The language everybody speaks.
The function of body language within our daily contacts
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.
"Non-verbal communication and Lichaamscommunicatie are not the same thing.
is an important part of the non-verbal communication form though. Examples of non- verbal
communication that are not examples of Lichaamscommunicatie could be a flag on a ship, a
nurse's uniform or the Red Cross pin of a qualified nurse."
We always use 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:
- 55% of the communication consists of body language,
- 38% is expressed through tone of voice and only
- 7% is communicated through words.
If this is the case we express 93% of our feelings in a non-verbal way!
Why is the role of body language so large comparatively speaking?
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
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.
Expressing feelings through body language
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.
Hereditary or taught at a young age
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
"that people's brains are programmed in such a way that the corners of the mouth are pulled
up with joy, that the eyebrows are pulled up and that a corner of the mouth goes up
according to the feeling that is fed to the brain."
We can express feelings of hate, fear, enjoyment, sadness and other primary human feelings
to other people, without having to learn it. The understanding of emotions that are
expressed via body language is probably also hereditary. This does not mean that we do not
have to learn to recognise many gestures, which can mean one thing in one society and
something else in another. Many body signals are not universal. In the most European
countries and America for example, people shake their head when they mean no and nod when
they mean yes, but there are cultures, for example in India or in Greece, where they mean
the opposite - up and down means no and shaking means yes. The latter could be the evidence
that this body language is taught rather than innate. In any case, the impressions that
someone gives based on his body language are believed sooner than what he says about his
feelings. Often people also give more attention to the non-verbal meta communication than
to the words of other people.
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.
Communication control is important.
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.
translation: Suzanne van Leendert
© Bodycom Lichaamscommunicatie, The Netherlands
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