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What The Artist Reveals About Nonverbal Behavior

A deeper reason this silent film won an Oscar.

The Artist won an Oscar at the 2012 Academy Awards. It’s a French romantic comedy drama in the style of a black-and-white silent film. It is directed by Michel Hazanavicius, and stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. The story takes place in Hollywood, between 1927 and 1932, and focuses on the relationship of an older silent film star (George Valentin, played by Dujardin) and a rising young actress (Peppy Miller, played by Bejo), as silent cinema falls out of fashion and is replaced by the talkies.

Admittedly, I did not see the film before it won the Oscar, but when I was on a recent overseas flight, it was available, so I decided to watch it. What a treat! But not only was the movie a delight in its own right; it demonstrated the power of nonverbal behavior, the area of psychology that I have studied for about 30 years.

The movie brought to life many of the findings uncovered by psychological research from the last half century. One of the most prominent findings in psychology is that facial expressions of emotion are universal, panculturally produced and recognized by all around the world, regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, national origin, or sex. The Artist brought these findings to life as the emotions of Valentin, Miller, and especially the director (played by John Goodman) and Clifton (played by James Cromwell) are so powerfully etched on their faces. Their ability to portray emotions so convincingly and realistically that audiences around the world could come to appreciate the depths of their feelings are not only a testament to their acting abilities, but also to the power of facial expressions to universally portray emotions.

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The Artist was also a testament to many other nonverbal behaviors, including postures and gestures. Although research on these channels of nonverbal behaviors have taken somewhat of a back seat to studies of facial expressions of emotion, they have gained scientific notoriety in their own right. Contrary to facial expressions of emotion, gestures and body movements have typically been considered culture-specific, learned and enacted differently in different cultures. Our most recent research, however, has produced evidence that some very basic gestures are starting to become panculturally produced and recognized, probably due to the proliferation of mass media and the internet around the world. The fact that the actors in The Artist were able to produce such convincing performances in their gestures, body postures, and gait, are all suggestive of something potentially universal about these channels and messages as well.

At the same time close inspection of the nonverbal behaviors in The Artist reveals many areas of research that scientists have yet to explore in depth. For example, facial expressions not only convey emotions; they also convey emblematic verbal messages, much like gestures do, as well as illustrate our speech. The actors in The Artist skillfully portrayed these facial gestures as well. These non-emotional aspects of facial behaviors have not been studied as much as emotion, and are an area ripe for potential study in the future.

Of course there were some parts of the film that needed to be conveyed by words, and the directors and producers skillfully inserted text in those places. That reminded us that words are also important, and that nonverbal behaviors are not the sole channels of communication, at least for us humans. Yet, the very fact that this silent film moved so many around the world is a tribute to the power and beauty of nonverbal behavior, and students of this very interesting and important aspect of psychology and communication should all rejoice, as did laypersons alike.

David Matsumoto, Ph.D., is a Cengage Learning author and Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University. 

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