Body Language in the Communication Process


Body Language
"Body language speaks to us," says Dr. Nicholas Epley, "but only in whispers.". Blend Images-JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Body language is a type of nonverbal communication that relies on body movements (such as gestures, posture, and facial expressions) to convey messages.

Body language may be used consciously or unconsciously. It may accompany a verbal message or serve as a substitute for speech.

Examples and Observations

  • "Pamela listened dumbly, her posture informing him that she wouldn't be offering any counter-arguments, that whatever he wanted was okay: making amends with body language."
    (Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses. Viking, 1988)
  • "The fun part is the process of, of getting to know a girl. It's like, it's like flirting in code. It's using body language and laughing at the right jokes and, and looking into her eyes and knowing she's still whispering to you, even when she's not saying a word. And that sense that if you can just touch her, just once, everything will be okay for both of you. That's how you can tell."
    (Iyari Limon as Potential Slayer Kennedy, "The Killer in Me." Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 2003)

Shakespeare on Body Language

"Speechless complainer, I will learn thy thought;
In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
As begging hermits in their holy prayers:
Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven,
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet
And by still practice learn to know thy meaning."
(William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, Act III, Scene 2)

Clusters of Nonverbal Cues

"[A] reason to pay close attention to body language is that it is often more believable than verbal communication. For example, you ask your mother, 'What's wrong?' She shrugs her shoulders, frowns, turns away from you, and mutters, 'Oh . . . nothing, I guess. I'm just fine.' You don't believe her words. You believe her dejected body language, and you press on to find out what's bothering her.
"The key to nonverbal communication is congruence. Nonverbal cues usually occur in congruent clusters--groups of gestures and movements that have roughly the same meaning and agree with the meaning of the words that accompany them. In the example above, your mother's shrug, frown, and turning away are congruent among themselves. They could all mean 'I'm depressed' or 'I'm worried.' However, the nonverbal cues are not congruent with her words. As an astute listener, you recognize this incongruency as a signal to ask again and dig deeper."
(Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning, Messages: The Communication Skills Book, 3rd ed. New Harbinger, 2009)

An Illusion of Insight

"Most people think liars give themselves away by averting their eyes or making nervous gestures, and many law-enforcement officers have been trained to look for specific tics, like gazing upward in a certain manner. But in scientific experiments, people do a lousy job of spotting liars. Law-enforcement officers and other presumed experts are not consistently better at it than ordinary people even though they’re more confident in their abilities.
"'There’s an illusion of insight that comes from looking at a person’s body,' says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. 'Body language speaks to us, but only in whispers.' . . .
"'The common-sense notion that liars betray themselves through body language appears to be little more than a cultural fiction,' says Maria Hartwig, a psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Researchers have found that the best clues to deceit are verbal--liars tend to be less forthcoming and tell less compelling stories--but even these differences are usually too subtle to be discerned reliably."
(John Tierney, "At Airports, a Misplaced Faith in Body Language." The New York Times, March 23, 2014)

Body Language in Literature

"For the purpose of literary analysis, the terms 'non-verbal communication' and 'body language' refer to the forms of non-verbal behaviour exhibited by characters within the fictional situation. This behaviour can be either conscious or unconscious on the part of the fictional character; the character can use it with an intention to convey a message, or it can be unintentional; it can take place within or outside of an interaction; it can be accompanied by speech or independent of speech. From the perspective of a fictional receiver, it can be decoded correctly, incorrectly, or not at all." (Barbara Korte, Body Language in Literature. University of Toronto Press, 1997)

Robert Louis Stevenson on "Groans and Tears, Looks and Gestures"

"For life, though largely, is not entirely carried on by literature. We are subject to physical passions and contortions; the voice breaks and changes, and speaks by unconscious and winning inflections, we have legible countenances, like an open book; things that cannot be said look eloquently through the eyes; and the soul, not locked into the body as a dungeon, dwells ever on the threshold with appealing signals. Groans and tears, looks and gestures, a flush or a paleness, are often the most clear reporters of the heart, and speak more directly to the hearts of others. The message flies by these interpreters in the least space of time, and the misunderstanding is averted in the moment of its birth. To explain in words takes time and a just and patient hearing; and in the critical epochs of a close relation, patience and justice are not qualities on which we can rely. But the look or the gesture explains things in a breath; they tell their message without ambiguity; unlike speech, they cannot stumble, by the way, on a reproach or an illusion that should steel your friend against the truth; and then they have a higher authority, for they are the direct expression of the heart, not yet transmitted through the unfaithful and sophisticating brain."
(Robert Louis Stevenson, "Truth of Intercourse," 1879)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Body Language in the Communication Process." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Body Language in the Communication Process. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Body Language in the Communication Process." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).