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Body language

The language everybody speaks



Body language as part of communication

This site deals with all aspects of non-verbal communication. Therefore a paragraph about communication in general should not be left out. Body language is definitely revealing, but at the same time should not be seen separately from all other forms of communication. This page provides you with an introduction into the communication theory. On the following pages you can read more about the role of body language.

Contact and interaction

When you look up the word communication on the Internet with the help of a search engine, you will get a screen filled with referrals to web sites about computers and telephony. We have almost forgotten what communication is all about - contact and interaction between people. Of course a telephone, a computer or a fax can be used for this. This usually concerns communication over a long distance, but it can also concern contact with a colleague in the next room.

Usually we do not use any tools when communicating over a short distance, meaning when we are in direct contact with someone. Then we communicate through speech and body language. In the communication theory the same terms are used for describing all forms of communication, whether that is with tools or without.

Message, sender and receiver *

When one or more people communicate, information is transmitted. In the communication theory this information is called the message. The person who transmits a message to the other person is called the sender, and the person who receives the message is called the receiver. With communication there is two-way traffic. This means that the receiver is a sender as well, because the receiver always reacts on the sender. Watzlavick wrote in his book, "Pragmatics of Human Communication", that it is impossible not to communicate. Even when you say nothing at all, you still show something through your body language. It makes a big difference if you look at the other person or not, or if you are close or far away. Even your absent-mindedness, your silence, or your forthcoming answer conveys a message to the other person. Communication can take place consciously as well as subconsciously.

Encoding, image formation, decoding and interpretation

When two people are sitting together in a living room, and one is reading a book while the other is watching television, there is still communication between them. However we usually don't regard this as communication. In daily life when we speak about communication, we usually mean the conscious transfer of information. By this we mean that the message that the sender (consciously) transfers to the receiver will also be understood by the receiver. In order to be best able to transfer the information that the sender wants transmitted to the receiver, the sender will have to put himself in the receiver's shoes (level of understanding, emotional condition, previous experiences and the like). This is called the image formation phase. This still concerns the sender's thoughts.

Reading minds is not a gift that many people have. So when I want to transfer my thoughts to you, I first have to translate them into something that is understandable to you. This translation of thoughts into words is called ‘encoding' in the communication theory. When you translate these words back into thoughts, you are decoding. When people are talking to each other, the sender encodes his message in spoken language and the receiver then decodes those words. After the receiver has decoded the message he will try to interpret the information. The central question here is: 'what does this mean to me?'


We always choose some method for transferring the message. This can take place for example through writing, words or gestures. The medium that is used when transmitting the message is called the channel. There are sensory channels such as eyesight, hearing, feelings, smell and taste, mechanical channels such as pen or typewriter (do they still exist?) and electronic channels such as radio, telephone and computer.

Frame of reference

Whether the message comes across or not to the other person depends on different factors. It is important for example that the sender knows, or assumes something, about the history and the background of the receiver. For example, if I were on holidays in England it would be quite naive to ask directions in Dutch. The chance of the other person understanding me is quite slim. But the body language codes also differ between (sub) cultures. Desmond Morris describes in "The Naked Ape" a tragic incident whereby people from another culture interpreted a simple hand gesture meaning ‘come here' in the wrong way. Northern Europeans signal in a different manner than Southern Europeans. In the North they signal with the palm of the hand upwards and in the South this is done with the palm downwards. Morris gives an example of two Northern European men who were swimming in the sea and misinterpreted the hand gesture of several armed militaries. The militaries gestured that they had to come out of the water while they thou ght that they had to leave. The militaries shot them because they thought they were spies. This is a tragic example of miscommunication through a different frame of reference.


In communication between people many things can go wrong. When someone tells you something in a noisy discotheque, there is a big chance that you will miss parts of the story. When someone invites you to take a seat, with a hand gesture, you will probably miss this message if it causes him to drop a tray with teacups. The external factors that distract the receiver, and therefore disrupt the communication, are called external noise. For example, a stuffy and sweaty lecture room can flag the attention of students. The right thing for the teacher to do is to limit the noise as much as possible in his transfer, in this case by opening a window. Noise can also occur because there is something wrong with the channels of communication, for example a disturbance in one of the senses, a cracking telephone line or the sender's handwriting being illegible. The correct understanding of the information transmitted can also be hindered by internal factors on the receiver's end. This is called internal noise. For example, the receiver can have incorrect expectations with regard to the message, be emotional, or not have enough prior knowledge of the subject. He can also be distracted by his own thoughts.


For the sender of the message it is important to know if the message has arrived at the receiver in the manner he intended. He can find this out through a reaction from the receiver. When the receiver looks at him, and nods, he can assume that the receiver is listening. But in order to find out if the receiver has truly understood what he wanted to transmit, he could for example ask if the receiver wants to repeat the message in his own words. When a reaction is given to the message we speak about feedback. We can distinguish between verbal and non-verbal feedback. Non-verbal feedback is for example a frown, banging a fist on the table, or a deep sigh when hearing an unpleasant announcement. Because of this, the sender can be aware that his message has come across. Feedback can be given consciously as well as subconsciously. Sending me an e-mail about the content of this web site is conscious feedback. Subconscious feedback is for example that the counter on my site can show me how many visitors I have had. A lso when this page is linked to other sites I can conclude from this that the content is appreciated. Do not forget though that no reaction is also a reaction. If nobody would ever react on this site, I should also wonder about that.

Content and relation

Through communicating with other people we can send messages on a content level and on a relational level. When you communicate on a content level it is about transmitting concrete substantive information. On a relational level it is about how a message should be interpreted, and how the relationship is between the people concerned. A message is often transmitted on a content level and on a relational level at the same time. For example, someone can say:

"Gosh, that dress must have cost a fortune!"

On a content level a comment is made about the price of the dress. On a relational level this sentence can have different meanings, for example:

-   What a nice dress!
-   You have paid way too much for that dress!
-   You are way too easy with your money.
-   I am jealous that you have so much money to spend.
-   I would like to have a dress like that as well.
-   That dress looks expensive, but I actually think it's really ugly.
-   What a cheap rag!
-   And you tell me that I spend a lot of money!

Three aspects

Communication op a relational level consists of the following three aspects:

  • The expressive aspect,
  • The relational aspect,
  • The appealing aspect.

The expressive aspect says something about how the sender expresses himself and the impression this makes on the receiver: does he make a professional impression or is he a layman? Does he come across as reliable? Is he friendly or not? Does he have time, is he restless, or does he seem to be in a hurry? Does he act personal or distant? Is he insolent and arrogant or polite instead?

The relational aspect says something about how the receiver regards the relation with the sender: is the position of the sender equal, higher or subordinate? Does the receiver rate the intelligence of the sender to be high or low? Is the receiver appreciative or disparaging in relation to the sender? Is the receiver interested or indifferent?

With the appealing aspect it is about how the content of the message is being transmitted by the receiver. The message can be transmitted in different ways: ordering, questioning, requesting, begging or informing.

Often the content of the message is expressed in words, and the relation with the help of body language. The intonation and the facial expression especially play a big part in this. Just say the aforementioned sentence about the dress in different intonations and you will find that it takes on different meanings. Non-verbal communication communicates about the verbal communication. When in doubt about the truth of the message or the sincerity of the speaker, people tend to believe non-verbal communication over verbal communication.


Besides the content, it is good to also get the relational aspects of the communication clear. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to address the other person, or ask him questions, about his method of communicating. Like this, we do not speak about the content of the message, but about the meaning behind it and its relational aspect. So in fact we communicate about the communication. This is called metacommunication: 'You say that it doesn't matter to you that our appointment is cancelled, but I can see in your face and hear from your voice that you are disappointed, aren't you?' Often the content of a message is represented in words and the relation is made clear by means of body language.

People can be surprised when you address them on the relational aspects of the communication, when for example you say something about their facial expression instead of about the content of their message. Still metacommunication is very important within a relationship to get intentions and relations clear. However, some people actually know how to disturb the communication by metacommunicating at the wrong moments. When it should be about content, they give an answer on a relational level, and when they are addressed on their method of communicating they refer to the importance of the content. For example, when a colleague addresses them on errors in their work, they formulate an answer in which they describe the relation with their colleague, which is not so good. When the colleague then addresses them about their manner of communicating, they mention an example concerning the content but absolutely not related to the subject, for example about the way in which the colleague carries out his duties.

Non-verbal communication

In the communication theory seven functions of the non-verbal communication are distinguished:

  1. Repeating what has already been expressed verbally
    (saying yes and nodding at the same time, giving directions and pointing)
  2. Replacing the verbal communication
    (nodding yes, shaking no, questioning facial expression, emblem gestures)
  3. Opposing the verbal communication
    (confirming something but shaking your head hesitantly or shrugging your shoulders)
  4. Affectionate (instinctive) support of the spoken word
    (concerned frown or encouraging pat on the back)
  5. Information about the mutual relation
    (smiling, eye contact, touching, distance, posture)
  6. Emphasising the verbal communication
    (a wagging finger when you express an accusation, or reproaching someone with a loud voice and hitting the table angrily)
  7. Structuring and regulating the verbal communication
    (the dots and commas of the spoken sentences: hemming, looking at someone and looking away, pauses, and supporting hand gestures)

introduction body language

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Bodylanguage, the language everybody speaks

text: Frank van Marwijk.
translation: Suzanne van Leendert
© Bodycom Lichaamscommunicatie, The Netherlands

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