You may have heard some statistics quoted regarding body language. It’s commonly cited that 55% of communication is gleaned from body language, 38% is down to the way things are said, and just 7% is the actual words spoken.
These figures came from a study carried out by eminent psychologist Albert Mehrabian who has famously studied the importance of both verbal and non-verbal communication. His test was conducted under specific conditions, and so the numbers are often questioned in the context of everyday communication. But nevertheless, it is safe to assume that body language has a greater role to play in effectively getting your message across than words alone.
Have you ever been to Italy? If so, you will know how expressively the Italians use hand gestures. Or what about the famous Gallic shrug? It’s a lift of the shoulders, an opening of the hands and a pouting of the lips – and it very clearly communicates, without the need for any words “I don’t know, and quite frankly I don’t care!”
So what is body language?
It’s a variety of gestures, facial expressions, small body movements, and posture that can convey a message without saying a thing, or that add an extra nuance to the spoken word. Think about a small child opening a present they don’t like. They’ve been taught to be polite and say thank you. Their excited face falls, and their shoulders droop as they see what they have and mutter ‘thanks’. The words they say are positive, but the body language tells another story.
Its role in communication
It’s very difficult to separate out the functions of spoken and non-verbal in our everyday communication. However, over years of study, researchers have come up with some functional categories that body language seems to be particularly used for. These include:-
Regulation – this is about controlling conversations. A good example is when somebody is leading a group discussion. They will use cues like head movements and hand gestures to indicate when one person has had their say and needs to shut up.
Substitution – As we mentioned above, sometimes body language can completely replace words. If someone is speaking angrily to you, you may raise a hand. It’s not only creating a bit of a physical barrier but clearly telling the person to calm down or stop shouting.
Showing conflict – because most body language happens naturally, it’s hard not to give away our true feelings. If we are talking to someone who is boring us, we may make an effort to be interested, perhaps with head nods, or encouraging noises. But if our body is turned away, or we stop making eye contact, it shows we are not properly engaged.
Emphasising or moderating – these gestures can add emphasis to what you are saying, for example, shaking your head when you say no. Or they can ‘soften’ a difficult message. If you are giving bad news, you may touch the person to make them feel better.
Repetition – This kind of gesture reinforces your message by non-verbally repeating what you are saying. An example is if you are asking somebody to go in a certain direction, you may point to the way you want them to go.
So it seems that to communicate effectively, using the right gestures is even more important than the words you choose. Many of our gestures will be subconscious and instinctive, but you can learn more about body language by watching both yourself and others in communications. You’ll soon start to recognise those give-away expressions and movements that say so much!
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