approach the people who are smiling because they seem welcoming and ready for a conversation. Smiling makes you look comfortable and ready to converse.
- Avoid the temptation of pointing at people. Every day in your routine tasks, you will encounter a person engaged in a dialogue but still pointing a finger at their partner. While it is common knowledge that pointing fingers at people is rude and disrespectful, people still do it. Therefore, practice speaking or conversing with people without pointing fingers at them.
- Drooping shoulders and arms must also be avoided. Drooling your shoulders makes one look smaller and the message you will be sending here is that you are unsure of yourself. You need to make yourself big and noticeable because it is the only way people will respect you and see you relaxed and confident.
- Keep a comfortable distance with your conversation partner. While conversing, people often and unconsciously keep a distance. What many people do not know is that this distance is key to having a good conversation. If you are too close to your partner, you will make them feel uncomfortable especially if you are not close with them. Therefore, ensure that you keep a safe distance or a comfortable distance while having a conversation.
- Keeping your head down always sends the wrong message. Avoid it. Keeping your head down sends multiple messages to whoever you are conversing with. The first message it sends is that you are shy and reserved. This is a quick turn-off for people or a person who wanted to have a conversation with you. Additionally, it also shows that you are guilty or are feeling guilty. This is also another thing that will keep people away from you even though they are interested in conversing with you. However, you also need to be careful to avoid coming off as arrogant. Keeping your head high is indeed encouraged but you need to be careful to avoid sending th wrong message.
- Holding things closer to your heart always sends the wrong message.
- Practice or ensure you have a strong handshake. It is universally known that having a firm handshake is a sign of confidence. Therefore, whenever you are in a room, an interview, or anywhere your image matters, always use a firm handshake while exchanging pleasantries. People will not only respect you but will also expect much from you.
- Your dressing also matters. You start communicating from the time you pick or decide what you will wear to a meeting or interview. What most students fail to realize is that interviewers look at everything and will already have an idea of who you are and how you behave when they see how you dress. Always consider the meeting or place you are headed and choose your clothing well. Always ensure to keep your audience in mind before you walk out of the house. How you dress will also or can also make you feel confident about yourself. We feed off our energy and therefore, if you are not dressed well, you somehow send the message that you are not confident or self-assured.
- Avoid fidgeting. It always sends the wrong message. Fidgeting is wrong and sends several messages most of which are negative. Fidgeting especially while in an interview shows you are unprepared or at least this is the message you will be sending if you are fidgeting in an interview. Additionally, fidgeting also shows that you lack self-confidence. As a student, it is essential you start shaping yourself into the person you wish to be in the future. If you want to always come out as a confident young man or woman, you then need to stop fidgeting or you will be tossed out of the interview room long before it begins.
- Take deep breaths when you are nervous. Being nervous is indeed normal but the problem is always with how we react to the nervousness. When you are nervous, it will always show but you need not worry. Calming yourself is not a difficult thing and you only need to take deep breaths. Taking deep breaths is almost a cliché but it works and therefore, do not hesitate to take your time and take deep breaths even during an interview.
In conclusion, body language is indeed essential and you ought to learn how to communicate with your body. You will indeed be surprised to realize that you say more with your eyes, mouth, legs, arms, shoulders, etc. than your words. As your practice how to speak to people, ensure that you also practice the right body language techniques. These will indeed serve you in school as well as your life after school.