You Say it WORST When You Say Nothing at All

Over the past several days, I’ve found myself reminded on multiple occasions of the significance of nonverbal communication. Well, beaten over the head with the concept is probably a more accurate description, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, nonverbal communication matters, whether we like it or not.

There’s a widely cited study from UCLA which indicated that up to 93% of what we communicate is done nonverbally. I’m not sure I’d bet the farm on that statistic, but it certainly smacks of truth. From the way we dress to our rate of speech to how frequently we shift our weight, every single element of presentation impacts the way our words (or lack thereof) are received.

In an increasingly digital world (who am I kidding- in our primarily digital world), the art of effective nonverbal communication is becoming somewhat of a lost art. Competitive speech experience taught me the tricks of the trade (no matter how much my college impromptu coach drove me nuts with the little presentation tweaks, he was always right), but even in the world of debate, and even in Collegiate LD debate- where “adaptation” to the judging pool was often touted as paramount- nonverbal communication was considered largely irrelevant by the most successful participants. Heck, I can think of at least a half dozen people who could woo a judge with flawless powerful nonverbal performance in a round, but came off as passive and reserved in personal conversation.

The problem is that our world is not entirely digital just yet, and the gatekeeper to participation in this world, digital or not, is often an interview or interaction with a flesh and blood person- a flesh and blood person whose eyes and ears are soaking up all the nonverbal cues you don’t mean to send. They won’t always be able to explain why they developed the perception of you that they did, but your nonverbal cues provided the blueprint for their conclusions.

So what, exactly, am I talking about?

  • Haptics = touch Not really an issue for most professional communication settings. That could get awkward real quick. Appropriate touch can convey sincerity, engagement and compassion. Lack of touch in appropriate situations can make someone seem aloof or inconsiderate. Inappropriate touch can indicate ulterior motive, turn your listener off to your message due to discomfort, and worse.
  • Oculesics = eye contact So it turns out the old adage of eyes being the window to the soul is pretty accurate. A person’s eye behavior mirrors their thought patterns, especially in instances of anxiety or deception, which is why behavioral analysts will often focus on this component with criminal suspects.
  • Proxemics = physical distance This aspect refers to the selected amount of space between a speaker and their surroundings. Appropriateness plays a role here, especially in professional settings, but by and large, the more isolated a speaker is from their surroundings, the more disconnected they seem from the subject matter and conversation participants.
  • Chronemics = timing How a speaker uses time can say a lot. If they’re taking long pauses between statements or before answering questions, they may be anxious about what they’re saying, trying to remember something or just lying. Other nonverbal cues often give this component context.
  • Kinesics = body language Gestures, posture, movement, etc. This ranks up there with oculesics as far as associated significance, and much like chronemics, its significance in a particular situation is dependent upon the context provided by other nonverbal cues.
  • Paralanguage = vocal qualities Pitch, fluency, tone… basically how you say what you say. Think about it as auditory kinesics.

So here’s my challenge to you. I want you to pay very close attention to the nonverbal cues of those around you for a full 24 hours. How are the little things impacting the way you listen and participate in conversation? How is your perception of someone’s message altered if you strip away the nonverbal cues? How often do you find yourself drawing conclusions from nonverbal behaviors, even if no words accompany them? Don’t limit it to others, either. Analyze yourself as you speak- especially in the office. Look at the little things. Do you look people in the eye? Do you sit up straight? Do you speak rapidly? Do you use a lot of verbal filler? When you’re nervous, where do your eyes and hands go?

There are two reasons for me issuing this challenge. One one hand, it’s entirely selfish. These past couple of days have opened my eyes to atrocious nonverbal habits, and as I shook my head in disdain, I realized that I could probably improve quite a bit in several of those arenas. Thinking back to my interview with Attain, I’m not sure I would have hired me, based on nonverbals alone. I kept running my fingers through my hair, switching from leaning forward to sitting back, over gesturing, laughing nervously, spoke too quickly, perpetually shifted my weight in my seat… I feel like I was probably a mess. Thankfully, my oculesics, proxemics, haptics (or really, absence of), chronemics and most of my paralanguage wound up making up for my awful kinesics and specific paralanguage deficiencies. It also helped that my boss probably was a debater in another life, but the point is that it could have gone an entirely different direction- and I should know better than to make those mistakes. I want to improve. Selfish. Oh well.

On the other hand, it’s worrisome to see this trend taking hold, especially in this economic climate. It’s not enough to be smart, or good at what you do. You’ve got to be able to communicate those facts, and if your nonverbals are saying something else, your results could be less than desirable. Why not nip it in the bud? Just something to think about.



  1. Stumbled upon your blog and yes, I love your random rants.
    Ahhh! Nonverbal communication still never ceases to amaze me! Thanks for reminding me of the basics- some that I have forgotten and need to be more aware of.

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