It’s been a while, hasn’t it?
Hey, everybody. I’m gonna ask you to hold on tight because the next few blogs are going to come pretty quickly. Call it making up for my unplanned absence. Righto! This post is going to talk about one of the most powerful and underestimated forms of human communication – all that stuff we communicate without actually codifying it into language.
This is an umbrella term that applies to a whole range of things. Emblems, for example, are a type of body movement which translate to a word – like how humans nod to signify a positive or yes response. Illustrators, are those body movements which demonstrate the shape or size of something – like when we say “the last time I saw you, you were this tall” and keep our hand at a certain height off the floor.
Yet another type of body language, regulators, modulate or complement our speech. In my public speaking class, when my colleagues and I asked one another questions pertaining to our speeches, a nod of encouragement was never far behind. Then there’s affect displays, those expressions that signal a mood – like an angry scowl or a toothy smile.
But wait, that’s just the body language. Nonverbal communication also looks at how we communicate with paralanguage, space, appearance and time as well. Ever heard the saying “word sounds have power?” Paralanguage is similar, because more often than not people pay more attention to how something is said than what is said.
With space, we can often tell what kind of relationship two people have just by how close they allow one another to get. With appearance, we draw conclusions about a person’s character through their personal style. And so on and so forth.
The basic idea is that even when we’re not saying anything, we’re still communicating.
One of the things I’ve always found interesting about nonverbal communication is that each culture has their own set of meanings for all sorts of gestures. In some places, belching at the table after a meal is welcomed – it’s taken as a mark of satisfaction and gratefulness for a good meal. Where I’m from, belching outwardly is considered rude.
The Eyes Have It
This discussion immediately made me think of times when I got into trouble as a kid. Whatever it was, as long as my grandmother caught wind that I’d done something less the favourable I was in for it.
So many things about my nana’s scoldings scared me – least of all the prospect of getting lashes. You’d think that would be the scary part, huh? Not even close. First, she’d start out by explaining to me what I did wrong…in the roughest voice possible.
Honestly, if I didn’t have an ounce of guilt going into the discussion, I’d certainly come out with some. She always said the same thing, so I know that what affected me most wasn’t what she said, it’s the tone of her voice. Even now, it’s giving me goosebumps just thinking about it.
Remember that guilt I talked about? Think of me in this situation like the movie puppies that hang their heads and walk away with their tails between their legs. My eyes found the floor pretty fast. I felt HORRIBLE, people!
Woo, almost lost my cool there.
The thing is, my family has mixed views of eye contact. The older half of my family holds that eye contact in this kind of situation where the power distance between my nana and I is pretty large is disrespectful. Maybe that comes out of their closer affiliation with times of slavery and similar power distance between plantation masters and plantation workers. If that’s the case then already we can begin to understand how culture dictates the meanings of nonverbal communication acts too.
Pretty cool, eh?
Alternatively, my mother (nana’s daughter, mind you) believes strongly in eye contact in pretty much every instance it can apply. Her thing is that if you can’t make eye contact, you’re not being honest – and isn’t honesty the best policy?
My mother, though, is obviously from a different generation. Maybe her personal experience is just that – dishonest people did not make eye contact with her, so those who don’t make contact as a matter of course are likely to be telling untruths. So identity clearly has a role in how we assign and interpret meanings for nonverbal gestures too.
Either way, it was confusing for me to be between “take down ya eyes” (stop looking in my eyes) from nana and “look at me when I’m talking to you” from mum.
Cyndi, the Errant yet Confused 7-year-old
Autism After 16