Sometimes gestures are critical. I can remember when I was in the dentist’s chair having my wisdom teeth chiseled from my lower jaw. I was breathing laughing gas and had been shot full of anesthetic, but somehow I could still sense the intense pain. Unable to speak, I was saved by making the T-shaped “time-out” sign with my hands. Such a symbolic gesture is nonverbal, in the sense of unspoken. But we are constantly using more subtle forms of nonverbal communication, from unconscious gestures to pheromones.
On the Internet, the Nonverbal Library, maintained by Marco Pacori, an Italian psychologist and psychotherapist, explores a fascinating array of signals we broadcast to help make ourselves understood. The site divides the torrent of nonverbal information flooding our senses into six major categories: Proxemic, Kinesic, Paralanguage, Touch and skin signals, Color and Light, and finally, Odors and Pheromones. The terminology alone tells me I am in a subject area far afield from anything I studied in school. For example, as explained in Wikipedia, “The term proxemics was introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1966 to describe set measurable distances between people as they interact. The effects of proxemics, according to Hall, can be summarized by the following loose rule: “Like gravity, the influence of two bodies on each other is inversely proportional not only to the square of their distance but possibly even the cube of the distance between them.”
But these somewhat arcane categories—which can be easily perused with the menu on the left—are indispensable keys to understanding human behavior. Pacori’s site leads to research articles on the many facets of how we communicate. In his General Info section, he reminds us that while most nonverbal behavior is unconscious, the experts believe it accounts for roughly 50 percent of what we really mean to say. The tone of your voice contributes another 38 percent. Your words themselves deliver a mere 7 percent of your message. (Something to think about when you communicate primarily by e-mail.)
David Givens, an anthropologist heading the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane Washington, has created the Nonverbal Dictionary. Unlike a linguistic dictionary, its entries are gestures, signs, and body language cues, ranging from Adam’s-Apple-Jump to Zygomatic Smile. (The former is an unconscious sign of anxiety, while the latter is the heartfelt “true” smile, which is hard to produce on demand.) This scholarly work, which has been carefully documented, makes for interesting browsing. When appropriate, the biological and evolutionary origins of the signs are given.
At psychologist Joseph Hager’s site DataFace you can learn the fine points of reading facial expressions, a major component of nonverbal communication. “No other animals have evolved as complex a set of facial muscles as have humans.” At the site’s page Facial Muscle Action Illustrated you can click on a muscle and go to a link that shows it in action moving a lip or eyelid. Just for fun, to see how robots might be made to mimic crude facial expressions, go to this Massachusetts Institute of Technology Facial Expressions site to play with a clickable diagram that will prompt their robot “Kismet” to show a range of emotions.
The practical implications of subtle cues such as the Adam’s-Apple-Jump are made readily apparent at Understanding Body Language, a five-part video series created by the British Times newspaper on the postures seen in the workplace. Try to imagine all the subconscious messages in a face-to-face, such as a job interview! A skilled observer might pick up on who is lying—the prospective employee, the employer, or both.
While researching this topic, I rediscovered one of the most fascinating television programs I have watched: Desmond Morris’s The Human Animal: The Language of the Body. As a keen observer of the human animal, Morris spent years documenting how different cultures developed a seemingly endless variety of ways to send a message.
The University of California at Los Angeles’s UCLA Magazine Online has an intriguing article on how cultural differences influence our brains’ ability to process hand signals. Go to This is your brain on hand gestures to read about the UCLA research that reveals how our brains respond to familiar and unfamiliar gestures from people of similar and different ethnic backgrounds. The effects on what neurologists call the “mirror neuron network” vary in a surprising way. “The American observers demonstrated higher mirror neuron activity when observing the American making the gestures—whether the gestures were American, Nicaraguan or meaningless—than when viewing the Nicaraguan. Even when the Nicaraguan actor performed American gestures, the observers’ mirror neuron activity dropped.” The article includes a link to video of the gestures used in the study.