Technique 1.39 Non‐Verbal Signals (including tone)


. Understanding non‐verbal or social signals (including overall body language, gesticulation, proximity to others, tone of voice, etc) is a vital component of interpersonal communications, comprehension, understanding, etc.

"...people may not often tell us in words what they feel, but they communicate their feelings in their tone of voice, their facial expressions and other non‐verbal ways..."

Martyn Newman, 2007

"...In conversations, people tend automatically and continuously to mimic and synchronize their movements with facial expressions, voices, postures, movements..."

Elaine Hatford has quoted by Robert Sutton, 2007

"...though we cannot literally read other people's minds, we spend a great deal of our daily lives listening carefully to what other people say, watching their faces, eyes and body language and trying to make sense of their behaviour..."

Robert Winston, 2002

"...the minute you open a business meeting or presentation, your first words will tell those present whether you are worth listening to. People are usually thinking about other things and you have to break their preoccupation. They'll give you a few minutes and then they go back to their thoughts, unless you hold them......your voice conveys a lot of information about tells roughly how old you are, if you're interested in the conversation, and if you are lacking confidence or feeling low......when speech patterns are conflicting or predictable, the audience continues to hear but stops listening. To be entertained, the ear needs vocal variety. It is only when the content is compelling that the quality of voice does not matter..."

Michael Kelly as quoted by Jill Margo, 2007

The importance of non‐verbal signal compared with verbal signals is demonstrated by the Mebrabian equation for interpersonal communications:

"...Message = 20% words + 40% body language + 40% tone of voice..."

as quoted by John Edwards et al, 1997

Others (eg Amanda Cooper, 1996 and Rose‐Anne Manns, 2007a) state that words maybe as little as 7% of the message while body language accounts for 55%!!!!!!!

Yet most of our communication puts emphasis on the "word" part of the message, rather than the tone and/or body language

. It has been suggested that the reason body language is so important, it that it could be linked with the human evolutionary process, ie language was developed after body language (gestures)

"...language may have developed out of gestures......chimpanzees are much better at sign language than their brains, the area corresponding to the Broca's area is involved with making and perceiving hand and arm movements. Deaf humans also have no difficulty developing sign languages..."

Furthermore, there is speculation

"...that bipedalism enabled early man to develop hand and facial gestures first and that speech only developed after the rules had been laid down in the brain for grammar, syntax, etc..."

Michael Corballis as quoted by Peter Watson, 2006

Body language or non‐verbal signals are important in effective communication, ie

" expressing internal emotional states to others, in reading their internal states, body language is very communication, and at its most basic, entails the ability to read and express emotions......gestures, how we stand or sit, the use of our hands are all very important in conveying deference, indifference, trustworthiness..."

Robert Winston, 2003

An example of body language is some of President Obama's idiosyncrasies
"...When Obama delivered bad news, he would frown, his brow would furrow and he would be slightly tilting his head downwards......if he was being funny, he would smile and look up to the left..."
Hany Farid as quoted by Siddharth Venkataralakrishnan

. Software is being developed where they are able to analyse facial coding, full sensing, gesture tracking and gaze tracking

. Research (Michael Slepian, 2013) has demonstrated that by watching professional poker players' hands, the quality of their cards could be determined. It is known that anxiety has a tendency to disrupt smooth body movement. The more smoothly players pushed his/her chips to the middle of the table, the more likely that the player had a good hand. This is more revealing than other movements like eyes, face, etc

. Body language and leadership are linked. A leader's body language will have a great impact on his/her followers, especially if there is some passion. The body language will re‐enforce his/her message. For example, passion is best expressed by action (including tone and gestures) rather than words

. In the Western culture, the most successful people are

"...more energetic. They talk more, but also they listen more. They spend more face‐to‐face time with others. They pick up cues from others, draw people out, and get them to be more outgoing. It's not just what they project that makes them charismatic; is what they elicit. The more of these energetic, positive people you put on a team, the better the team performance..."

Alex Pentland, 2010

. The importance of face‐to‐face communications. Alex Pentland (2010), stresses its importance, ie it is 2 times as important to success as additional access to information. Furthermore, it is thought that productivity can be increased by 10% by just rearranging the work environment to promote more employee interaction.

. Body language or non‐verbal signals include

gestures (how we use our hands, etc)

facial expressions (see later)



tone of voice (see later)







presence and absence.

These non‐verbal signals usually "speak louder than words" and can strengthen or damage your communications.

. As an English medical student, Robert Winston received the following advice about establishing good emotional contact with a "white English" patient

"...shake hands at the start of a consultation, make eye contact, lean forward towards the patient, do not cross your arms or fiddle with your pen, do not answer the telephone or turn to engage another person in conversation. Sit close to them if they are lying or sitting, and try to keep your head at their level. Show interest in what they are saying..."

Robert Winston, 2003

. Remember: the first impression is pivotal in determining others' reaction to you. Even before your speak, people are making judgments about you based on your body language, etc. Included in first impressions is the way you dress, groom and behave. This has been referred to as the "beauty premium". Based on economic research in USA and Europe, the "beauty premium" is worth 5% in wages and there is a "plainness penalty" of 9%; with women receiving a lesser premium and a greater penalty than men. It is claimed that the "beauty premium"

" mostly due to physical appearance rather than self‐ looks like there's no difference between discrimination based on race and that based on beauty. It doesn't mean that an ugly person can't rise to the top; it's just that they face impediments getting to the top in the same way that someone born overseas or a woman faces impediments..."

Andrew Leigh as quoted by Deirde Macken, 2008

. Non‐verbal signals incorporate macro‐ and micro‐expressions or messages. For example, if a person is nervous they will bite their lip, and there will be noticeable changes in the macro signals which include

heart and breathing rates

blood pressure

skin conductivity.

The micro‐measures are less controllable and more instantaneous than the macro messages. The micro‐indicators, such as inner eye and eyebrow movements, are more reliable indicators but harder to detect and more automatic than the macro‐indicators

For fear, the facial micro‐messages will include

the eyebrows pulled up and together

the upper eye lids are pulled up

the mouth stretches back a little.

Furthermore, our skin, eyes and heart all register changes when we make decisions.

. These micro‐message take 1/10 of a second to occur and are very hard to notice. Furthermore, you cannot make them happen on purpose and/or hide them. Thus, the micro‐messages are more subtle and more indicative than macro‐messages.

. This highlights the importance of face‐to‐face communications compared with other methods of communications, such as telephone, video and internet linkages, as the complex range of non‐verbal signals will be less detectable. A telephone caller maybe disadvantaged by not seeing the other person laying their hands on the table (that may indicate a readiness to negotiate) or their leaning back (which can indicate the rejection of a proposal). The significant cues of staring (which may indicate that we feel combative) or the placing of hands behinds the head (which may suggest that we think that we know it all!!!!) are not available in non‐visual contact situations

. Cultural differences that can complicate the interpretation of non‐verbal signals, such as the gesture of using the "thumb touching the first finger in an oval shape" sign which has meanings dependent on location:

in USA and Australia, it means "OK"

in southern France, it means "zero or worthless"

in Japan, it is the "symbol of money", ie a coin

in Fiji, it means "fear"

in Latin American countries, it means "jerk"


In addition to the above 5 meanings, this sign can have different meanings in different cultural settings. Some examples

- Ancient Greeks used it to show love for one another

- during the Roman Empire it was used in speech to emphasise a point. It is still today used in parts of Italy as a way of
"...making points in conversation when moved to express discursive precision, but when held still in an upright position with fingers jutting skyward, it's become an emblem of perfection..."
Wikipedia, 2020a

 - Hindus and Buddhists as a symbol of inner perfection

- Yoga circles it is
"...known as the chin mudra (seal of consciousness) when the palm is faced down, or jnana mudra (seal of wisdom) when the palm is facing up or held in other positions, such as in front of the heart..."
Wikipedia, 2020a

- in Anglo-Saxon countries it is used as a sign of approval or OK

- in Japan it means zero or worth nothing

- in areas like the Middle East, parts of Latin America, etc it is a vulgar gesture

- in southern parts of China, it can be used to represent the number 3

- appeared in a TV series and a film (in the 1967 British TV series 'The Prisoner' the gesture was held in front of their own eyes when stating the phrase 'be seeing you', ie a way of expressing goodbye; also, in 2010 it was the title of a Bollywood film - it was associated with the Vitarka or the symbol of 'om')

- in medical testing, the gesture is used to test the functionality of the anterior interosseous nerve and indications of palsy in the hands. 

 - in some countries it can be used to imply a bribe or other illicit financial transactions or a signal to enter into business negotiations or indicate wealth

- became part of popular school prank called 'circle game' in the 1970s
"...a person initiating the game makes a gesture palm-inward below their own waistline and tries to trick an opponent into looking at it. If the person looks at it, the maker of the gesture punches the opponent in arm..."
Wikipedia, 2020a

- used as a corporate logo, eg Indian companies (Piramal Group, Bharat Petroleum and Adlabs studios)

- in Europe's Balkan region it is known as the United Macedonian salute by Macedonian nationalists

- used in an upside-down version in the left-hand used by "far-right" groups as a sign of solidarity with white supremacy, ie White Power

Sometimes it is used as part of a combination in sign language or body language or facial expressions. These can convey numerous meanings across different cultures. Some examples

- monastic (a set of standardised ecclesiatical signs used by Christian monks under the vows of silence to represent religious rites and objects. Some examples include
"...when held out in front of oneself the gesture represented an oblation to God; when touched to the mouth it meant taking a meal. When added to the open palmed sign on a book is specified a hymnal, and the sign's O-shape represented the signing of an 'O' that begins many hymns. If the thumb and forefinger took hold of a specific part of one's own clothing or body such as a hood of a cowl, a lock of hair, or skin on the left-hand, the gesture could stand for things as diverse as 'monk' or 'horse' or 'parchment'..."
Wikipedia, 2020a)

- American Indian Sign Language (the gesture signifies the sun when held up in front of the face or moved in an arc following the sun's track; when held up to the sky and peered through, it represented high noon; the left hand to indicate sunrise and the right, sunset;
"...A more complicated series of movements with a hand held in the gesture as if drawing a thread or stretching signify death, or more specifically, 'after a long time, you die'..."
Wikipedia, 2020a

The gesture can signify a number 3 when held a bit lower than for representing the sun.)

- American Sign Language (it has many meanings depending on how it is applied, eg something small and
"...The sign of 'housefly' if made by making the gesture mimic a fly buzzing around......also communicates a selection of some sort: when moved from one side to other as if picking something out and placing it down, it means 'appoint'. When the joined thumb and forefinger of the gesture are placed into a hole made by the opposite hand, it means 'vote'. The sign of 'elect' is formed by making the sign of vote and appoint in succession..."
Wikipedia, 2020a)

- Finger Spelling (in the USA it is a letter F, while in Ireland and France it is the G; in the Ukraine it represents a vowel O; in Korea it is the romanised 'ng'; in Japan its means 'me')

- Counting (in American Sign Language, the gesture represents the number 9 when held in a stationary position with a palm facing away and when shaken from left to right, the sign represents the number 19.)

. A component of body language is the distance people stand apart when conversing, called distancing. Based on American studies, there are 4 types of distancing

intimacy distance (less than half a meter for people who know each other very well)

personal distance (around half to 1 metre is the range in which personal conversations are conducted as this distance permits normal voice and takes into account intense eye contact)

social distance (around 1 to 2 metres is the range in which one person is comfortable when talking to several at once, such at a party, in a crowd, etc; usually the voice is raised and there is less personal focus on any given individual

public distance (around 3 to 8 meters is the distance the audience is defined as undifferentiated and our voice can be raised with our eyes roaming the room rather than focusing on anyone in particular)

One needs to be aware of cultural differences in distancing. What is acceptable in some cultures will be regarded as too close in another culture, etc

. An interesting observation,

"...According to body language experts, if someone's feet are pointing the directly at the person speaking, then they are probably in deep conversation. If their body language is more open, they will be welcome to interlopers..."

Brad Hatch, 2006a

. Furthermore, we automatically assign positive traits like honesty, intelligence, kindness and talent to good‐looking people, and we make these judgments unconsciously

. Research conducted in the 1976 Canadian Federal Elections found

"...attractive candidates received two and half times the votes given unattractive candidates......follow‐up research with voters found 73% of voters strongly denied that a candidate's appearance could have influenced their choice and only 1 in 8 voters was prepared to even consider that a candidate's appearance could have affected their vote. This means they made their votes on a subconscious level without even knowing it......our brains are hardwired to react to another's physical appearance..."

Alan Pease et al, 2002

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