Body Language: The Silent Messages

Want to be a better communicator? View seeing and interpreting body language as part of listening as in “listening” with your eyes. Listening is markedly enhanced or diminished by body language—yours and his, hers, or theirs. Body language is non-verbal communication such as posture, facial expression, arm positions, handshake, eye contact, and dress.

Frustrated, Annoyed, Person, Woman

What is Body Language?

In 1959, anthropologist Edward T. Hall used the expression “the silent language” for what we now typically call body language. According to him, silent language functions “in juxtaposition to words” by conveying feelings, attitudes, reactions, and judgments (Bauerlein 2008). “When the eyes say one thing and the tongue another, according to schoolmaster and minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a practiced [person] relies on the language of the first.” Consultant Peter Drucker said “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” Listening without eyes, that is, observing body language will help us “hear what isn’t being said.”

Riggenbach (1986) discussed the role of body language in various types of negotiations and claimed that 95 percent of the non-verbal gestures being received during negotiations are not used by the receiver. According to the author, the nature and interpretations of body language varies among countries and cultures. Finally, Riggenbach says, “Body language shows the inner feelings and attitudes of a person—actions do speak louder than words!”

Examples of Body Language

As extreme and irrational as these results and claims may seem, review some of your recent positive and negative transactions with one or more people. To what extent was your speaking effectiveness influenced by your body language? How much were you affected, as you spoke and as you listened, by theirs?  Some examples of body language (Quilliam 2009, Wang 2009) are:

  • Arms crossed on chest: Resists your message, closed mind
  • Touching nose: Thinks your words are deceptive
  • Hand on back of neck: Has questions/concerns
  • Raised eyebrow(s): Does not believe you
  • Looking at ceiling: Deciding
  • Relaxed and smiling expression, eye contact: Good decision

Look for repetition and consistency. A single type of body language exhibited for an instant must not be interpreted out of context with other types of body language. Someone might touch their nose because it itches or look at the ceiling because they admire the light fixture. You get the idea!

 “Research shows that the more a person’s body is hidden, the less trustworthy he or she is perceived to be” (Saracool 2012). Some related tips: Keep hands out of pockets, place hands on table—palms up, get out from behind desk, sit next to others—not opposite, uncross arms and legs, and don’t lean back in chair—suggests disengagement.

By the way, when you read body language, you are using primarily the right side of your brain. Your brain’s right side operates or thinks in a “visual, perceptual, and simultaneous” mode contrasted with your brain’s left side which thinks in a “verbal, analytic, and sequential” mode (Edwards 1999).

A Thought for Students and Young Professionals

As a college student or young practitioner, you are in a group that tends to be very adept at faceless communication such as using cell phones, texting, email, blogging, and tweeting. That’s fine—these electronic communication tools can be both effective and efficient. On the other hand, taken to extreme, you may be part of what Mark Bauerlein (2009) calls “The avalanche of all-verbal communication” and, therefore, you may be diminishing your communication ability. You may be less likely to understand the importance and meaning of body language, that silent language that is part of total interpersonal communication. You increasingly risk missing non-verbal clues, which could harm you and your organization.

Cited Sources

Bauerlein, M. 2008. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin: New York, NY.

Edwards, B. 1999. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, NY.

Quilliam, S. 2009. Body Language: Actions Speak Louder Than Words, Fall River Press: New York, NY.

Riggenbach, J. A. 1986. “Silent Negotiations: Listen With Your Eyes,” Journal of Management in Engineering. ASCE: Reston, VA.
Savacool, J. 2012. “Should You Trust that Man? And Can He Trust You?,” Success, December, pp. 50-55.

Wang, J. 2009. “7 Non-verbal Cues and What They (Probably) Mean,” Entrepreneur, May, p. 15.

Image: Pixabay


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