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Don't Speak, Just Move: Body language as non-verbal communication

Priscila Roney's picture

Every look, every gesture, every twitch of an eyebrow, communicates an inaudible message.  This form of communication is just as important in the understanding of how humans interpret other’s emotions and intentions as the study of verbal language. In many instances, reading the movements of the body can be a more effective and accurate form of communication than words. For example, many of us find it very helpful to give or receive directions by signaling to right and left turns with our arms. Even if for the most part, we are unaware that we are doing so. This form of non-verbal communication, which has been widely studied in social and popular psychology, is commonly known as body language. It includes posture, facial expression and gestures in a manner in which a person voluntarily or involuntarily manifests his or her aspirations. (1) 


The manner in which someone communicates physically can be a powerful indicator of how that person really feels. Popular magazine Cosmopolitan includes a guide to understanding male body language on their website: “His Bedtime Body Language: a gallery of his sleep positions to see what your hubby is really like” and “Body Language of Liars” (2). While the degree of accuracy of these guides has not been confirmed, this demonstrates how the subject has permeated our popular culture. There are different theories as to what movements indicate what feelings or intentions, but the basics are: crossing of the arms and legs as a defensive gesture (one either does not want to be bothered or is seeking sympathy); holding of the hands behind one’s head signifies superiority; the shaking of arms, legs, hands or feet expresses stress; the fiddling with earlobes in males and the playing with hair in females means that they are attracted to the person they are speaking to (3). There is a long list that explains specific gestures and facial expressions, but one must be careful not to mistake scientific observation with materials readily available such as “Reading Body Language: Fast Seduction 101 Player Guide”. (4)


While the exact origins of body language are a subject of constant debate, there is evidence that suggests that there is a clear link to animal behavior. While some studies suggest that non-verbal communication might have been present in our ancestor’s behavioral patterns, other research suggests that it may have only taken form after the evolution of verbal language. The origins of body language also pose a question that crosses several disciplines: nature or nurture? Ethnologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt believes in the instinctive control of basic characteristics of body language that transcend cultural barriers. Most of us would agree that a smile is universal for “happy” or “satisfied”. Eibl-Eibesfeldt claims that one’s body language is a produce of genetics and personal experience (this would include environment, culture etc.) (1). Nodding one’s head for example, is not universal in meaning. Nodding to indicate “yes” is widely used to communicate acceptance in Western Europe, the Americas and China. In Bulgaria and Sri Lanka, nodding has the opposite meaning. (5). This would be a simple of example of cultural body language. In the last couple of decades, globalization has broken cultures boundaries that have not been crossed and in doing so has spread Western culture. The acquisition of different interpretations of nodding would be an example of how the environment would influence the reading of body language. However, genetics also seems to play a significant role that should by no means be overlooked. If we are not pre-programmed to physically react to certain stimuli in a specific manner, how could a blind child smile and laugh even though they have never seen a smile or laugh? (5)


Neurological tests preformed on individuals who have been diagnosed with communication disorders have shown that they also have problems in properly connecting speech with gestures. The abnormalities in their brain affect the mobility of their limbs and in consequence compromise their ability to properly communicate non-verbally. Aphasia for example, is a disorder in which patients do not have the ability to speak or to understand other people’s verbal communication. These individuals are also unable to interpret others’ body language or use their own bodies to communicate. This evidence suggests that the same part of the same brain that controls speech is responsible for the control and interpretation of body language. (6)


The part of the brain that controls speech is found in the left hemisphere and is divided into Broca and Wernicke’s areas (7). Broca’s area is responsible for the processing, production and comprehension of speech, and if speculation is correct, also in the interpretation and expression of body language. While the processing and formation of speech uses the supramarginal gyrus, angular gyrus, and primary auditory cortex parts of the brain, it is not yet clear how many of these parts are responsible for the interpretation of movements. (8)


 Furthermore, researchers have found that speech and gestures are processed concurrently and that a gesture, a facial expression or a posture is factored into an individual’s interpretation of a word. An experiment was conducted by neuroscientist Spencer D Kelly in which he measured peak and valleys of brain waves to study “event related potentials”. An electroencephalograph measured the patterns of an individual's brain waves when faced with a phrase or word. Kelly named a particular negative peak measurement N400, which occurs when an individual is faced with an inappropriate word (such as he spread his toast with socks). This negative peak was also present when the association between word (verbal language) and gesture (non-verbal language) did not match. When the speaker used the word “tall” and gestured to indicate something short, the same negative peak appeared; thereby confirming the direct relationship between body and verbal communication. (6). While this is a compelling argument that seems to be supported by substantial empirical evidence, if this so, why do babies develop gestures before they develop spoken language?


One does not have conduct a formal experiment to be aware that most babies learn how to wave before they learn how to say hello. During their first year of development babies move all their fingers, nod and shake their heads, kick their feet and reach for objects that spark their curiosity.  As they develop (commonly present at about ten to eleven months in girls and slightly later in boys), babies associate pointing and acquisition of an object. This is usually followed by an initial attempt to verbal communicate (“nana” “wawa”). While both physical motor skills and verbal communication will develop in the next fourteen months, the body language will surpass the verbal in efficiency (6). This evidence would support the theory of nurture in the formation of co-verbal communication.


While there are opposing theories as to how we acquire and express body language, what is truly important is the message that is being received. Not unlike verbal communication, the effect body language is much more significant than its acquisition. It is clear that there needs to be more research done in this area and an interesting focus to study the relationship between the intended meaning of certain gestures, expressions and postures (whether they are voluntary or involuntary) and the message that is actually being communicated – the interpretation. Communication is the foundation to many of the problems that plague or society and ourselves as individuals. The more we understand about the subject the better we will get at expressing ourselves and understanding our fellow human beings.


(1)   “Body Language” 


(2)   “His Bedtime Body Language”


(3)   “BBC – Body Language”


(4)   “Fast Seduction”


(5)   “Nodding”


(6)   “Scientific American Mind – Gestures Offer Insight”


(7)   Diagram of Human Brain


      (8) “Language”


Abed Elago Kantewa's picture


Is non-verbal behavior nature or nurture, if possible to give me same examples of the Nurture and Nature

Jennifer's picture

I completely agree with

I completely agree with Ankita up there. You were very concise and your passion on the subject shines through. Keep up the good work =)

Samuel's picture

Conflicting information

I'm a bit confused now! I've read your essay, and I've also read which seems to be suggesting that body language is a load of hooey.

ankita's picture


this topic is fantastic if read from a general eprspective but being a journalism student i wanted to search for an article describing non verbal comm and society.this one has been of great use as it provides a perfect makes one get into a thinking process that babies and blinds can communicate.though all know it but its all in sub concious mind.thus its awesomethough i need more info.
alas i can say-great work,keep it short-better than the best from science viewpoint