The Role Of Body Language In Communication

By: Michael Puskar

Updated August 28, 2020

Body language is used in nearly every aspect of daily life, and observing someone can sometimes tell you a lot about how a person is feeling and what is on his or her mind. For example, in poker, people try to limit their body language for this exact reason. Without saying anything, body language can often get a person's point across, and this article will discuss how body language became a necessary part of our communication pallet and why it continues to be that way.

What Is Body Language?

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Body language is a form of non-verbal communication, which includes multiple actions and mannerisms, such as:

  • Facial Expressions
  • Gestures
  • Posture
  • Head Movement
  • Eye Contact

All of these are universal to all humans, and people can perform them consciously or subconsciously to convey their thoughts and feelings towards countless things. In fact, body language is believed to constitute about half of what we are trying to communicate. [1]

However, this can depend greatly on context; for example, a person does not always need to verbally say "no" to communicate that something is wrong or that they disagree with what a person is saying. Instead, he or she can shake their head from side to side, to communicate the same thing.

Nonetheless, we all use various forms of body language in communication every single day, which is then interpreted by others. If a student is slouching in his or her chair in class and is making indirect eye contact, this will signal to the instructor that they are bored.

It can also be used to enhance our verbal communication skills, and they often complement each other very well. For instance, if someone is asking for directions in a store on where to find a product and an employee merely says "over there," this information is not entirely helpful to the customer because it is too vague.

At that point, the employee can be more specific with the location of the item by stating what aisle or department it is in; however, more often than not they will also gesture and point in the direction the person should be headed in.

Even if the employee was not very specific, and they said "over there" while also pointing, it still would be more helpful than the original scenario with no body language at all.

You may not have realized it until now, but body language plays a major role in your everyday interactions, which is why it is one of the most popular topics within communication studies, and it has been of interest for thousands of years - even the Ancient Greeks have put meaning by human physical behavior. [1]

Body Language As A Form Unconscious Communication

The previous section discussed a couple of examples that show how movement can be used to enhance speech; however, body language psychology also considers unconscious communication as well, because although it can be unintentional, it can still be interpreted by others.

Take law enforcement as an example - a forensic psychologist or someone working with intelligence is trained to notice microexpressions - which are quick full-faced expressions of emotions which are brief because they are unconscious. [2]

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People who are in charge of carrying out investigations are interested in these nonverbal cues because they can indicate whether a person is lying or trying to conceal something from the interrogator. They can happen in a split second, but if an observer slows or freezes a video, they can witness a clear change in expression in that small moment in time.

Some other common situations where unconscious body language can occur is during nervousness or attraction, and as always, this can vary from person-to-person. For example, someone might cough when placed in a scenario that makes them nervous, whereas another might touch his or her face or scratch themselves as if they have an itch.

Most people are unaware of their body language in these situations, hence why it is unconscious. However, to others they are observable, and over time people might notice patterns.

This is especially true for people who interact with each other regularly, such as between parents and their kids. Because they know each other's baseline or default personality, someone can spot when something is off by noticing changes in body language. For instance, if a boy lies to his mother about where he is going, he might exhibit distinct body cues that he normally would not do.

Evolution & The Origins Of Body Language

The use of body language actually pre-dates any spoken and written language that has been created by humans. Since they do not have the same vocal anatomy and brain size to produce speech as humans do, non-human primates constantly use body language to communicate with each other in addition to vocalizations.

Source: flickr.com

It is also believed that genetic differences are also responsible for why we can speak and our closest ancestors, which are the chimpanzees and bonobos, cannot. A variation of the FOXP2 gene is suggested to be the reason why this is the case, and humans had a unique mutation of it, which had to have occurred within the last 4 to 6 million years because that is when the last common ancestor to the Homo and Pan species lived. [3]

Although they cannot speak, studying the apes provides us great insight as to why body language developed in the first place. We can observe them and see how they use it to communicate with one another. In fact, the need to communicate is the reason why body language developed in the first place, aside from vocalizations.

Gestures have been noted numerous times in monkeys and all of the great apes to produce different signals, some which are also used by humans. For example, a hard touch or brush of the hand can tell another member to stop, whereas a soft one or a light pull can be more inviting. Some species, such as orangutans, also embrace one another.

Others have unique forms of body language to communicate. Male gorillas will attempt to show dominance by standing up on two legs and beating their chest. Despite this being exclusive to gorillas, humans also have ways to assert dominance and strength non-verbally. Some primates, such as chimpanzees and bonobos are also known to pout; however, instead of signaling sadness or disappointment, pouting usually means something that is related to food or grooming. [4]

In primates, gestures are also often accompanied by facial expressions and eye contact. Bearing teeth is universally a sign of aggression; on the other hand, lip-smacking can be a friendly facial signal and is a form of submission in some situations.

As our brains have grown and our facial structure has changed over time, humans have been able to utilize their own ways of using body language in communication. While we usually do not show our teeth as a primary way to be aggressive, we have other ways to convey the same message, such as scowling, glaring, or using unique gestures like using the "middle finger.", which happens to tie in with language and culture.

Certain actions have been phased out in favor of newer ones like these, but by researching non-human primates, we can better understand how we used body language in the past before the development of things that are associated with civilization.

Conclusion: The Importance of Body Language In Modern Society

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In today's digital age, many people rely on social media and text messages to communicate with each other, and it offers a very convenient way to do so.

Although virtual interaction allows people to talk at their leisure and can minimize pressure for some, something is lost in doing so, and by being unable to see the person as you are speaking to them, you might miss important non-verbal cues on top of verbal ones like vocal inflections. Online communication is becoming the primary modality for millions of people, and there is the possibility that body language will continue to evolve to accommodate this.

However, body language has been around for millions of years, and despite it being absent in certain situations, it is still very much relevant, and it will continue to be for the foreseeable future, as long as people keep talking face-to-face. Research has shown that body language is vital for human cognitive functioning because it helps enhance the transferring of information and lexical retrieval. [4]

Producing gestures are so ingrained in all of us, and this is evident because blind individuals also use them, along with facial expressions at the same rate to other blind people as they do for people who have sight. [4] Interpreting body language is an ability that people can see have, yet those without the sense of sight still will use them no matter who their audience is.

All body language guides will discuss how essential it is to communication; however, hopefully, this one has given you additional information as to why it came to be, as well as possible future implications. In addition to its online therapy services, BetterHelp also has more informative articles like this one that discusses topics related to psychology and mental health. To learn more about body language and other areas related to communication, be sure to visit BetterHelp's advice section to find out more.

References

  1. Patel, D. S. (2014). Body Language: An Effective Communication Tool. IUP Journal of English Studies, 9(2). Retrieved from https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1P3-3465360101/body-language-an-effective-communication-tool.
  2. Speaking of Psychology: Nonverbal communication speaks volumes [Audio blog interview]. (n.d.). Retrieved July 5, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/nonverbal-communication
  3. Staes, N., Sherwood, C. C., Wright, K., Manuel, M. D., Guevara, E. E., Marques-Bonet, T., . . . Bradley, B. J. (2017). FOXP2 variation in great ape populations offers insight into the evolution of communication skills. Scientific Reports, 7(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-16844-x
  4. Pollick, A. S., & Waal, F. B. (2007). Ape gestures and language evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(19), 8184-8189. doi:10.1073/pnas.0702624104

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