4 nonverbal communication cues your coworkers do (and what they mean)

Our voice is just one way that we communicate with those around us.

Our facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and body language also have a profound effect on how we interact with others and build relationships. 

Here is your complete guide to nonverbal communication in the workplace. 

Nonverbal communication in the office

There are many different types of nonverbal communication. Those types include the gestures we make, eye contact, facial expressions, touch, and even the amount of physical space that we maintain between ourselves and coworkers. 

We often send messages to those around us without even knowing it, much less saying it

Here are the top 4 ways that we nonverbally communicate. 

1. Gestures

Gestures are movements that we make to directly communicate with one another. Sometimes, they help emphasize certain points or clarify what we are saying. For instance, a simple wave is a gesture that is akin to saying hi. But on the other hand, fingerpointing is a way to focus attention directly on a person or a thing that, in some situations, can come across as hostile. 

Be aware of how your gestures are interpreted by those around you. 

This is especially true if you are around people of other cultures. For example, a thumbs-up gesture in the United States is a positive cue that means “good” or “okay”, but don’t make that gesture in the Middle East. In countries like Iran and Iraq, it’s interpreted the same as giving someone the middle finger in the U.S. Not good! 

How to make gestures count:

  • Understand cultural significance
  • Ensure they are used in the right context, and
  • Be sensitive to gestures when arguing, as they can be offensive

2. Eye contact

Eye contact is a great nonverbal way to convey that you are fully paying attention to the other person (it’s also respectful). Maintaining eye contact is an integral way of ensuring a consistent flow to the conversation. It helps make conversations go smoother. 

And believe it or not, it also communicates dominance or submissiveness. “When the chin is down and one looks upward, we interpret this as submissive; chin up with the eyes looking downward is seen as dominant,” wrote Successfully Speaking

However, certain types of eye contact can signal hostility, especially eye contact coupled with lowering of the brow. In addition, prolonged eye contact (aka staring) in some situations can be awkward for the other person. After all, nobody likes to be stared at. 

In addition, frequent blinking can convey nervousness or a lack of confidence. 

Show respect by making eye contact, but don’t overstay your welcome. 

3. Facial expressions

Perhaps the most common way to communicate nonverbally, facial expressions convey a wide variety of emotions. For instance, the universal facial expression for happiness is a simple smile, while furrowing your brow can mean anger, frustration, or hostility. 

According to the CBC in Canada, we biologically exhibit seven facial expressions nearly every day, regardless of our culture. These expressions include anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, and contempt. We convey these emotions often without even knowing it. 

“With 43 different muscles, our faces are capable of making more than 10,000 expressions, many of them tracing back to our primitive roots,” wrote CBC. It’s important that we understand the expressions that we make to ensure we are communicating the right message. 

Facial expressions give us away. They reveal what we’re thinking. And, some research has indicated that our facial expressions may also influence how we feel. Whenever possible, put on a happy face because it could just make you happier. 

4. Touch

Though not all of us use touch to the same degree, physical contact is a very clear and direct way to convey a connection between two people. Just be sure that connection goes both ways. For instance, a hand placed on someone’s shoulder can show support. But in some situations, it can also be inappropriate or misinterpreted in a negative way. 

Other ways that we communicate through physical touching: a handshake to end a business meeting, a firm grip on someone’s arm to indicate control, a hug to show love, or, yes, even a push or jab to convey hostility and aggression. 

We reveal nonverbal cues all the time, often without even knowing it. 

Effective communication in the workplace will depend in part on nonverbal communication styles and how well we control our facial expressions, gestures, body language, and touch. 

For instance, does folding your arms when you’re talking to someone convey anger, or are you innocently relaxing your arms for a few moments? Or, how about your habit of crossing your legs when sitting down? Are people sensing that you’re relaxed or being defensive? 

Pay close attention to your body language. It might reveal more about yourself than you want.