Fie, fie upon her! There’s language in her eyes, her cheek, her lip.Nay her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out at every joint and every motive in her body.” ~ William Shakespeare : Troilus and Cressida

Well it may not be quite so bad as Shakespeare describes, but it is a fact that what we do, and the way we say what we say can tell our audience far more than we may wish them to know!

This is often described as “Non-verbal communication” Adler, Rosenfeld and Towne in their fascinating book “Interplay – the Process of Interpersonal Communication”(1) describes this process as “messages expressed by non-lingual means” which encompasses all methods of communication without the use of language.

We should all be familiar with Mehrabian’s(2) claim that 93% of emotional impact of our message comes from the non-verbal part; a claim reassessed by Birdwhistell(3)who describes it as being more like 65% non-verbal to 35% linguistic. But while the figures may be in dispute the actual principle is that the non-verbal element is a major part of any communication.

It is impossible not to communicate. Just try to disconnect from communication – what would you do? Close your eyes? turn your back or even leave the room? Each one of these actions would have given the speaker a message about the way you feel. It is important to realise we actually transmit messages even when we are not aware of it ~ and these messages will be attitudinal.

Just think of these verbal statements – “I’m tired and bored” and “I think we should lower taxes”. Which is easier to translate into a physical idea? It is the tired and bored statement, which should demonstrate that it is our emotions, moods and attitudes that are conveyed by the non-verbal component of our communication.

So, if as Shakespeare seems to indicate above, that our whole body is engaged in our communication, what is the most obvious?

When we talk to someone, we watch their faces and often look into their eyes. This is because they are the most noticeable parts of the body; but it is also because these can be the most reactive parts as well. It’s difficult to comprehend just how much information can be transmitted by our facial muscles, and sometimes the change of expression is so fleeting that we can be left with a sense of an emotion rather than a recognition of it. Even if we try to disguise unacceptable responses, because we cannot see our own faces and because our face is so responsive to our emotions, we often unknowingly convey our true feelings.

Less obvious is the way in which we use our eyes to relay information. Eye contact is important to engage our audience in our conversation. But a teacher who glares at an uncooperative student is giving a far different message than his mother who welcomes him home from school.

Even the pupils of our eyes communicate! Researchers Hess and Polt(4) in the 1960’s measured the change of pupil dilation in both men and women when shown a variety of pictures. The results show that the pupils grow larger in proportion to the degree of interest the person has in the object. Hence, while all people reacted with enlarged pupils to the sight of a juicy steak with a fresh salad on a plate – it was the hungry people who had the largest reaction.

It would seem that watching our listeners eyes can give us a real understanding of where their interest lies. This could be a boon to salesmen; regardless of what they say their eyes should betray their real interest.

So while Cressida spoke with her whole body, Shakespeare seemed well aware that it was the facial features that gave her away – “There’s language in her eyes, her cheek, her lip”.

Now that’s something I never learned in English Literature.

Michele @ Trischel

(1) Ronald Adler, Lawrence Rosenfeld, Neil Town, Interplay – The Process of Interpersonal Communication. 4th edition. Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc, USA 1989.

(2) A. Mehrabian, Non-verbal Betrayal of Feeling– Journal of Experimental Research in Personality 5, 1971

(3) R.L. Birdwhistell, Kinesics and Context, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970

(4) E.H. Hess & J.M. Polt, Pupil Size as Related to Interest Value of Visual Stimuli” Science 132, 1960

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