Language, the subject of several articles I’ve done for the psychology section of the website now, is one of the most complex human functions imaginable, but perhaps even more amazing is the fact that language does not necessarily have to involve words. Humans have the extraordinary ability to use body movements to convey meaning and understand universally what these movements mean when they see others people do them. This area is highly interesting for psychologists, since understanding it better may enable us to help those who have problems understanding non-verbal behaviour, and may give us greater insight into the development of language in general.
Have you ever found yourself talking on the phone and using hand gestures, even though the person on the other end can’t see you? Or maybe had a text misunderstood, because you couldn’t properly convey sarcasm? These problems are caused since we have a natural and innate tendency to use non-verbal behaviour and when this is not possible due to modern day technology, the possibilities of communication suffer. This is one of the most obvious reasons for the current success of emoticons on texts, since they allow the person typing some method to convey the emotion and context of their message.
Some researchers estimate that there are approximately 20,000 different precise facial expressions, and around 700,000 different physical gestures altogether, and even a tiny conversation can involve the use of many of these expressions, so it’s an extremely complex system to understand what somebody is trying to say during an interaction, so one may wonder whether it’s really worth using non-verbal communication, but in fact there are many important functions to this form of communication.
Firstly, it offers information about feelings of others, and can help us know whether someone likes us or not, as well as help us understand the intention of a statement, for example with the use of sarcasm. It is very important for regulating all interaction, for example, eye contact lets us know that someone wishes to talk to us or is expecting us to say something to them. Eye contact can also express intimacy between two people. Sometimes, proxemics, which refers to the positioning of people in space relates to intimacy as well, and could show who has dominance or control, as those who stand more upright and look down at others are generally assumed to be in charge. Finally, and most obviously, it can be used to gesture towards relevant information, for example pointing at the thing you are talking about.
One of the major reasons for researching this area is that there are particular groups who suffer with using non-verbal communication as they do not learn it innately as most people do. Because of this, they have to be taught some of the rules, but even then they very rarely reach the ability of other children. This means that they are permanently a little behind at understanding what others mean and can take things more literally than they are meant. Those with Autism in particular have problems understanding what is meant by non-verbal cues, and tend to avoid eye-contact, which is an important non-verbal behaviour associated with regulation of conversations, without this they find it difficult to know when they should speak and misunderstand what others mean as they only have the language information itself to go from. It is through those with Autism that we see just how much of an impact non-verbal communication has in our everyday lives.
Hopefully with further research into the area, we will be able to help those who struggle to use this type of communication, and can improve training for the understanding of non-verbal cues.
Image from: http://www.facilitationfirst.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Facialexpressions.jpg