The Role Of Body Language In Communication

Updated December 22, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 their mind. For example, in poker, people try to limit their body language to prevent others from guessing their hands or what they might do. Body language can often get a person's point across without saying anything. This article will discuss how body language became a necessary part of our communication palette 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 actions and mannerisms such as:

  • Facial expressions
  • Gestures
  • Posture
  • Head movement
  • Eye contact

All these are universal to all humans, and people can perform them consciously or subconsciously to convey their thoughts and feelings toward countless things. Body language constitutes 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, they can shake their head from side to side to share 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 slouches in their chair in class and makes indirect eye contact, this will signal to the instructor that they are bored.

It can also enhance our verbal communication skills, which 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 that the person should be headed in.

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

You may not have realized it until now. Still, body language plays a significant role in everyday interactions, which is why it is one of the most popular topics in communication studies. It has been of interest for thousands of years - even the Ancient Greeks interpreted the meanings behind human physical behavior. [1]

Body Language as a Form of 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 because although these physical cues are unintentional, they can still be interpreted by others.

Take law enforcement as an example - a forensic psychologist or someone working with intelligence is trained to notice brief micro-expressions, quick full-faced expressions of emotion due to their unconscious nature. [2]

People in charge of 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 an apparent expression change at that moment.

Some other everyday situations where unconscious body language can occur are during periods of experiencing nervousness or attraction; 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 their face or scratch themselves as though they have an itch.

Most people are unaware of their body language in these situations because they are mainly performed subconsciously. However, they are observable to others, and people might notice patterns over time. 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 something 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 usually would not do, such as avoiding eye contact or talking more rapidly.

Evolution & the Origins of Body Language

The use of body language pre-dates any spoken or written language that humans have created. 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.

It is also believed that genetic differences are similarly responsible for why we can speak while our closest ancestors, chimpanzees, and bonobos, cannot. A variation of the FOXP2 gene is suggested to be why this is the case, and humans have a unique mutation. This mutation 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] The mutation stuck around rather than gradually being bred out because increased communication abilities increased our individual and species' survival.

Although they cannot speak like we can, studying non-human apes provides excellent insight into why body language developed in the first place. We can observe them and see how they use them to communicate with one another. The need to communicate is 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 of which humans also use. For example, a hard touch or brush of the hand can tell another individual 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 on two legs and beating their chests. Despite being exclusive to gorillas, humans also have ways to assert power and strength non-verbally, such as standing with our feet at a wider stance than usual. Some primates, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, are also known to pout; however, instead of signaling sadness or disappointment, pouting usually means wanting something related to food or grooming. [4]

In primates, gestures are often accompanied by facial expressions and eye contact. Baring teeth is universally a sign of aggression among non-human primates; 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 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 the "middle finger," which happens to tie in with language and culture.

Specific actions have been phased out in favor of newer ones like these. Still, by researching non-human primates, we can better understand how we used body language early in our evolution as a species and how that has influenced our growth and development.

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Conclusion: The Importance of Body Language in Modern Society

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

Although virtual interaction allows people to talk at their leisure and can minimize social pressure and anxiety for some, certain things are lost in doing so. By being unable to see the person as you speak with them, you might miss critical 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. It will continue for the foreseeable future as long as people keep interacting face-to-face. Research has shown that body language is vital for human cognitive functioning because it helps enhance information transfer and lexical retrieval. [4]

Producing gestures is ingrained in all of us, and this is evident because individuals who are blind also use them, along with facial expressions, at the same rate as people who have sight. [4] People with pictures can interpret body language, yet those without a sense of sight still utilize body language no matter who their audience is.

All body language guides will discuss how essential these non-verbal cues are to communication; hopefully, this one has given you additional information about why it came to be and possible future implications. In addition to more informative articles that discuss psychology and mental health topics, BetterHelp also offers online counseling services. To learn more about body language and other areas related to communication, be sure to visit BetterHelp's advice section to find out more.

Suppose you're interested in seeking online therapy from licensed therapists. In that case, it may help to know that a study conducted by Berkeley found online therapy to be just as effective as in-person therapy, with 70% of people with depression experiencing marked improvement in symptoms. Additionally, people with social anxiety have been found to more benefits from virtual treatment than in-person therapy.

Virtual therapy is viable and convenient if you struggle with communicating or need extra help and support. You won't need to leave your house to find or chat with a licensed therapist suited to your needs, and if you're worried about the ability to pick up non-verbal cues like body language, video talking with your therapist is an option. Please continue reading for reviews of some of our therapists from people experiencing different issues.

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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 significant 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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