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Nonverbal Communication: Vital and Challenging

Nonverbal Communication (NVC): Challenging and Vital.

-“Your Body Language shapes who you are,” Amy Cuddy.

-“When the eyes say one thing and the tongue, another, a practiced person relies on the language of the first,” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“I can read your body language like a conversation” Dom Kennedy

“A face is what we hold in our memories. It’s our identity. Two-thirds of face to face communication comes from facial expressions.” Celebrated Author Brad Meltzer.

-“Fashion transcends languages and borders. It speaks volumes without saying a word and is perhaps the single best way to understand a country’s identity and heritage.” U.S. Protocol Chief Peter Selfridge.

“I looked the man (Russian Dictator Vladimir Putin) in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” Former President George W. Bush, 2001.

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“My Grandfather said you can learn a lot about a person by how they eat,” Summer Issues, 2018, Drama/Comedy Movie by Fractal Features.

“Look at his tattoos; He was a tough guy!” To the Lake, Netflix, 2020.

“Look at me. Do you think I know anything about farming?” California Christmas, 2020, Netflix.

“Why are people smiling here in Louisiana?” “Because scowling is so unSouthern.” Christmas in the Bayou movie.

“I can’t read your mind. There’s something I don’t know.

I can see it in your eyes.”

Music by Woman, Mumford and Sons

“I can tell you are Gay from your shirt.” At the End of the Day, Movie.

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Isn’t it incredible? 93% of communication meaning emanates from nonverbal communication. Another way to put it is that communication meaning comes from

-7% Words,

-37% Tone of voice, and

-56% Body language.

So, why do we spend so much time discerning the meaning of words. Maybe because it is easier than tone of voice and body language.

What is Nonverbal Communication?

Nonverbal Communication (NVC) includes posture, body tension, degree of eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, personal space, silence, head noddings, tone of voice, distance, touch, tapping, pacing, manner of sitting and mannerisms.

Why is it so challenging to discern?

There are many reasons ranging from health reason, mental health reasons, cultural differences, Illusory Superiority, etc.

Health and Mental Health Issues:

-Microphonia Example: Sharon has microphonia meaning that she is very sensitive to certain sounds. So when she grimaces hearing someone eating potato chips, it does not mean that she disapproves of that person eating unhealthily. It does mean that the snap of the chip is hurting her ears. When she hears Susan, she also grimaces because of the tone of that voice also irritates her hearing.

-Body Dysmorphic Example: Jose suffers from this condition believing that he is unattractive. So he behaves shyly and maybe not so involved. This does not mean he is not interested in the project or subject matter, but is often interpreted that way by others.

Cultural Differences:

One of many examples might be Costa Rica:

-Here making a fist with the thumb sticking out between the middle and index finger is obscene. This gesture is known as the “fig.”

-Don’t rest the feet on any furniture except items design for such.

-Do not bring calla lilies as a dinner gift, since they are used at funerals.

-Shorts are only worn on the beach.

-Trousers are usually never worn by businesswomen.*

Another example is Thailand:

-Do not wink at a person, even in friendship.

-Do not touch the head of another person’s child. Some believe that children may be damaged by needless touching.

-Chinese point with open hands, because pointing with a finger is considered rude.

-Do not bring food as a gift at a dinner party. This might imply the host cannot provide such.*

US Cultural Differences.

Body language varies from parts of the US compared to another part. For example, in Columbus, Ohio, several things:

-On Columbus, Ohio, it seems quite acceptable for business men to wear short sleeves shirts during the hot Summer, but not in the District of Columbia (DC).

-In Columbus, Ohio, most professional persons used umbrellas when it rained; not so much, in DC.

-In DC, it is typical to use umbrellas during snows, not so in Columbus.


-In Texas, it is typical for a man to open the door or pull out a chair or tip a hat to a woman plus using the salutation of Sir or Ma’am (contraction of Madam) denoting respect.

-In Ohio, these actions plus the salutations may remind people of “age;” that is, being an Older American.

Example: One mediation trainer notes that when he delivers training at several military bases, one of the groundrules set is that participants are allowed to “chew tobacco and spit” during the training. These bases are usually in the South (North Carolina) or West (Montana, South Dakota) Other groundrules include only one person speaks at a time, silence cellphones, etc.

This never happens at trainings in Delaware or DC.

Illusory Superiority: Many People Believe They Can Read Others Like a Book.

Many folks have taken courses such as in neuro-linguistics and based on this, they believe that they can “read people like a book.”

Others believe that they are incredibly perceptive and can discern a person’s NVC in the so-called “first three minutes.”

Still others rely on their life experience of observation.

In many polls, 90% of folks believe they can tell when a person is lying.

Most of them are decidedly wrong. They are more likely than not afflicted with Illusory Superiority; that is, they exude over-confidence. They over estimate their skills. Others around them differently; that is, not so skilled.

Four Wise Steps to Read Nonverbal Communication.

Reading nonverbal Communication is complicated and challenging. A wise way to proceed is to follow four steps:

Step One-Note all Nonverbal Communication: Each interpersonal episode is replete with NVC. If one is a wise communicator, they will monitor and note all.

Step Two-Look at the Totality of the NVC: Many people look at one motion: the nod of the head, the twirling of the hair, etc. Some people look at “clusters” of nonverbal. That can be effective. What may be more effective is looking at the totality from head to toe of the NVC.

Also, note both the verbal and nonverbal. Are they consistent?

Step Three-Is It Important? Much of NVC is not important, but it is still good to note. Then try to discern which NVC is important to the conversation.

Step Four-If important, simply ask, don’t assume.

It is prudent to ask in private and to start with an “open” question.

Example 1: Sherril is delivering a conflict management training. She notes that Brad seems distracted and not really participating. During the break, she pulls him aside and asks,

-So, How is this Training going for you? (Open Question)

-Brad responds, I love the training but I just got word that my Mom has been diagnosed with cancer and I need to go home.

Thus, Sherril knows and can stop worrying about it but offer her assistance to Brad if needed.

Example 2: Jermaine is delivering his interactive lecture on the ethical issues that arise out of mediation. He notices that Participant Shari seems puzzled. He pulls Shari aside during lunch and asks,

-What is your reaction to this lecture so far? (Open Question)

-Shari responds, I like it but I am wondering why you keep referring to negotiation when this is about mediation.

-Jermaine: In my mind mediation and negotiation are linked. I view mediation as “assisted negotiation.

Jermaine essentially just solved the puzzle and Shari was more tuned in to the rest of the lecture.

The Face has 42 Muscles Making it Complex.

Watch the eyes: They contract when a situation is not pleasing and dilate when something is pleasing.

The Eyes: Some believe the left eye focuses on “constructed images” and the right, “remembered images.”

-Left eye looking up may be visualizing, constructing or imagining visually or lying.

-Left eye looking right might be auditory, constructing sounds, Does that sound right?”

-Left eye looking down might mean checking out feelings.

-Right eye looking up=remembered images.

-Right eye looking sideways=remembering sounds.

-Right eye looking down-having internal dialogue.

Eyes looking ahead might mean visualization.

How Do You Tell If Someone is Lying?

People who are lying will maintain eye contact longer than someone who is telling the truth. Someone who is lying may be looking for reaction.

Many people believe they can tell if a person is lying. They cite being fidgety, sweaty palms, shifty gazes but, they are usually wrong.

Even experts are slightly more than chance when it comes to lying.

Interestingly, groups might be better at detecting lies than individuals. They score about 8.5% higher. Not much, but noteworthy. This seems to emanate from group conversations. So, maybe judges should instruct juries to discuss in conversations the honesty of witnesses?

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA

“In four experiments, we find that groups are consistently more accurate than individuals in distinguishing truths from lies, an effect that comes primarily from an increased ability to correctly identify when a person is lying. These experiments demonstrate that the group advantage in lie detection comes through the process of group discussion….”

“Former CIA Officers Share 6 Ways to Tell if Someone is Lying.” These 6 ways are,

-Behavioral pause or delay. Is the delay appropriate for the question asked?

-Nonverbal and verbal disconnect.

-Hiding mouth or eyes.

-Throat clearing or swallowing.

-Hand to fact activity plus biting or licking lips.

-Grooming gestures-adjusting the tie or glasses.

Gesture Clusters: For lying, look at the body in totality and then look for a gesture cluster:

“…according to recent research at Northeastern University, MIT and Cornell, there is one specific cluster of nonverbal cues that is especially revealing, and that most of us unconsciously monitor when evaluating a person's intent and integrity. This “telltale cluster” of nonverbal signals associated with lying are: hand touching, face touching, crossing arms, and leaning away.”

Caution About Reading NVC:

Physical Characteristics Confusion.

It is noteworthy that some researchers and authors confuse NVC with physical characteristics. They may make references to the size of the nose or expanse of the face or the hairline.

Dr. Jo-Ellan Dimitrius in her book: Reading People***** call this “the thin line between appearance and body language…Eye contact certainly belongs in the ‘body language’ category. But the expression of the eyes (shifty eyes or kind eyes) might be classified as either appearance or body language.”

Single Act Confusions:

It seems wise to look at the total boy language rather than one single act. For example, in How to Read a Person Like a Book and What To Do About It, by Gerard I. Nierenberg, the focus on individual actions:

-Page 38, Unbuttoning the Coat: Men who are open and friendly, often unbutton their coats or take them off.

-Page 62, Feet pointing toward the door or exit, may mean this person is ready to leave.

-Page 91, Steepling of the Fingertips can mean that person is confident, proud and even smug.**

This is not to say that these are not true, but looking at the entire body language is probably wiser.

Examples NVC in the US:

Fashion: Remember when First Lady Michelle Obama bared her shoulders. She seemed to be saying, this is a new era. What about former First Lady Hillary Clinton whose fashion evolved from dowdy to elegant and understated pant suits, seemingly conveying the message that she is about politics and business, not her wardrobe.

What does it mean when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shows up in a hoodie and T-Shirt. Many experts think it signifies, “disruption.”

What about air traveling? Most airlines have a rule that says something like all travelers must be dressed so others will not take offense. This seemingly bans bare feet, bikini tops, offensive words on T-Shirts. Some flight attendants claim that they upgrade people sometimes on how well they are dressed.

Hand Gestures per Behavioral Psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk (Brain Wise, 2012)***

-If you don't use your hands at all, that may be perceived as indifference. Your audience may feel that you don't care about what you are talking about.

-Hands hidden: If your audience can’t see your hands, it will be hard for them to trust you.

-Hands open and your palms at a 45-degree angle: Communicates that you are being honest and open.

-Hands open with palms down: Communicates that you are certain about what you are talking about.

-Palms facing each other with your fingers together: Communicates that you have expertise about what you are talking about.

-Hands grasped in front of you: Communicates that you are nervous or tentative, as does touching your face, hair, or neck.

-Hand gestures that are larger than the outlines of your body: Communicates a large idea or concept. But if all your hand gestures are large you will communicate that you are chaotic or out of control.

Hair is surely a controversial area in re NVC:

This can be classified in the cautionary area for NVC. Look at the recent history of employment rules and regulations. On one hand is the physical capacity to grow and contain hair. Most folks do not have control over the hair curliness or the hairlines. Beyond physical capacity, is the cultural and religious implications.

“A grooming or dress policy that discriminates against a protected class of employees is illegal. This is true whether the policy discriminates explicitly or simply has a disparate impact on one group. Here are some examples:

  • Shaving. A policy requiring employees to be clean-shaven might discriminate against African Americans, who are more likely to have a skin condition that makes shaving painful. It might also discriminate against employees whose religious beliefs require beards.

  • Hair length. A policy requiring men to have short hair might discriminate against employees who religious beliefs prohibit cutting hair.”

In many cultures, long hair on women exudes femininity. Young women in recent Hallmark and Lifetime movies often have long hair. There is the example of former Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler who sported extraordinary long blond hair. Now in the United States, many folks associate short women’s hair with professionalism and efficiency.

In many cultures, men who have facial hair exude masculinity. Facial hair on young men in the US is ubiquitous. Recently, Georgia voters elected Reverend Ralph Warnock who sported facial hair.

Remember Former House Speaker Paul Ryan and his beard which he called “his hunting beard” seemingly meaning he is an alpha male. Some believe the beard is a symbol of power mean to intimidate rivals. Others believe the beard made him cool and contemporary.

In the US present culture, job counselors would advise men to have short, well cropped hair possibly sending the message that they are conservative, professional and businesslike. Of course, some employers may not be looking for that sort of person.

Corporations such as IBM and Microsoft have spent millions on AI Emotion Detection. They created algorithms to detect eight core emotions: anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, neutral, sadness and surprise. Some research seems to indicate that people make the expected expression 30% of the time so detecting emotions is nebulous and convoluted.

(Larry Ray note: It is clear how complicated NVC is. In many of my trainings and teachings I include a NVC module. I use two exercises to bring home the point that NVC is complex.

Exercise One: Around the room, I place 11 drawings (10 is too predictablel J). Participants walk about the room and record what communication meaning that drawing is sending to them. We then go around the room and 3 participants sound out their responses to each drawing. ½ of the time, the responses are consistent; 1/2, the time, inconsistent.

Exercise Two: On five paper charts, I post the five categories and ask each person to record one example “cut and meaning.”

-Voice/Tone: Cue and Meaning. EX: Loud voice might mean angry.

-Facial Expression: Cue and Meaning. Ex: Raised eyebrow might mean surprise. Looking away may equal disinterest. Rolling eyes might symbolize being incredulous.

-Space/Time/Environment: Cue and Meaning. Ex: Round table might mean no sides to the situation. Open door=Welcome. Let’s talk. Closed door=private, confidential.

-Body Language-General: Cue and Meaning. Examples: Tapping pencil = impatient; arms crossed=lack of acceptance; downcast eyes=lack of interest/rejection of message.

For each example that someone records, other participant have other interpretations.

The Lesson? NVC is complicated and often subject to interpretation.

What About Proxemics?

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall created the science of proxemics which studies how people use, react to, configure and occupy the space round them. Most Americans want their own space and feel uncomfortable when people invade such. Many people trying to persuade often get close too soon and then become less likeable. Of course, this also depends on the individual and culture.

“In his book, The Silent Language, Hall outlined the following ideas behind proxemic theory:

1. There are four types of distances people keep: intimate (0 to 18 inches), personal (18 inches to 4 feet), social (4 to 10 feet), and public (over 10 feet).

2. The distances outlined are those deliberately chosen by individuals. Forced closeness doesn’t factor in proxemics.

3. Proxemic behavior is learned mostly from observing others rather than from explicit instruction, which is why personal distance and physical contact varies by culture.

4. The physical distance between communicators indicates the type of relationship they have. Body angles, touch and eye contact further reveal the familiarity between people.

5. Americans generally prefer 18 inches of personal space.”

TV Commercials Depend on Nonverbal Communication

-Dancing: Think of how many commercials involve dancing including Wayfair, The Gap, Under Armour, Old Navy, Lil Buck, Ray and Bone, Lexus et al. Maybe the first dance commercial was 1914 Ponds Vanishing Cream with the dancer symbolizing ephemeral beauty. Customers are dancing about new furniture, medicines, diapers, etc. Many people associate dancing with happiness. It is both visual and emotional.

(Check Blog Entry: Persuasion Law of Association

-Medical Scrubs and White Coats: No medical commercial is effective without scrubs and white coats. People associate scrubs and white coats with cleanliness and credibility. Check out Dr. Travis Stark advertising Qunol-Tumeric, Whitepik, or Ozempic commercials.

So What Happens to NVC During the COVID Pandemic?

Phone communication: Surely there is much more phone communication. Some even join the Zoomlike**** meetings per phone and are not visible visually. These calls make the meaning of words much more important. Likewise, the tone of voice.

To be extra careful, one needs to accomplish more planning for these meetings. A script may be too much, but jotting a few notes with key words, phrases and important questions might be helpful.


-Look at body language for clues.

-Look at comfort level: rapport and trust.

-Be aware of changes.

-Consider feedback.

Communication is 100% effective when feelings, words and actions are in sync.


*Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, 2nd Edition, Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway, ISBN 10:1-59337-368-6.

**How To Read a Person Like a Book, Gerard I. Nierenberg. ISBN: 0-346-12283-X


****Zoomlike refers to Zoom Video calls as well as Facetime, Google Meet, Google Duo. Microsoft Teams.

*****Reading People, How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior-Anytime, Anyplace, Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, Ph.D., and Mark Mazzarella.

Other References:

The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead by Carol Kinsey Goman (2011).

100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People (2012).

-Try this quiz on facial expressions:

The Definitive Book of body Language, by Allan and Barbara Pease, ISBN-13: 978-0-553-80472-0


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