Basic Nonverbal Communication for the United States

This article is meant to make you aware of basic nonverbal cues from others and to help make you a better communicator. After all communication is a two way street. We will be discussing nonverbal communication in the United States covering three main areas: body language, space, and eye contact.

Nonverbal communications are important because they convey a majority of the message that you are trying to send. The human face can produce over 25,000 expressions and the body can assume over a 1,000 different postures or poses that communicate nonverbally to the recipient. The average person makes their opinion of others within 30 seconds of seeing them. They do this by sight 82% of the time, 11% through the ears, and 7% through other senses. In fact 55% of what people "say" comes from our body language or nonverbal communications.

The first step in nonverbal communications is to be aware of your posture. There are two basic types of posture. The first is open, which communicates that you are ready to talk, listen or that you're interested in the other person. The second is a closed posture where you look unapproachable and it communicates discomfort and disinterest in others.

The most common forms of bad posture are head forward and slouching. People who slouch or push their heads forward are sending a message of closed posture and lack of confidence. When a person pushes their head forward and rounds their shoulders they are communicating subservience, humility, and disregard for the person speaking to them. If you work on a computer for a majority of your day chances are you have this posture because you sit like this all day. The second most common bad posture is the slouch, which shows insecurity, illness, boredom or indifference.

Next we are going to talk about blocking behaviors. Blocking, no matter how good or poor your posture, will shut down communication with others and can be a sign that you wish they would stop talking or that you are not interested in what they are saying. The most common of these are the fig leaf, where you place your hands in front of you together; some women will use their purse or a coffee mug. Crossed arms are also a big indicator that a person is not willing to listen or that they feel offended by what you are saying. People will also do subtle things like placing a finger over the lips to indicate that they want you to stop talking. People may even rub their eyes so that they can block out what you are saying because they don't want to hear it.

Spacing is about your proximity to others. It is divided into four categories Public, Social, Personal, and Intimate. When working with clients, students or co-workers you will want to stay in the social spacing, usually between 4-12 feet. However, if you need to grab someone's attention then entering their personal space is the easiest way to obtain and keep their attention, which somewhere between 1.5 -4 feet. If you are addressing a large group then you will most likely find yourself in the public spacing where you will require a microphone or will need to exaggerate your voice and hand gestures to enhance your message. People tend to not take things personally in this type of space since they are distanced from you. Finally the Intimate space from 1.5 feet or less is not
a good idea to do with people that you are not friends or better with. People can feel that you are invading their space and this may make them feel distrust or nervousness so your message gets lost because they are distracted.

To help with the common spacing blunders here are three spacing hints to help you be more successful.

  1. If you are not in the appropriate space for your relationship with the individual you are talking to, your message will not be received as you intended.
  2. If you do find that you have violated someone's personal space or misjudge your spacing, take a step backwards and turn your body slightly to the side. This reduces tension and can save that message you were trying to convey.
  3. People who are in positions of power or have higher status in the company will expect more space. This can be due to security or that they are not accustomed to having people close to them. Either way a good rule is to give them an extra five steps in the general rules of personal spacing.

Eye contact is the best way to ensure that your message is being received.
You can tell that your listener is engaged in the conversation if they are maintaining eye contact at least 60% of the time. If not, your message may be lost. The best eye contact usually follows these rules:

  • Maintain eye contact between 5 – 10 seconds and then
  • Break eye contact to the left or right
  • Resume eye contact

Do not look down as this can indicate submission or deceit, do not look up as this can indicate frustration or disinterest.

When you practice good eye contact you are communicating that you are engaged with the other person, that you are confident, you are present in the conversation (you're not thinking about what you would rather be doing), and that you are listening.

Poor eye contact can say a lot to the person you're talking with. For instance if someone rolls their eyes or looks up they are saying that they are bored or that they do not care what you are saying. Excessive blinking tells its own story. If someone starts to increase the rate at which they are blinking they are becoming more anxious during your conversation and you are losing them. If you ask a question and the other person starts blinking rapidly, they may be bending the truth. If you or they are constantly looking down, this may be indicating insecurity, shame, or dishonesty. If someone breaks eye contact and is constantly looking around they may be completely uninterested in what you are saying and may be looking for an opportunity to escape.

I know that most of us want to make good eye contact, however, there is a point where eye contact becomes staring and it creates tension and make others feel self-conscious. If you are making eye contact for more than 10 seconds you are staring. Look away, you are not conveying engagement.
So what we should take away from this is that nonverbal communications can really say more then what verbal communication can sometimes. Within 30 seconds people will make a judgment about you. It can make or break your relationship with them and once made can be very hard to change. Know the appropriate space to leave between you and the person you are talking to, you don't want your message to be ignored. You can't go wrong with the social space, which is just out of arms reach. Eye contact can communicate that you are listening and engaged but can also be a cue that they are not receiving or that they are not interested in what you are saying.

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