Career SkillsCogent Communicator

There’s More to What You Say Than What You Say

By Susan de la Vergne

You explain something to a colleague, something complex, and at the end you ask, “Okay, got it?”

“Yeah, I’ve got it,” the colleague says, but everything about his answer tells you he doesn’t get it. The words say “yes,” but his tentative attitude, that slightly questioning vocal lift when he says “got it,” and the way he didn’t move, not a hair, tell you the real answer: he’s unsure.

Or you come home from work and ask your spouse a simple friendly question: “How was your day?”

“Fine,” he mumbles, slouching and turning away, and you know immediately there’s no way his day was fine.

We grasp meaning beyond the words because we’re translating the speaker’s body language, that combination of facial expression, posture, gestures, and vocal tone that infuse our words with our intentions and emotions. Body language, it turns out, is a significant part of how we communicate.

In a landmark study done back in 1971, Dr. Albert Mehrabian at UCLA, a social psychologist, determined that our physical expressions and vocal quality (tone and pitch) are hugely important in conveying meaning, far more so than the words themselves. Dr. Mehrabian found, in fact, that 55% (!) of meaning comes from gestures, posture, and facial expressions; 38% of meaning comes from the pitch and intonation of our voice; only 7% of meaning comes from the words themselves!


So, then, it turns out that body language is pretty important in both conveying and understanding meaning. But “the science of body language is not an exact science,” says James Borg in his book Body Language. We’re dealing with human beings who are, as Borg says, “complicated systems,” so we shouldn’t expect simple, straightforward translations of gesture and tone.

Which is why slumped shoulders may indicate that someone is discouraged, but it might also mean he’s just tired. Or when someone blinks a lot, that may mean she’s nervous, or even lying. But it might also mean she just got new contacts or has something in her eye. It’s a good idea to take elements of body language together, not in isolation. Excessive blinking combined with finger tapping and fidgeting, for example, adds up to nervousness. But exactly what the nervousness means is still elusive.

Understanding body language lies somewhere between hopelessly ambiguous and reliably accurate, kind of a broad range. That sort of fuzziness may not be characteristics you like having to deal with. Many (maybe most?) engineers prefer straightforward results – one right answer, not many, and not subject to endless interpretation.

What to Look For

Some people are better than others at picking up on body language. If you think you’re among those who miss obvious cues, here are a few physical and vocal indicators you can be on the lookout for.

1. Posture: open or closed?


An open posture suggests a positive meaning or reaction, comfortable, and welcoming. Watch for things like this: hands are visible, not in pockets or tucked behind the back; good eye contact; in general, an easy bearing, relaxed.

A closed posture suggests the opposite, that someone is withdrawn, trying to create barriers. A closed posture “brings the body in on itself,” as Borg says in his book, arms close to the body, legs together or crossed, tension in the shoulders, not much eye contact. (In my many years of coaching presentation skills for engineers, I’ve seen this closed posture repeatedly, indicating serious discomfort with the prospect of public speaking. Even people who’ve said to me, “Yeah, I’m okay with presenting” sometimes belied their words by practically hugging themselves during practice sessions.)

What we’re really looking for here is whether someone is comfortable or uncomfortable with what they’re telling us. Discomfort suggests confusion, disagreement, doubt, and insecurity.

2. The eyes have it.

There’s a lot to be learned from watching others’ eyes while they’re talking to you. Do they look away repeatedly? They probably want to change the subject. Are they blinking a lot? A blink rate of 30 or more blinks per minute (up from 12-15 normally) is a lot. It would be hard to count and kind of weird if you tried, but if you see rapid blinking, the speaker is probably nervous about the subject, or even maybe not telling the truth. When the eyes are narrowed, that can indicate that someone is concentrating or it can indicate that someone is trying to threaten you or at least assert their dominance. If you see eyes narrowed, check body posture as well, as a closed posture combined with a narrowing of the eyes would more than suggest this person wants control.

Picture a pushy project sponsor insisting your project must be delivered on the original agreed-on date, despite serious scope creep. She narrows her eyes, crosses her arms and asks, “Are you saying you’re not going to hit the date?” Her body language says I’m in charge here.

A different scene: a controlled, circumspect project sponsor sincerely inquires about status, sitting comfortably across the table, eyes normal, not squinty. She says “Are you saying you’re not going to hit the date?” and she’s genuinely looking for an answer, not threatening, not trying to take charge.

Two very different meanings behind exactly the same words, and the way we can tell is from the body language.

3. Face touching.

In Body Language for Business, Max Eggert cites research that touching one’s own face is an indication of nervousness. Apparently, we’re seeking some kind of comfort when we do that. It’s an unconscious movement, but it suggests unease, and the more chin stroking, ear lobe pulling, or lip rubbing we do, probably the less comfortable we are. So if you see someone doing that, you’ll want to line up other body language cues to be sure they’re not just rubbing their forehead because they have a headache before you decide that they may indeed be squeamish about what they’re saying.

4. Smile, the real thing?

Turns out there’s a name for a genuine smile, you know the kind where the whole face is involved and the crow’s feet are in full crinkle. It’s called a Duchenne smile, named for nineteenth century French researcher Guillaume Duchenne who studied facial expressions and their physiology. We all know what a Duchenne smile looks like even if we didn’t know what it was called. It’s the smile you believe, the one that resonates across the whole face.

Then there’s the other smile, the insincere one, where the mouth corners go up and the rest of the face is completely meh. Don’t trust that one.

“Thanks for doing this,” your boss says, flashing you a fake smile. You don’t feel thanked at all.

“Thanks for doing that,” your colleague says, giving you a Duchenne smile, and you feel great.

Same words, different body language.

What’s Your Body Language Saying?

We read body language all the time, because we know it’s useful when we want to understand – beyond the words – what someone is trying to convey.

But how often do we think about what our own body language is saying to others about ourselves? How often do we come across as insecure (face touching), nervous (looking away), or withdrawn (closed posture)?

If you deliver good news in a tentative voice with your arms wrapped around your own waist, the good news is compromised. It doesn’t seem as good.

If you share something confidential, but you’re sitting in a chair splayed wide open, legs apart, it doesn’t seem quite as confidential.

So the next time you wonder why your message didn’t land quite the way you intended, take a look at your own body language. Did you undercut your own message?

Further Reading

There’s a lot to the inexact science of body language. If you’re interested to learn more, I recommend:

Body Language: Techniques on Interpreting Nonverbal Cues in the World and Workplace by Aaron Brehove and Roger Paperno.

Body Language for Business by Max A. Eggert

Body Language: How to Read Others, Detect Deceit, and Convey the Righ Message by James Borg.

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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