|Knowing body language
and improves understanding
by John Fisher
A classic photo of Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime
Minister of England, shows her fingers in a V for Victory. The problem
was she reversed her hand with her hand outward instead of showing her
palm. In England this is commonly regarded as a rude gesture, much
like Americans use the middle finger as an obscenity and insult.
So why is it important we know what gestures mean? Some
scholars say that as much as 75 percent of our meaning is in our nonverbal
gestures while only 25 percent is in the words. In other words, actions
speak louder than words.
Yet, our nonverbal communication can be confusing.
This is because sometimes one code communicates a variety of meanings,
and then other times a variety of codes communicate the same meaning. Sometimes
we intend to say something and what we say is completely different to the
receiver than what we meant to say.
A man stands inside of a closed glass phone booth.
You cannot hear a word he says, but you see his postures, gestures, and
facial expressions. You see his kinesics. --Marjorie F. Vargas (Louder
Than Words, p. 67)
Kinesics is the study of body movement, facial expressions,
and gestures. Five kinds of kinesics are used in our everyday communication.
These five are emblems, illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adaptors.
Emblems are body movements that substitute for words and
phrases. We beckon with are first finger to mean “come here.”
We use an open hand held up to mean “stop.” However, be wary of emblems;
they may mean something different in a different culture.
In much of the world today, the thumbs up means, "O.K.",
"Right On!", or "I like this movie.” But in Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria
and parts of Italy and Greece it is an obscene insult, especially when
combined with a sweep of the arms.
The second form of kinesics, illustrators, accompany and
reinforce our verbal messages. For example, we nod our head when
we say yes, shake our head when we say no, stroke our stomach when we are
hungry, and shake our fists when we are angry.
Illustrators tend to be more universal than other kinds
of body movement. However, they can also be misinterpreted. Even
men and women regard the simple nod differently. Many women may think
a man is agreeing when he nods his head as she speaks, but actually all
he is say is “I hear you.” When they get into a meeting together
and she finds him speaking out against her idea, she may be surprised and
angry, because she thought she had his support.
The third kind of kinesics is affect displays. Affect
displays are movements of the face and body which show emotion. Consider
how you react when your favorite team scores, or watch your angry teenager
slam the door as she leaves the room, and look at two men threaten each
other when they are upset but don’t dare to fight openly.
Regulators are the fourth category of kinesics.
They control the flow and pace of our communication. When we start
to move away, it is a signal that we want the communication to stop.
When we look away or at the floor it shows we may be disinterested.
When we yawn we are bored or maybe just tired.
There is a whole area of study that deals with turntaking,
the use of regulators to let someone know when we want to speak, when we
want them to speak, or when we don’t want to speak. When we want
to speak, maybe we raise a finger or lift our head. When we want to let
the other person speak, we pause and look away. When we don’t want to speak,
we may nod or raise a hand. It’s a real science, but somehow
we learn all these skills without ever taking a lesson.
The final area of kinesics is adaptors. We use adaptors
to relieve tension. We tap the desk, or twist our hair. We
shake our legs or rub our nose. Sometimes these are nervous habits.
Others are involuntary ticks. I found out when I stayed with an uncle
that we shared some common adaptors. He covered his mouth with a
finger when he spoke, something I also did, but didn’t notice my father
doing. Yet obviously, I must have learned it from my father.
How does it help to know about kinesics? Understanding
nonverbal communication can help us communicate better. We avoid
misunderstandings. We are clearer in the meanings we
Judy C. Pearson and Paul E. Nelson. An Introduction
to Human Communication: Understanding and Sharing, 8th edition. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.
The finger http://www.ooze.com/finger/html/foriegn.html
Copyright December 2001