Language Matters October 2009: Nonverbal Communication

Dear Language Friend,

Over the last couple of months we have uncovered many different aspects of a language to our readers. We informed you about the origins of different languages, the structures, cultural differences and many other aspects of the most common form of communication. This month we will go back to one of the things we all learned shortly after birth – nonverbal communication.

Contributed by Christine Mueller. Thanks for reading.


Talking without speaking

Without always being aware of it, we are communicating every second and every minute of our lives. Although we usually associate communication with speech, voice and words there are in fact two forms of communication – verbal and nonverbal. To communicate nonverbally is probably the oldest form of human communication and basically means to use facial expressions, body movements or gestures to express feelings and send out information or messages to other people. Usually tears are the signs of sadness; a smile indicates happiness and forehead wrinkles mean sorrow.

But facial expression, as one of the most obvious forms of nonverbal communication, is not the only way to reflect our moods or feelings. It is said that it only takes a few seconds for us to decide whether we like a person or not. This is definitely a result of all the signals this person is sending out via other forms of nonverbal communication such as clothes, the choice of color, hair style, tattoos or attitude. We can easily communicate in what way we want to present ourselves to our environment but we cannot entirely hide our feelings.


You can not not communicate

This statement made by the Austrian-American philosopher Paul Watzlawik refers to the fact that no matter how hard we try we are not able to not communicate. We can cross our arms in front of us and look the other way but we would still send out the message that we currently do not want to communicate. In comparison to spoken language, it is almost impossible to completely control our body language. You might control your voice and words, but your body movements and facial expressions will give away your true thoughts and feelings. Your true intentions will be especially visible to someone who is skilled in reading nonverbal signals. He or she might read us like an open book. This is one reason why body language is often stated to be the truest and most honest language. Some scientists even think that we only use the verbal communication to transfer plain information and we communicate nonverbally when we want to strengthen relationships and express our true feelings.


Nonverbal communication varies from country to country

Before going to a foreign country it would be beneficial to check whether all the gestures that you are familiar with from your cultural background have the same meaning in other parts of the world. What can be a positive gesture for you might be an offensive act to people in a different country. A very common gesture is a “thumbs up”. For most people this is a sign that indicates: ok – good job – well done. In the Middle East “thumbs up” is a rude gesture you should not use. The OK-gesture (thumb and forefinger curled in an O) is generally associated with money in Japan and can even be an obscene gesture for Brazilians. In Saudi Arabia, for example, nodding means no and shaking the head from one side to the other means yes. Imagine what not knowing these details could do to a business meeting.


Interpreting nonverbal communication

Non verbal communication is an important issue when it comes to interpreting. The interpreter not only has to interpret the words correctly he or she also needs to be aware of the intonation of the speaker. It is important to stress certain words and to reflect this in the interpretation whenever the voice of the speaker rises or falls. The tone of the voice indicates what kind of reaction the speaker is seeking from his audience and further indicates whether his or her words are for example critical, friendly or disappointed. Even a pause can be a form of nonverbal communication. It can either be an instrument to build up suspense or a sign of the speaker’s uncertainty or tension. However, besides the spoken words an interpreter always has to indentify nonverbal signals to provide an excellent interpretation.

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So don’t hesitate and contact us for further information.