The Elegance of Positive Body Language

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

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The Elegance of Not Cussing

“Language is the dress of thought; every time you talk, your mind is on parade,” wrote Samuel Johnson in the 1700s. It’s certainly still true today. We can be dressed to the nines, but the words we speak must be equally beautiful for us to have any hope of being elegant. As a former language arts teacher, I’m aware of many things we can do to improve our communication, but we can start by not swearing.

The ubiquitous use of expletives has made it easy for them to slip into our conversation. Words that dropped jaws a generation ago, barely get a reaction today. Network television still has a list of taboo words, but even cable news is peppered with four-letter expressions. Throw in movies, reality shows, social media, and routine conversation, and we are exposed to a slew of curse words every day. In a 2018 report, Business Insider said the average American utters 80 to 90 curse words a day!

Swearing is most often done to express anger. And aren’t we an increasingly angry lot? Life can be stressful, and venting with the perfect four-letter word might initially feel like a good way to let off steam. However, in my experience, it does nothing to help me feel better and makes me question my self-control. If we aim to be elegant, profanity-laced rants undo any attempt to be calm, cool, and collected.

Swearing is frequently used in an attempt at humor. I once spent an evening at a comedy club and left feeling like I needed a long shower with lots of soap. We’ve all seen colorful sayings on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers. These quips might make us giggle, but surely we can think of more clever things to say. In the words of Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.”

Cussing can make us seem less refined and even boring. CEO and author Michael Hyatt said, “If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it, you’re not that interesting.” Ouch. Conversing can be difficult and can even produce anxiety in some. Relaxed conversation takes practice, and we can learn to edit out bad words. Cursing downgrades any conversation.

I was recently at a social event, and while I wasn’t particularly offended by the conversation laden with profanity, I knew others within earshot would be. I excused myself and went to the restroom feeling like an old fuddy-duddy. Then I reassured myself that the whole point of good manners is to make others feel at ease. Swearing can be disrespectful and make others feel uncomfortable, so it’s simply not polite.

Finally, it is never okay to swear at or in front of children. Research shows cursing at a child causes increased aggression and insecurity. Children are going to imitate what adults say, even when they don’t know the meaning of the words. I’m not one who finds it cute when children repeat curse words. Every adult is a role-model to every child and should take that responsibility to heart.

Some may counter that swearing doesn’t really hurt anybody, and maybe I should lighten up. Perhaps. But as someone who spent decades teaching poetry and literature, I long for beautiful words and phrases. Why put an ugly word out into the world when we can choose a lovely one? I agree with contemporary author Rajesh Walecha who wrote, “Speak beautiful words to create a beautiful world.” §

“The wise one fashions speech with their thought, sifting it as grain is sifted through a sieve.”
~ Buddha

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