People in the workplace can convey a great deal of information without even speaking; this is called nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication can convey just as much as written and verbal communication, and human beings read and react to these nonverbal signals in the workplace. Body language is nonverbal communication that involves body movement and gestures, which communications researchers call kinesics. There are hundreds of thousands of possible signs that can be communicated through body movements and gestures. In addition to body movements and gestures, the nonverbal cues given through facial expressions and eye contact, personal space, and touch, influence individual interactions in the workplace. While this body language is fairly well understood in general in each culture, there are major cultural differences in nonverbal communication.
Gestures, or movements of the head, hands, arms, and legs can be used to convey specific messages that have linguistic translations. For example, a person might use a wave their hand rather than saying "hello", or nod his or her head in agreement, which means "yes" or "okay." These gestures can be very useful in the workplace because they are a quick way to convey thoughts and feelings without needing to speak or write. Additionally, many such gestures are generally widely understood, although they may carry different meanings in other cultures. For instance, although the "ok" sign that is made through touch of the thumb and forefinger with the remaining fingers extended is seen as a positive gesture in the U.S., in some other cultures, this is seen as a vulgar gesture.
In addition to the gestures that people use that have a particular meaning, people also use gestures that do not have specific, generally understood meanings. These gestures, called illustrators, add meaning to a verbal message. For instance, when giving a presentation, a person might use hand gestures to emphasize a point. Many people use gestures while speaking to others to accompany their words, and while these body movements may not have a meaning that can be pinpointed, they serve to embellish a person's words.
A person's body movements that convey feelings and emotions through facial expressions and body positions are called affect displays. These body movements may indicate whether a person is open and receptive, angry, distracted, or a number of other emotions. Many affect displays are commonly interpreted; for instance, individuals who sit in a slumped position and frown are believed to be disinterested or unhappy. Those who sit upright, smile, and have raised eyebrows, are seen as interested and happy. While these affect displays are often appropriately interpreted, they may not be related to the interaction with another person, and thus may be misread. For instance, if a person has a terrible headache, he may squint, look down, and grimace during a conversation, indicating to the speaker that he disagrees with her, even if he is receptive to and in agreement with the speaker.
Researchers also categorize certain nonverbal behaviors called adaptors, which are typically unconscious behaviors and are used when a person is tense or anxious. Examples of illustrators are adjusting one's clothes, biting one's nails, or fidgeting and toying with an object. Illustrators indicate to others that a person is upset or nervous, and behavior such as this during a job interview or a meeting with a coworker may be interpreted very negatively. A person who engages in such behavior may be seen as preoccupied, anxious, or even as dishonest. As with affect displays, such body language may not convey true feelings; a person who fidgets and bites her nails may be exhibiting such behaviors for innocuous reasons. Thus, while such behaviors are often interpreted correctly as presenting anxiety, they do not necessarily indicate that a person is in any way dishonest.
When listening to others, individuals often convey messages nonverbally. Therefore, care should be taken to avoid the following:
Although facial expressions and eye contact are not kinesics and therefore technically not body language, they are types of nonverbal communication that can have an effect on business relations. Researchers have found that people can identify with great accuracy seven separate human emotions, even after seeing only facial and eye expressions: sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, contempt, and interest. Therefore, without speaking a word, a facial expression can convey a great deal of information to others. Similarly, eye contact or lack of eye contact can also indicate a person's attitudes and emotions.
Research indicates that people use four different facial management techniques to control our facial expressions. First, people intensify their facial expressions, or exaggerate them, in order to show strong emotion. For example, a saleswoman who just made a major sale might intensify her positive expression by smiling more broadly and raising her eyebrows. Second, people may deintensify their facial expressions when they control or subdue them. For instance, an employee who just found out that he got a raise might smile less or look less happy after finding out that his coworker did not get a raise. Third, a person neutralizes their expressions when they avoid showing any facial expression. A person might not show any emotion when being reprimanded in the workplace or when attempting to negotiate with another businessperson. Finally, humans mask their facial expressions. This occurs when a person hides his or her true emotions and conveys different emotions. For example, an employee might express enthusiasm to a manager who gives him an undesirable task in order to curry favor with that manager. Or, a customer service representative might express concern and caring in her facial expression, when in actuality she is annoyed by the customer. Each of these facial management techniques makes is possible for people to interact with one another in socially acceptable ways.
Making and maintaining eye contact can have positive outcomes in the workplace. Eye contact can be used to indicate to a person that you are receptive to what they have to say. Additionally, eye contact may indicate that you want to communicate with a person. Finally, eye contact can be used to express respect for a person by maintaining longer eye contact. Interestingly, refraining from making eye contact, such as looking down or away, may indicate a level of respect for someone of higher status. A lack of eye contact, or an unwillingness to maintain eye contact may indicate discomfort with a situation, a disinterest in the other person's words, or a dislike of the person. However, the degree to which a person does or does not make eye contact may be dependent on their own level of shyness or extraversion and cannot always be interpreted as a reaction to a particular person or situation.
Researchers use the term proxemic to describe the way that a person uses space in communication. Each individual has a personal space, which is like an invisible bubble surrounding them. This bubble becomes larger or smaller, depending on the person with whom we interact. We are comfortable standing or sitting closer to someone we like and more comfortable with someone we dislike or don't know well standing or sitting at a distance. However, the amount of personal space that a person desires depends on many characteristics, including gender and age.
The personal space that a person prefers also depends on the situation. When interacting with friends, relatives, or conducting casual business, most people prefer a distance of one and a half to four feet. When conducting formal or impersonal business, most individuals prefer a personal space of 4 to 8 feet. Therefore, a person is likely to be more comfortable standing closely to a trusted coworker than to a new customer.
Although there are broad norms for a comfortable personal space, it is not uncommon for a person to feel that their personal space has been violated when another person sits or stands too closely. When personal space is violated, there are several reactions that people might have. First, they may withdraw by backing up or leaving the room. Second, if anticipating the possibility of a personal space violation, a person may avoid having their space violated. This could mean staying away from meetings, crowds, and parties. Third, people may insulate themselves from intrusion of personal space. A manager who puts her desk in her office in such a way that no one can sit near her is insulating. An employee who takes a seat at a the end of a table during a meeting might be doing so to prevent others from sitting near him. Finally, a person may fight to keep his personal space by asking the other person to back up or move away. In a business setting, it may be helpful to recognize the behaviors that others engage in when their personal space is violated. That is, if you notice that others step back from you when speaking, sit at more of a distance, or if they seem physically uncomfortable, they may have a larger personal space, which should be respected.
In the workplace, people may use touch to communicate nonverbally. The functional-professional touch is businesslike and impersonal. The touch that a physician uses when conducting a physical examination is a functional-professional touch. However, touch is not a part of most professions, and thus, this type of touch is not used often in business settings. The social-polite touch, such as a handshake, is much more common. This type of touch is used to recognize other individuals. It is an expected touch in many business settings. Finally, the friendship-warmth touch shows that you value another as a person. A pat on the back or a hug is a friendship-warmth touch. In most workplaces, the social-polite touch is the only necessary touch, and most managers and employees are encouraged to avoid using touch (particularly the friendship-warmth touch) in the workplace. While many people see a hand on a shoulder or a pat on the back as a useful touch to convey encouragement or concern for another's well-being, sexual harassment fears have made many avoid all types of touch beyond handshakes.
Across the U.S., most body language is consistently understood. However, in other nations and cultures, what is considered to be appropriate body language in one place, may be seen as highly inappropriate in others. As noted above, the American sign for "ok" may be seen as vulgar in other nations. Similarly, other types of gestures and body movements may convey unwanted negative meanings. Therefore, care should be taken before using gestures in other countries or with business partners from other countries. Body movements can also be misinterpreted based on culture. Although most people in the world understand the movement of the head up and down to mean "yes" or "I agree," this is not the case in all countries.
Norms and expectations regarding facial expressions and eye contact also differ across cultures. Because different cultures have different norms for respect, eye contact that is seen as relationship-building and respectful in the U.S. may be seen as challenging and disrespectful in other cultures.
Finally, personal space and touch are used differently in different nations. Americans tend to prefer larger amounts of personal space than do some Latin Americans, Italians, and Middle-Easterners. Germans, Chinese, and Japanese prefer larger amounts of personal space, similar to what Americans prefer. Thus, when conducting business with people from other cultures, it is important to understand and respect their personal space needs. Americans who do business with those who prefer less personal space may have to fight the urge to step back and therefore avoid insulting a business partner.
SEE ALSO: International Cultural Differences
Marcia J. Simmering
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