In the Disney movie of the fairy tale The Little Mermaid, Ariel makes the questionable decision to give her voice to Ursula the Sea Witch in exchange for the chance to be with a prince. Ariel asks how she will communicate without her voice, to which Ursula provocatively exclaims, “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language!”
Though evil and misguided, the sea witch was right about the power of non-verbal communication. It’s something I frequently taught my language arts students. In the early seventies, psychologist Albert Mehrabian conducted a well-known study that concluded body language is significantly more important than actual words spoken.
Mehrabian’s Communication Model states that messages are conveyed 7% through words, 38% through tone and voice, and 55% through body language. Body language includes our facial expressions, gestures, and posture. If we want to communicate elegantly, that is simply, positively, and effectively, then we must pay attention to the messages we send non-verbally.
How we communicate with others is an important life skill that can greatly influence our relationships and our happiness. Every day we have the opportunity to communicate positively with people including our family, friends, co-workers, and strangers. Psychologist and author Rollo May said, “Communication leads to community, understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing.”
We’ve all been in frustrating situations where our words are somehow misconstrued or misinterpreted. Here are some points we can consider to help us send a positive message through our body language.
- Posture – Slouching signals a lack of interest or alertness. Sit and stand with back and shoulders straight but relaxed.
- Arms – Crossing our arms can make us appear closed-off, self-conscious, or defensive. Placing hands on our hips can seem aggressive. Let them hang loosely and comfortably .
- Handshakes – Handshakes should be friendly and confident. Be careful it doesn’t feel like a vice grip or a limp noodle.
- Eye Contact – Looking others in the eye shows we are engaged, but don’t make it creepy. Just look at the person and keep a gentle gaze.
- Facial Expressions – Genuine smiles and nods show we understand and are listening. Try to relax the face so it doesn’t appear tense or angry.
- Proximity – Lean in a bit to show interest, but be aware of personal space and appropriate social distancing.
- Hand Gestures – In general, palms should be open to show, well, openness. Talking with our hands too much can be distracting and make us seem nervous, but an occasional gesture can help make a point.
- Fidgeting – Fiddling with pens, hair, phones, and other objects can indicate boredom or immaturity.
Body language is a powerful communication tool, especially when we use it honestly and sincerely. Unlike the little mermaid, we don’t have to give up our voice. We can learn to enhance our words with effective non-verbal communication to express ourselves more eloquently and elegantly. §
“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
~ Peter Drucker