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Body Language

Why Most of Us Are Nonverbally Illiterate

How well do you know body language?

Key points

  • We spend thousands of hours learning verbal communication, but no formal training in nonverbal communication.
  • We learn nonverbal communication—how to use facial expressions, gestures, and body movement—informally.
  • There are individual differences in nonverbal communication skill, but it takes time to develop.

By Ron Riggio, Ph.D., and Alan Crawley

Most of us are well-versed in language, spoken and written. We are verbally literate. This makes sense because we have spent thousands of hours learning how to communicate verbally. In our early years, our parents teach us how to speak and begin to teach us the alphabet and how to read. In school, we receive educational instruction on how to use the English language. We read books, learn the definitions of specific words, and learn about grammar and syntax.

But, when it comes to body language, most of us are, by comparison, illiterate. Very few people are masters of nonverbal communication. Unlike spoken and written language, we receive no formal training in body language. In fact, body language is not a very accurate term because nonverbal cues, unlike words, do not have definite meanings. A particular nonverbal behavior, such as a gesture, a head nod, or a smile, can mean different things depending on the context.

We learn about how to communicate nonverbally through informal means. We receive feedback from parents, peers, and siblings. (Wipe that smirk off your face, Mister!). We do know from research that there are vast individual differences in people’s ability to communicate nonverbally, and we have developed methods to measure the ability to communicate nonverbally and ways to improve it, but there is really very little training for most people in nonverbal communication compared to the amount of time that every one of us spends learning verbal communication.

Some people do spend time and energy on their body language. I know of one well-paid motivational speaker who told me that he worked for years on giving appropriate gestures and facial expressions during a speech.

How Can We Better Understand Nonverbal Communication?

We can break down nonverbal communication into three core skills. Expressiveness, your ability to send nonverbal and emotional messages to others accurately. Sensitivity, your ability to successfully read nonverbal cues of others. Control, your ability to regulate nonverbal messages.

Research in nonverbal communication tells us a lot about how nonverbal skill relates to important outcomes.

  • Nonverbal expressiveness is related to making positive first impressions because expressive individuals appear energetic and engaged. In fact, highly expressive persons are often labeled charismatic. (Friedman, Riggio, and Casella, 1988; Riggio, 1987)
  • More expressive individuals report lower levels of loneliness and social anxiety because it is critical for establishing social relationships (Riggio and colleagues, 1990)
  • More nonverbally sensitive clinicians have higher levels of patient satisfaction, and it even relates to patients’ willingness to keep their appointments and return visits (Joyce, 2015; Ruben, 2017)
  • Car salespersons with more sensitivity sell more cars (Byron and colleagues, 2007), and have better bargaining skills (Elfenbein and colleagues, 2007).
  • Leaders with higher levels of nonverbal sensitivity have more satisfied followers and subordinates (Schmid Mast and colleagues, 2012)
  • Control over nonverbal communication is related to being a better actor, and a more successful poker player.

Skill in nonverbal communication is much of what underlies the construct of “emotional intelligence.” It is also a major contributor to the all-important soft skills that are much-touted for effective management and leadership.

This blogpost was coauthored by nonverbal communication expert, Alan Crawley


See: how-to-become-better-at-body-language.

Byron, K., Terranova, S., & Nowicki Jr, S. (2007). Nonverbal emotion recognition and salespersons: Linking ability to perceived and actual success. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37(11), 2600-2619.

Elfenbein, H. A., Foo, M. D., White, J., Tan, H. H., & Aik, V. C. (2007). Reading your counterpart: The benefit of emotion recognition accuracy for effectiveness in negotiation. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 31, 205-223.

Friedman, H. S., Riggio, R. E., & Casella, D. F. (1988). Nonverbal skill, personal charisma, and initial attraction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14(1), 203-211.

Joyce, J. A. M. E. S. (2015). Farewell to Words: the Dimension of Silence in the Non-verbal behaviour during the Medical Interview. Review Argent Cardiology, 83(1), 85-91.

Mast, M. S., Jonas, K., Cronauer, C. K., & Darioly, A. (2012). On the importance of the superior's interpersonal sensitivity for good leadership. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(5), 1043-1068.

Riggio, R.E. (1987). The charisma quotient. Dodd Mead.

Ruben, M. A. (2016). Interpersonal accuracy in the clinical setting. In J.A. Hall, M.S. Mast, M. S., & T.V. West, (Eds.). (2016). The social psychology of perceiving others accurately. Cambridge University Press.

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