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Nonverbal communication seems to have taken a back seat in the age of the Internet. The richness of face-to-face interaction cannot be replicated or replaced by any other medium. This article explores the role nonverbal communication can play in managing social relations at the workplace.
THERE are more ways to communicate than using words alone. When technology allowed the word to transcend time and geography via print, it led to the saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” But even with the prevalence of digital media today, the realm of nonverbal communication has not lost its charm and mystique. The importance it holds for us has been painstakingly captured in many places but perhaps none more powerfully than in the remark that the body language is mightier than the pen.
When meeting strangers for the first time, standing up to shake their hands or greeting them is a way of showing respect. Other aspects of nonverbal communication carry substantial weight in influencing the appraisal of others. For example, in terms of body language, a slouched or upright posture of the body can convey the attitude of disinterest or high regard.
It was cited that 70 to 90 per cent of the impact of communication is determined through the nonverbal channels. A study by the psychologist Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues in the 1970s gave 7 per cent to the verbal channel or words alone, 38 per cent to the tone of voice or vocal paralanguage, and 55 per cent to body language including facial expressions.
Anthropologist-linguist and cultural theorist, Edward Sapir remarked that no two individuals’ voices are quite the same, and a person’s voice may reveal much about his personality. In the age of digital media, much of our communication takes place via the computer. The convenience of E-mail allows us to connect with people who are otherwise out of reach due to geographical boundaries. The medium is also asynchronous so we do not have to be present to ensure that we can receive the response. The fact that E-mail is transmitted over a distance and not in real-time allows us time to think about the message we want to send, and lessens the chance of our giving hasty or incomplete answers.
These benefits are counterweighed by loss of fidelity in our communication. For example, we cannot adjust the tone of our voice to convey subtle differences in meaning. Though it is not well-practised, people who are conversing face-to-face can nod in agreement, or utter certain sounds like “mm-hmm” to indicate that they are listening and understand what is being said, which does not characterise electronic communication. The element of immediacy is lost or compromised due to the time lag in responding, resulting in decreased levels of sincerity.
Günter Witt was the managing director of a distribution company and had served in various sales management and marketing capacities for a German multinational company. He conducts seminars for the Singapore Institute of Management, SIM, and he is an expert in nonverbal communication.
Witt prefers a face-to-face discussion any time because it is often an enriching experience, and relationships can grow. In addition, one can also pick up subtle differences in meaning, adjust, and respond accordingly. He said: “I can only see one drawback and that is the need to respond fairly quickly. Sometimes we may get carried away saying something that is not in line with our final objective of the conversation. If I communicate via E-mail I can take more time to respond and the response maybe a bit more measured and rational.”
Besides the power of presence, face-to-face communication gives us the opportunity to look for feedback based on others’ facial expressions, and allows us to observe other idiosyncratic traits be it physical appearance, speaking styles, or behavioural mannerisms. Face-to-face communication reveals a lot. It becomes impossible not to send any feedback to others; this makes it a double-edged sword because there may be times when one wishes not to be intensely scrutinised.
The other important result of the Rosenthal study is finding that processing of nonverbal cues in some channels can occur very rapidly, almost automatically. This can have unintended consequences, for example, we may not be able to convey the right expression at a critical juncture, or the natural reflex reaction of others invokes a negative emotion in us.
Emotion and Facial Expression
More recently, emotion research seems to converge on the notion that the evocation of emotions is dependent on appraisal of events, and therefore have specific and relevant antecedent causes. The experience of emotion inherently carries an evaluative component behind it, and emotions are final, as opposed to cognitive interpretations which can change. Thus, the facial expression of others inevitably carry weight in telling us what others are thinking, how they feel about certain things, or what influences their judgment.
Researchers have also linked mood states to the interpretation of social feedback. One such perspective prescribes that an individual’s interpretation of social cues can be influenced by external environmental factors, current concerns, or emotional states which result in bias thinking styles, attribution patterns or inferential rules.
In a chapter in The Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology, developmental psychologist Kenneth Dodge, examined the field of social cognition for potential advancements via adopting a cross-disciplinary approach, and came to the same conclusion that biases play an important role in influencing processing of social information. He noted: “the real time demands of processing social information . . . suggest that breakdowns in behaviour may be related to processing overloads.” And said: “The efficiency of human information processing and the demands on the human information processor must be appreciated.”
More significantly, an article “Nonverbal Behaviour and Self-Presentation” in Psychological Bulletin remarked that “conveying the right impression at the right time and the right place can be an effort, and people sometimes are not motivated to make that effort.” In light of these observations, it can be summarised that the ability of anyone to accurately decode and respond to nonverbal cues depends on the resources at their disposal, and their motivation.
Witt elaborated: “Let’s talk about the resources available and motivation first. Apparently our brain is constantly scanning for signals if, simply expressed, the people around me are my friends or enemies. Nonverbal cues are analysed accordingly. If we receive ‘friendly’ feedback, we feel comfortable and if ‘unfriendly’ we go into defend or attack mode. So, in terms of resources (a normal brain) and motivation (self-protection, finally survival) we are all equally well equipped.”
He advises: “Decoding nonverbal communication is certainly another challenge. When decoding, we tend to jump to a conclusion like there is only one conclusion. Very often we are well advised to reappraise and think on more time if the same signal can be decoded in another way. For example, your boss questions you about your progress. This can be read as the boss is micromanaging or not trusting you, causing a negative defensive feeling (enemy). After reappraisal, one can come to the conclusion that the boss takes an interest in your work or that this is just part of his supervisory function, causing a neutral or positive feeling (friend).”
When living or working in close proximity, our actions and behaviour affect others in many ways. An unexpected loud noise, or sudden movements can result in emotional shock. This can be unpleasant if the excitation occurs repeatedly and do not serve any useful purpose.
Environmental psychologists William Griffitt and Russell Veitch conducted a study in which they varied the population density, or number of people in an enclosed space, and the temperature of the room. They found that subjects’ ratings of liking for another person were more negative in hot and crowded conditions than in conditions of comfortable temperatures and low population density.
One example is the standing distance in conversations varies among different nationalities. North Americans tend to stand further apart, while Arabs and South Americans tend to stand closer while engaged in conversation.
Another concept in nonverbal communication is the distinction between high-context and low-context cultures. High-context cultures tend to use fewer words to get their point across, while low-context cultures tend to be more verbally explicit.
He advised the professional to react to nonverbal cues straightaway. This can be done with a question. For example, if he sees somebody frowning, he would stop talking and immediately ask a question like “Do you have some concerns here? Could you please let me know what it is?” This would show that you are a caring listener. “You will learn what needs to be addressed in order to conclude the conversation successfully.”
Social psychologists Bella DePaulo and Howard Friedman in The Handbook of Social Psychology stated: “The most interpersonally successful communicators are able to read the cues of others and, in return, are spontaneously able to express the appropriate emotions; that is, they are nonverbally sensitive, nonverbally expressive, nonverbally self-controlled, and motivated to perform for their audiences. Former President Ronald Reagan is a good example of such a combination.”
The above standard is difficult to achieve, and unrealistic in light of the busy pace of modern life. In today’s workplace, multiple sources of stressors or assignments constantly tap on our limited time and resources, and exercising heavy drain on our energies. As a result, we may not always have the resources to respond to the demands of the situation.
To become successful communicators, we have to be aware of the impact of our body language on others, and be attentive to the social cues of others. Accurate decoding of tonal cues in the voice to differentiate sarcasm from sincerity requires effort, as does adjusting one’s tone of voice to convey the precise message with words.
Copyright © 2013 Singapore Institute of Management.