Body Talk

Improving communication by being aware of body language

Kelly Hennigan

Body language is the means by which people convey information through physical behaviors rather than words. Body language may involve conscious or subconscious body movements such as facial expressions, gestures or body postures. Communication style is highly reliant upon body language, because even when we aren’t saying a word, we are communicating. By being mindful of our own body language signals, we can improve the effectiveness of our personal communication. Similarly, interpreting the body language cues of others will enable us to identify potential elements of inconsistent messaging when others are communicating.

The History of Body Language

“I speak two languages, Body and English.”
—Mae West, American actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter and comedian

The scientific term for body motion communication is kinesics, which Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist who studied how people communicate through posture, gesture, stance and movement, first introduced in 1952. Ironically, Birdwhistell did not like—nor did he use—the term “body language,” as what is conveyed via body communication does not meet a linguist’s definition of language.

Birdwhistell believed all movements of the body have meaning and that nonverbal behaviors can be broken down similarly to spoken language.1 He estimated that only 30–35 percent of the meaning of any conversation is based upon the spoken words.2 This statistic was later reduced to a mere 7 percent in 1967 by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, UCLA Professor Emeritus of Psychology and author of the book Silent Messages.3 The book contains a detailed discussion of Dr. Mehrabian’s finding on messaging of feelings and attitudes, as well as the relative importance of words versus nonverbal cues. When communication across nonverbal and verbal elements is incongruous, the interpretation of messaging is based upon 55 percent nonverbal elements (i.e., body language such as facial expressions, gestures, posture), 38 percent vocal elements (e.g., tone of voice) and 7 percent spoken words. Apparently when the Blues Travelers crooned, “It doesn’t matter what I say … So long as I sing with inflection …”4 they were 38 percent right!

The 7 percent/38 percent/55 percent rule has been widely misinterpreted, as these metrics were derived as a result of Dr. Mehrabian combining two different studies. (Think about it: Can you watch someone speaking in a foreign language and actually understand 93 percent of their messaging?) As with most experiments, Dr. Mehrabian’s studies were conducted under very specific conditions; therefore, interpretations based on the studies’ findings are limited. The studies Dr. Mehrabian performed in the late 1960s were based on experiments that dealt with artificial context (a single tape of recorded words), focused on the communication of feelings or attitudes such as likes or dislikes, involved a sample population of females only (men did not participate in the study) and did not include other types of nonverbal communication (e.g., body posture).5 Dr. Mehrabian’s website addresses these misinterpretations.

Body Language and the Art of Negotiation

“What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer and poet

In order to be fully effective, all three aspects of communication (words, tone of voice, body language) must be congruent for the recipient to trust the speaker’s messaging. This is particularly important advice for those leading teams, working groups or involved in negotiations.

Changing your body language enables you to affect your emotional state. Here is some body language guidance to consider throughout a negotiation session or even a team meeting:

  • Before joining an important meeting, practice a “power pose.” For example, stand up and put both hands on your hips for two to three minutes—mimicking Wonder Woman. This pose may be empowering and could lead to increased testosterone and decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels.6 Social psychologist and 2017 Society of Actuaries (SOA) Health Meeting keynote speaker Amy Cuddy suggests this stance during her 2012 TED Talk. Subsequent research has questioned the true effect of this pose on hormone levels, as additional studies have not consistently been able to reproduce Cuddy’s findings.7
  • Upon entering into the discussions, walk into the room with a sense of purpose. Physically align with the individual with whom you are negotiating or in discussions (i.e., sit or stand shoulder-to-shoulder facing the same direction). This positioning reduces tension, defuses potential strong verbal arguments and aids in the ability to agree on solutions more quickly. Be sure to avoid turning yourself away from others, as that signifies you are uninterested and uncomfortable with the conversation.
  • Upon concluding the conversation, leave with a positive impression by shaking hands, making eye contact, saying thank you and giving the indication that your counterpart(s) should look forward to dealing with you in the future. Note that averting eye contact makes it look like you have something to hide, while exaggerated eye contact gives off an overly intense and aggressive vibe.

Gerard Nierenberg, an expert in negotiation and communication strategies and founder of The Negotiation Institute, recognized the link among the spoken word, body language and effective negotiations. Nierenberg wrote The Art of Negotiating in 1968 and had the perspective that negotiation is an acquired skill rather than an innate talent. As such, each of us is able to—and should strive to—advance our powers of persuasion. As Nierenberg said, “In a successful negotiation, everybody wins.”8

Physical Presence

“The human body is the best picture of the human soul.”
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian-British philosopher

Body language can serve several different purposes. It can be a replacement for our words. For example, we silently nod in agreement rather than speak the word “yes.” It can be used to emphasize what we are saying. For instance, in a heated argument, we may shout accusations and point a finger to place the blame. And, it also can be a tell-tale indicator of our mood. We might slouch in our seats around the conference table when we are bored or tired, for example.

Individuals should focus on the power of nonverbal behavior and ways to affect their own behaviors by actively auditing their body and paying attention to physical presence. One way to check yourself to ensure you are exhibiting positive body language is to remember the mnemonic device SOFTEN.

S → Smile
O → Open posture
F → Forward lean
T → Touch
E → Eye contact
N → Nod


Unlike negotiation, which is an acquired skill, body language is a natural, instinctive behavior. Across different cultures, people display gestures of pride and shame similarly. In a 2008 study, Dr. Jessica Tracy, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, compared the nonverbal expressions of sighted, blind and congenitally blind judo competitors representing more than 30 countries. Winning athletes tended to raise their arms up in a “V” position to celebrate their success and also puffed out their chests. Those who were defeated dropped their heads down and pulled their chests inward to make themselves appear smaller. These gestures occurred for both sighted and blind athletes, regardless of culture. Other research has shown that blind children will cover their eyes when they hear bad news.9 As people who are born without sight exhibit the same body language expressions as people born with sight, these behaviors indicate that body language is innate—unlike our spoken language.

Watch Your (Body) Language!

“And don’t underestimate the importance of body language …”
—Ursula in the 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid, by Walt Disney Pictures

Our bodies reflect our emotions before we even consciously know what we are feeling. Research shows that our feelings first appear in our body, and then only nanoseconds later enter into our minds.

Here are 10 interesting body language facts:

  1. Scientists believe there are six universal facial expressions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. Some argue that looks of contempt and embarrassment are also universal expressions.10
  2. Women typically are better than men at reading body language (and similarly are better at decoding what is happening in a silent movie).11
  3. There are 18 different smiles, but only one—coined the “Duchenne” smile—reflects true happiness.12 The Duchenne smile involves two muscles: the zygomatic major muscle, which raises the corners of the mouth, and the orbicularis oculi muscle, which raises the cheeks to form crow’s feet around the eyes.
  4. One of the best ways to establish rapport with someone is to touch him or her on the arm somewhere between the elbow and shoulder.13 The elbow is considered a “public space.” The gesture will give you three times the chance of getting what you want,14 and it makes a more memorable first impression.
  5. People are perceived as more attractive when they tilt their heads.15 This likely harkens back to the difference in male and female height, where women who tilt their faces forward are seen as more attractive and men are considered better looking when they tilt their head backward.
  6. When in a comfortable social interaction, our feet and legs will mirror those of the person with whom we are talking (also known as isopraxism, where we adopt the mannerisms of those we admire).16
  7. A normal, relaxed blinking rate is six to eight blinks per minute. People under pressure (e.g., when lying) typically dramatically increase their blinking rate.17 (Women also tend to move around busily when lying.)
  8. When feeling discomfort, men typically touch their faces. Women typically touch their necks, clothing, jewelry, arms and hair.18
  9. People under stress or feeling vulnerable will often “ventilate” their necks. For instance, a man will put his fingers between his shirt collar and neck to pull away the fabric, while a woman will toss her hair to allow air to circulate around her neck.19
  10. When people cross both legs and arms, they have emotionally withdrawn from the conversation.20 To prompt them to engage, offer them a beverage, as they will be more inclined to adjust their arm positioning.

Author Janet Lane once commented, “Of all the things you wear, your expression is the most important.” This statement particularly rings true upon meeting someone for the first time. Research shows that most people make an initial judgment about whether or not they like you within the first seven seconds of meeting you—based on your body language, presence and posture. While the first impression may be appropriate in the moment, it does not give us an indication of the person’s behavior across a longer time span and when exposed to different situations. To engage effectively with others over the longer term, put into practice some of the tips outlined in this article. This will improve your body language, your overall ability to communicate and your relationships with others.

In the words of Cuddy, “Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behavior and our behavior changes our outcomes.” Communicate and connect through body language. Speak to others without saying a word. Listen to the unspoken.

Kelly Hennigan, FSA, CFA, is vice president, Actuarial Transformation, at Voya Financial. She is currently a contributing editor for The Actuary magazine and was the 2015–2016 chairperson of the Leadership & Development Section.

References:

  1. 1. Givens, David B. 2016. “Kinesics.” Center for Nonverbal Studies. http://center-for-nonverbal-studies.org/htdocs/kinesics.htm.
  2. 2. Gleisner, Jan. 2016. “Nonverbal Communication Percentage.” Silent Communication. March 20. https://www.silentcommunication.org/single-post/2016/03/20/17-Non-verbal-communication-percentage.
  3. 3. “Mehrabian’s Communication Theory—Verbal, Non-verbal, Body Language.” Businessballs.com. https://www.businessballs.com/communication-skills/mehrabians-communication-theory-verbal-non-verbal-body-language-152/.
  4. 4. Blues Traveler. 1994. Hook. CD.
  5. 5. Mehrabian, Albert, and Morton Wiener. 1967. “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 6 (1): 109–114.
  6. 6. Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” TED. Speech presented at the TEDGlobal 2012. https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are.
  7. 7. Gelman, Andrew, and Kaiser Fung. 2016. “The Power of the ‘Power Pose.’” Slate Magazine. January 19. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2016/01/amy_cuddy_s_power_pose_research_is_the_latest_example_of_scientific_overreach.html.
  8. 8. Nierenberg, Gerard I. 1968. The Art of Negotiating. Hawthorn Books.
  9. 9. Pease, Allan, and Barbara Pease. 2004. The Definitive Book of Body Language. New York: Bantam.
  10. 10. Wainwright, Gordon. 2009. Body Language (Teach Yourself). Blacklick, OH: McGraw-Hill.
  11. 11. Pease, Allan, and Barbara Pease. 2012. The Body Language of Love. Brisbane, Australia: Pease International.
  12. 12. Supra note 9.
  13. 13. Supra note 11.
  14. 14. Banas, Derek. 2010. “Arm and Hand Body Language.” New Think Tank. June 27. http://www.newthinktank.com/2010/06/arm-hand-body-language/.
  15. 15. “Attractiveness Is All in Tilt of the Head.” 2010. The Telegraph. November 23. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/8153855/Attractiveness-is-all-in-tilt-of-the-head.html.
  16. 16. Supra note 9.
  17. 17. Navarro, Joe, and Marvin Karlins. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. New York: Collins Living.
  18. 18. Supra note 9.
  19. 19. Supra note 17.
  20. 20. Supra note 11.