Body language is the collection of nonverbal and often subtle cues — including gestures, posture, eye movement, and proximity — that are a vital part of communication. A tilted head, for example, often communicates interest, while moving away may indicate a lack of rapport. Ongoing research is developing a greater understanding of body language and its many applications.
Body language plays a meaningful role in how we perceive others and how others perceive us. Rightly or wrongly so, we often pass judgement on another person’s personality prior to formally meeting them. One takeaway of this is how important is for us to be mindful of the nonverbal cues we convey; doing so helps ensure a positive first impression when meeting someone new.
Body language is a necessary ingredient of language as a whole. The entire body, rather than words alone, is used to converse completely, and a lack of recognizable and relatable physical motions can be just as obvious as a lack of inflection in speech. In linguistics, this concept of holistic language is referred to as co-speech behavior.
Body language often conveys emotions better than facial expressions. This is particularly true when emotions run high, such as extreme sadness or intense anger. Research has demonstrated the ability of participants to more accurately interpret a person’s mood based on their entire body, as opposed to just their facial expressions.
Often, negotiations succeed or fail due in part to the relationship between nonverbal cues and persuasion. Mimicry — that is, mirroring the posture and gesture of another — builds trust and encourages the power of persuasion. Mimicking body language can be used strategically in invoking trustworthiness and success in negotiation.
Research has demonstrated a potential link between body language and learning. In one study, students who engaged in greater upper body movement during instruction tended to absorb less information than their more stationary peers. The study also found a link between teachers who moved about irregularly while lecturing and poorer student learning outcomes.
Research suggests a link between body language, collaboration, and creativity. In one study, collaboration on projects and creative output improved based on the synchronicity — the simultaneous movement — of the team members. Matching head movement, in particular, correlated with greater collective creativity.
Posture, gestures, and proximity play a major role in the way listeners evaluate public speaking. A speaker's body language conveys to her audience her confidence level, authority, and trustworthiness. A speaker who distances themselves from their audience, even by something as simple as crossing their arms over their chest, appears less approachable and therefore less believable. Gesturing with open palms, on the other hand, displays sincerity.
Researchers are working on ways of training computers to read body language. The ability to interpret and respond to nonverbal cues may allow for more sophisticated communication and interaction between humans and artificial intelligence. A self-driving car, for example, may better avoid an accident by reading the body language of nearby pedestrians.
Research in autism has shown that children with autism are capable of reading body language, despite possible limitations in other aspects of interaction. In studies, children on the spectrum could identifying the feelings of others based on body posture as well as neurotypical children. This finding could help doctors and psychologists more effectively communicate with children with autism.
Being mindful of body language encourages better communication and rapport in virtual meetings. Gesturing, nodding, and smiling, for example, conveys that a person is listening while slouching and lack of eye contact may relay a lack of interest. As our professional and personal lives become more and more dependent on virtual interaction, this data indicates that we should not set aside the body language we use in in-person communication.
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