It’s true that the words we choose when communicating with others are important, but what about the messages we send that literally go without saying? Whether we’re in a formal setting such as a job interview or a social setting such as a first date, our nonverbal cues often speak louder than any words — yet what we convey with our face and body tends to be less purposeful and can fail to tell the story we intend.
Our nonverbal cues often speak louder than any words — yet what we convey with our face and body tends to be less purposeful and can fail to tell the story we intend.
For better or worse, people form quick impressions of others based on nonverbal signals, says Kerri Johnson, professor and chair of UCLA’s Department of Communication. And Johnson, a leading expert in how these signals convey meaningful information to others, points out that those impressions carry significant consequences.
Johnson’s research has documented how we arrive at social judgments — accurate or not — from visual exposure to a face or body. The first-pass inferences typically involve gender, race and age, but they can also include — again, rightly or wrongly — sexual orientation, religion and even political affiliation. Recently, Johnson’s research group found that facial characteristics related to gender can influence an observer’s judgment about whether someone is suitable for a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career or, within tech companies, whether a person is deemed better suited for a position as a software engineer or an assistant.
“As young children, we are told you can’t judge a book by its cover,” Johnson says. But it turns out we regularly engage in cover judging. “Sometimes those judgments are accurate and sometimes they are inaccurate, but regardless, we know that they impact interpersonal interactions in a profound way,” she says.
Understanding how people interpret head tilts, eye gazes, lip curls and other messages we send with our face and body can make us more likely to use those signals to our advantage. Johnson offers the following takeaways from the research that she and others have conducted:
Facial movements fall into two broad categories. Head shakes, nods, tilts and the like represent gestural cues as to whether we agree or disagree with the content coming our way; the expressions we transmit through facial contractions reveal information about our underlying emotional state. Beyond what we say, we might try to send signals with our faces — a smile of approval, a concerned look of empathy, a look of stern rebuke over an inappropriate comment. But Johnson notes that in doing so, most of us are subtler than we realize. “We find that people dramatically overestimate how expressive they appear to others,” she says. “If you’re relying strictly on your own facial expressions to convey your enthusiasm, it’s probably not as visually apparent as you think.” For example, if you want to send a signal that you like someone or something a person said, it’s not a bad idea to give a bigger smile than you might otherwise. Conversely, if you want to conceal your true feelings — say, at a dinner party, the host serves a dish you despise, and you don’t want to let on that you’re not enjoying the meal — fear not. “People think their true emotions and internal states are leaking out to others more than they actually are,” Johnson says.
Both the direction of the eyes and the physical orientation of the body matter, so if you want to indicate interest, look and face in the direction of the recipient of your communication. Eye contact signals engagement; looking away is often interpreted as indifference. But for certain negative emotions, the direction of one’s gaze can convey much more information than level of interest. Johnson points to research suggesting that if someone is staring at you with a frightened look, you are likely the cause of the fear, whereas if your scared partner is looking elsewhere, there’s probably another culprit that should concern you as well.
In the unconscious cues that we inadvertently send through nonverbal channels, the body communicates more than the face. “If people are trying to mask an expression of emotion, they first control what they say, then they try to control their facial expressions,” Johnson says. “They attend less to the cues they send with their body, so it can betray their intentions. It can reveal fear, discomfort and other emotional statements that the face might not.” Research also tells us that people don’t perceive body posture and facial expressions in isolation. “If you send conflicting signals with the face and body, it’s likely that what observers perceive in the body will contaminate how they read facial expressions of emotion,” Johnson explains. When we think about the messages our body is sending, we adjust. Johnson’s group has found, for example, that people change the way they walk when they know their attractiveness is being evaluated — with men tending to strut in a more masculine manner, and women adopting a more stereotypically feminine motion.
Johnson points out that even when the face isn’t visible, the body can tell its own story. “The same basic characteristics that communicate with the face are conveyed through the way people carry themselves — not just their posture, but also how they move their body,” Johnson says. Her research group has found that when gender is otherwise not apparent, observers can reliably distinguish men from women based on gait alone, and based on gender stereotypes about emotional expression, a body moving in an angry manner is more likely to be judged male, while a body moving in a sad way is more likely to be judged female.
How we walk can project confidence, or lack thereof, with far-reaching implications. Johnson cites research in which criminals were asked what makes a person appear vulnerable. Then, in the same study, other participants watched videos of people walking in an effort to determine vulnerability. For both groups, those who walk with an upright, purposeful gait consistently scored lower on the vulnerability score. One study found that teaching volunteers how to walk with confidence rendered them significantly less likely to be judged as appealing targets.
When we interact with someone with the goal of connecting, there is a subconscious tendency to mimic the other’s body movements. “The studies on this are very clear,” Johnson says. “If I tend to shake my foot or touch my face, you are more likely to do that — and it’s effective. It facilitates conversations and makes a social situation run more fluidly, enhancing the rapport between two individuals.” Remember that the next time you’re at a loss for words.