Key points

  • Without realizing it, your body language may be conveying the opposite of what you were hoping to communicate.
  • New research shows how the "building blocks" of emotion communication can work for you or against you.
  • Understanding how to bring your body language and intentions in sync can make you a better communicator.
Source: Saydung89/Pixabay

Body language is an often-ignored but key element of communication. The way your body moves when you speak can be just as important, if not more so, than your words. The only time body language doesn’t count is in the written words of a text message, social media post, or email. Other than these strictly verbal routes, it’s your body that will either help or hurt you in getting your point across.

Given its importance in your interactions with others, it’s worth mastering the art of getting your words and body to be in sync. Indeed, think about times that you’ve fallen far short of this level of mastery. Perhaps you’re out shopping and bump into an acquaintance who starts telling you a story that seems to be dragging on and on. You want to seem interested, so you offer the occasional “Oh,” or “I see.” Much to your surprise, though, this person angrily stops in their tracks and says, “Sorry if I’m boring you!”

Where did this come from? You were trying so hard to seem like you were paying attention. Clearly, your body language must have betrayed you.

The idea that verbal and nonverbal messages can conflict was the inspiration for a recently published Ph.D. dissertation from Yale University’s Lucylle Alexandro Armentano (2021) under the supervision of Margaret Clark. As part of her study of communication in close, highly functional relationships, Armentano’s research also examined communication channels in people meeting for the first time and provides guidance for improving your body language so that your relationships, close and otherwise, can benefit.

The Building Blocks of Nonverbal Communication

Before getting to the specifics of the Yale study, it’s worth taking a deep dive into body language’s role in nonverbal communication in general. As the author defines it, nonverbal emotional expression includes the “building blocks” of “facial expressions, bodily gestures, paralingual cues [vocal tone], tears, and touch” (p. 5).

Which building block communicated your true feelings of boredom to your friend during their monologue? Was it the way you gazed elsewhere or the way you shifted your feet? Did you unintentionally frown or give an exasperated sigh? If you’d like to avoid this awkwardness in the future, what should you have done differently?

As Armentano identifies from previous research, the most important nonverbal cues are those you can’t necessarily control. Those flickers of disinterest that your body and face display can even outweigh the words that you utter. People seem to pay more attention not to what you say, then, but what your face and body convey without your conscious awareness.

Bringing Body Language into the Lab

To test the role of verbal-nonverbal mismatch on emotional communication, Armentano paired up with fellow graduate student Chance Adkins to create experimental conditions that would simulate what happens when someone asks for help from someone else. The research team created videotapes of a fellow Yale student (the “confederate”) expressing nervousness in his words, bodily gestures, or both. The bodily gestures included running his hands through his hair, grabbing his arm, and facially expressing uneasiness.

The key question was whether the participants, 82 Yale undergraduates, would believe the student and provide the help he was requesting. The study was not entirely virtual, as the confederate also showed up in the lab with each participant under the pretense that the confederate was preparing to give a speech and that the video was a practice run.

In addition to rating various features of the confederate, including whether they’d like to have future interactions with him, participants could choose whether to help him or not in the research he needed to do for his speech. They were provided with a computer that they could either check their email or do research for the confederate, providing the research team with behavioral data on actual helping behavior.

As you can see, this was a well-controlled experiment and, although conducted on college undergraduates, seems to replicate what might happen in real life outside the lab. How many times has someone asked you for help? What emotional cues did you use to decide whether to do so or not? Did you perform your nonverbal-verbal match test to see whether to believe them?

Turning to the findings, those nonverbal cues of nervousness had a greater impact on helping behavior than did the verbal cues. To the author’s surprise, helping behavior was highest in the condition when verbal expressions of nervousness were low but nonverbal cues were high. A similar pattern emerged regarding the question of whether participants liked the confederate. As Armentano concluded, “there is something distinctive about an expresser sharing nervousness nonverbally without an accompanying verbal declaration that makes them more likeable and deserving/needing of help” (pp. 204-5).

How to Prevent Your Body Language from Betraying You

The Yale study suggests, then, that your body’s emotional cues can completely do an end-run around your words. It’s important to keep in mind that Armentano and her collaborator were looking at expressions of a negative emotion for this one study. You might not always be in a situation where this is the emotion you wish to convey unless you are seeking someone’s help (in which case you should try to look nervous). Moreover, the people in this study didn’t know each other. With someone you know well, or even that boring friend of yours, it might be more important to bring words and actions into line with each other.

Taking apart the components of body language means that you understand which gestures go along with which emotions. Ordinarily, when someone is speaking to you, you want to look like you’re interested. Not only should you maintain eye contact, but you should keep your body still and face toward the other person. If you’re not trying to look interested, it may be more polite to say that you have to be somewhere else.

Again, recognizing that your body language can—and will—betray you means that you need to pay careful attention to what your body is doing at any given moment when you’re interacting with others. If you’re not sure how to do this yourself, create your own experimental scenarios, akin to the ones that Armentano and Adkins used in their study, and see how a close friend reacts. Do they read your signals correctly? Which ones need improvement? It may only take a few minor tweaks to get your body language under control.

To sum up, because “emotional expressions are omnipresent” (p. 207), it’s worth putting in the effort to get your words and body language to line up in perfect harmony.


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