The Importance of Body Language for Communication

Not long ago, we talked about the different hand gestures used by Italians and Brazilians when they communicate. It’s a well-known fact: many people from Italy, Brazil, France, even the United States and England use their hands during conversation. When we speak, our mouth is not the only body part we can use to help get our message across… Today we’re going to explore this idea, the idea of another “language” we use to communicate: body language. Why is it so important, and how can you learn it?

body language

Communicating with Your Body…

It’s true! Everyone knows that words aren’t humans’ only means of communication. Gestures, facial expressions, body movements and posture, and intonation can all convey a message or add something to it. They are almost more important than verbal language! Albert Mehrabian even did a study on this subject; check it out!

Mehrabian and Non-Verbal Communication

In the late 60s, Mehrabian conducted several experiments to find out just how important gestures and intonation are for conveying a message. So what were his results? Only 7 % of communication is verbal, 38 % is considered paraverbal (meaning tone and intonation) and 55% is non-verbal! As you can see, gestures, hand signals, and different body movements are extremely important to know how to use!

Okay, just between us, these numbers might be somewhat debatable… Mehrabian himself acknowledged that they were the result of a controlled experiment, and that they don’t completely reflect a realistic situation. But the results did allow Mehrabian to make this point: words alone are not enough to fully understand the complete intention of someone’s message. The takeaway: intonation and the way the message is sent also count for something.

Intonation

To give you a simple example, think about the word “thanks.” A positive connotation is generally associated with this word. However, think about how you might understand it differently if the person saying it does so with a firm or curt tone of voice (or maybe while rolling their eyes). You may interpret it in a completely different way, and “thanks” in this context will likely seem much less positive. Intonation is just as important as the words themselves when it comes to conveying “feeling.”

Intonation changes, just like facial expressions, don’t vary too much from culture to culture. Disgust is easy to read on someone’s face, whether they are French or Spanish. Similarly, intonations associated with happiness and sadness are generally easy to pick up on no matter where you are from. In addition to intonation, body language also includes physical gestures.

Hand Gestures and Movements

These telling gestures are used to help convey subtleties of a message. They can even replace words in some situations. For example, if you are interested in what the other person is telling you, you probably won’t cut them off and say, “Hey that’s interesting! Go ahead, keep going.” Instead, you may lean closer to them to let them know you are interested and curious about what they have to say, or you might nod your head in agreement. This is non-verbal communication.

Most of the gestures we use to help convey messages, we make with our hands. Lize et Mara translate some common Italian and Brazilian hand gestures for you in this fun video. Check it out below:

In the United States, we might say hello by waving. Sometimes we give a “thumbs-up” to let someone know that something is good. Or, we might show them our middle finger if we are very upset! We can even tell someone that we are getting impatient, just by using our hands. The use of hand gestures is universal: all cultures use them for non-verbal communication. But they don’t always mean the same things!

Learning a foreign language is hard enough, and now you have to think about body language, too?! We’ve got your back. Take a look at the tips we have for you for learning this subtle “language”!

How to Learn Body Language?

You probably are familiar with most of the body language used by other Americans or Brits, although there might be some small regional differences, but you may not know much about the gestures or other non-verbal communication methods of other cultures. Did you know that waving your hand to say “hello” in some cultures, is actually considered offensive in Croatia? They believe it is too close to Hitler’s Nazi salute. What an unfortunate person to be associated with, just for saying hi! We have a few tips for you if you’d like to complement your language learning with information about non-verbal cues.

How to Learn Another Culture’s Non-Verbal Cues

  • A fun way to pick up on these cues is to observe the actors in your favorite movies and TV shows. Of course, you know that these are great resources for training your ear in a foreign language – for vocabulary, accents, pronunciation, and intonation. But they’re also great resources in another respect: learning body language. The next time you settle in for a Russian movie night, pay attention to the actors’ body movements, facial expressions, hand gestures, etc. Do you notice any behaviors that are similar to or different from those you use in your culture?
  • Although most actors try to make their characters as realistic as possible, nothing beats the real thing. Get an authentic body language experience by online chatting with a language partner. This is another method that we can’t recommend enough in terms of improving your listening and speaking at the same time. It’s also the best way to practice language without leaving home! Chatting via webcam with a native speaker allows you to watch their body language as they react to what you say. You’ll learn expressions and “how to say them,” honest facial expressions, gestures used to emphasize different emotions or scenarios, etc.

If you have a close relationship with your language partner and feel comfortable, you can even ask them which gestures you should not use. It could save you some trouble or embarrassment if you ever travel to their country!

body language

Take a look at our favorite language exchange websites. Use these to meet conversation partners to chat with (verbally and non-verbally!)

Why is Body Language Worth Learning?

We’ve already seen a few instances in which body language can totally change how we interpret messages. Using the right or the wrong gestures can make or break your relationship with the people you meet during your travels. If you are ignorant to their customs, you might offend someone or be misunderstood. Perhaps even more unfortunate, you might misinterpret the messages of others. In learning the body language of another culture, you will gain respect and credibility, and have an easier time understanding the people you meet.

In conclusion, using the right gestures is almost as important as using the right words! So, the next time you watch a movie, binge on a series, or webcam chat with your conversation partner, pay close attention to the movements of the people you are watching. If you have other tips to share, leave them in the comments below!

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This post is also available in French.

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