If someone rolls their eyes, shrugs their shoulders, or keeps trying to distance themselves from a conversation partner, they’re exhibiting clear-cut nonverbal communication. Though it’s not spoken, anyone can use nonverbal communication to send a message loud and clear. The issue is when the person on the receiving end fails to pick up the cues and expects to be explicitly told what’s up.
To help alleviate this problem, here’s a guide to some common nonverbal communication cues you should know for your interactions in life. Because when it comes to getting a message across, speech is silver, but silence is golden.
Eye contact is one of the most obvious and versatile nonverbal communication tools out there. If you’re giving someone one hundred percent of your attention and your eyes are glued to them the entire time they’re speaking to you, that’s an effective way to communicate that you’re invested in what they have to say. Alternatively, if you fail to lock eyes with the person and are constantly averting their gaze, you’re sending a signal that you don’t care about them or their thoughts, or are otherwise uncomfortable around them.
In our current era, it might seem commonplace to look at your phone while in the midst of a conversation with someone. It might even seem appropriate because of how often people refuse to make proper, cordial eye contact while communicating. But make no mistake: the more you associate with classier people, the more they’ll demand eye contact. It’s trashy to be sending a text while talking to someone. It’s disrespectful to let your culturally encouraged attention-deficit tendencies demean your conversation partner.
That, right there, is nonverbal communication 101: eye contact is a must. It doesn’t just tell the other person a lot about what you’re thinking, but it also tells the other person a lot about you.
One of the key ways to determine someone’s fear and anger levels is to examine their body for tension points. Are they clenching their jaw? Can you see their face muscles locked up, or their knuckles straining and fists balled? These are all easy-to-spot nonverbal communication cues that can help you estimate a person’s rage or consternation.
If you’re a boss and see a lot of grit teeth or rigid postures in meetings when you’re addressing colleagues or subordinates, realize this may be out of fear. Even if it seems like deference, such respect usually isn’t at peak potential if it’s derived from fear. Use this knowledge of your peers’ body language to gauge how you approach them and converse with them.
Use icebreakers and disarming tactics to help them feel a little less tense. This is important not just for your relationship with them, but also for their bodies. The American Psychological Association has written about this, noting how extensive tension can cause migraines and chronic musculoskeletal disorders.
With this in mind, consider that every bit of nonverbal communication your angry or worried conversation partner exhibits via tension could slowly be killing them or harming their health. If that’s your goal, then seeing them tense might be a victory point for you. But if it’s a regular occurrence with colleagues and friends, you’ll need to take note of their nonverbal communication and change something on your side of the exchange.
When you like someone, you’ll likely want to be physically close to them, perhaps due to the way they look, smell, or sound. Whatever the case, you may notice yourself gravitating closer to them during conversations, even to the point where you slightly overstep the invisible line known as “personal boundaries.” That, right there, is an example of nonverbal communication, since it shows you’re interested in them—in what capacity, who knows. But the closer you get, the more you’ll send very particular signals to the person on the receiving side of your attention.
By the same coin, if the person you’re interacting with seems to be inching away from you with every opportunity they get, physically shuffling little by little out of range of a potential handshake or hug, that’s a big sign. They’re not comfortable, they feel threatened, or they’re genuinely disinterested in any sort of contact with you. This nonverbal communication cue often signals that someone isn’t just uninterested in physical interactions with you, but any interactions period. If this distancing is accompanied by the person looking at their watch, tapping their foot, or averting their gaze, it’s a sign they’d like to be elsewhere.
How do you respond to this form of nonverbal communication? It’s simple: consider voluntarily distancing yourself. If the person’s demeanor changes and they stop being so closed off to you, that’s a sign it was just a personal space issue. Also, consider adjusting your voice volume. They might be creating distance because you’re speaking a bit too loudly. If you tone down your approach to interaction, you might get closer to your goal of a warm reception.
Counterintuitive as it is, distance can be the key to intimacy if that’s what you’re after. Interactions with new people or vague acquaintances you’d like to know better can be like tug-of-war matches: if you pull away, the onus will be on them to move forward, and vice versa. This can be a bit of a social powerplay maneuver as well if you’re in a sales situation and someone is either trying to sell you on something or get you to sell. Showing disinterest can spur interest, all through nonverbal communication.
Nonverbal communication, in summary
There’s a reason spy movies always star a suave, aloof gentleman who speaks primarily through arched eyebrows, stern glances, and balled fists. It’s because just like in those movies, a person who can say a lot by saying nothing is a person who knows how to get a message across. It’s attractive to be the fellow who conveys the most but says the least. Pursed lips and the right facial expression at the right time can get you very far, so the sooner you start observing your surroundings and your conversation partner more closely, the sooner you can master nonverbal communication and control any situation without speaking a word.