Communication is key. We have all heard this phrase many times and how it applies to personal and business relationships. Yet, most individuals do not think “outside” of the proverbial box to realize that communication means so much more than the spoken word. In fact, according to A. Barbour, author of Louder than Words: Nonverbal Communication, only a small percentage of communication involves actual words: 7%, to be exact. In fact, 55% of communication is visual (body language, eye contact) and 38% is vocal (pitch, volume, speed, intonation and tone of voice). So, though words are very important it is also very important to not only listen to what is being said but also be aware of the intonation used and the body language portrayed.
Being astute in reading body language can be a powerful tool. By reading body language you can save money, time, frustration and ultimately get what you want quicker and easier. Sometimes going and visiting a colleague to ask an important question might illicit more information than sending a quick email-even though the email may have technically taken less time to send.
Nonverbal communication, or body language, includes our facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, smell and even the tone of our voice. According to Joy Davidson, author of Understanding Body Language, it’s easy to miss subtle messages in the way someone positions his body, uses his hands, moves his eyes or alters his tone of voice. But when you do, you can miss out on vital information at work, from peers and supervisors alike, where decoding “body talk” matters as much as – and sometimes more than – the spoken word. Why? Because nonverbal cues are more immediate, instinctive and uncontrolled than verbal expression, bringing genuine attitudes and feelings into the open. We have all been told during job interviews to sit up straight when being asked questions-but why? Slouching is a non-verbal cue that signifies disinterest and laziness. Yet sitting up tall is a non-verbal cue signifying confidence. Most employers wish to hire confident individuals rather than disinterested ones for the job. The same applies for eye contact. For many, it is very difficult to look someone directly in the eye for a prolonged period of time. However, if someone has “shifty eyes” or does not utilize direct eye contact it might be perceived that person is lying.
Cross-culturally, body language and nonverbal communication differs around the world and can mean many different things to different people. Most people would argue that Canadians and Americans due to their geographic proximity have a lot in common. Yet, there have been many cases in Calgary where American oil and gas expatriates working with American subsidiaries find they don’t ‘trust’ their Canadian counterparts simply because of the amount of eye contact used. Though Canadians traditionally use a lot of eye contact- Americans use more- hence, the slight distrust. This is a cultural difference and though it is slight can have very negative consequences in the workplace if not addressed. Alternatively, first generation immigrants from China might not make direct eye contact with their superiors- out of respect. Yet, this could be perceived as disinterest or that the employee has something to hide. This means that nonverbal communication is exponentially important across cultures because there might be language barriers.
Research has shown that the emotions of enjoyment, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and surprise are expressed in similar ways by people around the world. Differences surface with respect to which emotions are acceptable to display in various cultural settings, and by whom. For example, if a Canadian born female engineer left an important meeting in tears because she found out her mother had just passed away this would be socially acceptable in Canada. However, a Japanese born female engineer might leave the same meeting after receiving the same type of news with a smile on her face because in her culture it is not appropriate to inflict the pain of grief on others. Some of her colleagues might be extremely confused that she was smiling when delivering this devastating news.
It takes a lot of time, understanding, knowledge, tolerance and respect to understand the power of communication- both verbal and nonverbal- in our relationships both personal and professional. Yet good communication is the foundation to strong personal and professional relationships. How many marriages have ended due to a significant lack in communication? To improve upon your own nonverbal communication ask your partner, a friend, or business colleague to videotape a conversation. People are often very surprised to hear how they sound on tape- it will be the same on video. It is very difficult to change a habit that might be perceived as negative if one is not aware of it.
Nonverbal communication is very effective, maybe even more so than speech. Remember the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” Improve your relationships and how you are perceived by recognizing the importance of not only the written word but those that remain unsaid.