Almost everyone is aware of “body language”. Fewer people are aware of the impact it can and does have on our well-being. How does body language have an effect on our health? How can we use body language to improve our mental and physical wellbeing? What body language can you read and write to improve your health?
What is body language?
Body language, also known as non-verbal communication, is the collection of facial expressions, gestures, postures, verbal tones, and any other signal we send that is not contained in the meaning of the words we use. Body language includes our posture, gestures, and movements. It can communicate our emotions, attitudes, and social status. For example, open body language, such as standing up straight and making eye contact, can make us seem confident and approachable. Closed or blocking body language, such as crossing our arms, can make us seem defensive.
Nonverbal communication can, perhaps surprisingly, improve or harm our wellbeing and health in a number of ways.
Build stronger relationships
Nonverbal communication, such as eye contact, facial expressions, and tone of voice, can help us form strong rapport and effective relationships. The positive effects of connection are many, including:
- Feeling happy and fulfilled. People who can better connect with others through effective use of body language report higher levels of happiness than others.
- Reduced stress. We can express our emotions through body language, and that can help us communicate our needs to others, help us feel more in control of our lives, and, therefore, reduce our stress levels.
- Enhanced confidence. Through the wise use of nonverbal communication, we can project an air of confidence and assertiveness. That helps us feel more socially comfortable and willing to take action that enables us to achieve our objectives, which in turn further boosts confidence, and upwards goes the virtuous cycle.
- Improve our physical health. The benefits of effective body language extend beyond just psychological aspects; they also have a tangible impact on our physical health. Lower stress levels, increased happiness, and greater confidence can lead to healthier lifestyle choices, improved immune function, and better physical health overall.
Here are some specific nonverbal communications that can and do have a positive impact on our physical health.
- Personal space. Personal space is the distance we maintain between ourselves and others. It can vary depending on the cultural context and the relationship between the people involved. We tend to stand closer to our friends and family than we do to strangers. Proximity to loved ones is comforting and reassuring; we tend to feel more loved when close to others.
- Eye Contact. It can signal interest, attention, and attraction. It can also be used to assert dominance or to express aggression. It’s lack can signal the opposite: passivity and submissiveness. When we make positive eye contact on a regular basis, of the warm kind that says we are paying compassionate attention, it builds trust and rapport. That, in turn, has a positive effect on our cardiovascular health. It reduces the harmful stress hormones that are so strongly involved in cardiac damage.
- Facial expressions. Facial expressions are one of the most important forms of nonverbal communication. They can convey a wide range of emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and surprise. When our facial expressions match our other body language, people tend to feel that they understand us and are more relaxed in our presence. That has positive knock-on effects on our wellbeing through the feedback we receive.
- Smiling. One facial expression deserves special treatment: smiling. When we smile (meaningfully), our stress levels are reduced, and we become more attractive to others, which means we receive social interest and approval. The overall effect is that our immune system is boosted.
- Tone of voice. The tone of voice can also convey a lot of information about our emotions. By using a warm and friendly tone of voice, we can make ourselves seem more approachable and trustworthy. That, in turn, can lead to better relationships and a greater sense of self-worth.
Avoiding body language-induced harm
At the opposite end of the scale, people who write body language that others find uncomfortable reading are more likely to be rejected, lonely, and isolated, with all the negative wellbeing consequences that usually follow. Here are some specific examples of how poor nonverbal communication can harm well-being and health:
- Damaged relationships. When people send negative messages to others through their body language, they can damage relationships or prevent rapport from being formed.
- Increased stress. Problematic nonverbal communication can also lead to increased stress levels. Constantly fidgeting or looking away, for example, can lead others to infer that a person is anxious or uncomfortable. The discomfort that others feel has a closed feedback effect, which further increases the discomfort of the person giving off the anxious signals.
- Reduced self-esteem. When people feel that they are not communicating effectively, that can induce feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, which further reduce their self-esteem. That internally manifests as negative thoughts and feelings about themselves.
- Problematic eye contact. Absent, evasive, or avoidant eye contact is usually read as the person being uninterested or unapproachable, making it difficult or even impossible for such a person to build and maintain strong relationships.
- Crossing our arms. Crossing our arms can signal that we are obstructive or defensive, making it difficult to build trust and rapport with others, which can also lead to social isolation and loneliness.
- Fidgeting. Fidgeting is widely interpreted as an announcement that we are anxious or uncomfortable. Other people reacting to our perceived anxiety can make us feel more stressed and make it difficult to relax and enjoy ourselves. If prolonged to the point where our body language causes long-term stress, that can lead to a variety of health problems, including headaches, stomach aches, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
- Speaking too loudly or too softly. Speaking too loudly or too softly can declare that we are insecure or lacking in confidence, which in turn negatively impacts credibility. Not being taken seriously can lead to feelings of inadequacy, elevated stress levels, and the variety of health problems mentioned above.
- Using a harsh or cold tone of voice. Using a harsh or cold tone of voice can make us seem unfriendly or unapproachable. This can make it difficult to build and maintain strong relationships, which can lead to social isolation and loneliness.
Improving nonverbal communication
By being aware of our nonverbal communication and making an effort to improve it, we can protect our wellbeing and health. Here are some suggestions for improving nonverbal communication:
- Be aware of your body language. Make sure your body language is open and inviting. Stand up straight, make eye contact, and smile.
- Use a warm and friendly tone of voice. Avoid using a harsh or cold tone of voice.
- Be aware of your facial expressions. Make sure your facial expressions match your words. For example, if you are saying something positive, make sure your facial expression is also positive.
- Be genuine. People can tell when we are being fake, so it is important to be genuine in your nonverbal communication.
Decoding cultural differences in non-verbal communication
Body language can be difficult, even impossible, to decode, especially in the absence of contextual information. That difficulty is compounded when dealing with cultural variations in body language meaning. Here is a list of 10 common cultural differences in non-verbal communication:
- Eye contact. In some parts of the world, such as the UK, US, and Europe, eye contact is seen as a sign of confidence and respect. In others, such as Japan, prolonged eye contact can be seen as rude or disrespectful.
- Personal space. The amount of personal space that people maintain varies depending on society. In western cities, people tend to stand closer together when talking. In India, people maintain more personal space.
- Gestures. The “thumbs up” gesture is generally seen as a positive sign in the UK, but it is considered offensive in some other societies.
- Facial expressions. Smiling is generally seen as a positive expression in most cultures, but it can also be seen as a sign of nervousness or submission in others.
- Arm crossing. Crossing your arms is widely perceived as a closed-off or defensive posture in most parts of the world, but it is considered a respectful posture in some Middle Eastern cultures.
- Head movements. Nodding your head up and down is mainly thought of as a sign of agreement in most societies, but it is seen as a sign of disagreement in some cultures.
- Touch. In some regions, such as France, people are more comfortable touching each other when they talk. In others, for instance, Japan, touching is generally seen as taboo.
- Greeting customs. In the UK, it is common to shake hands when meeting someone. In Japan, it is common to bow when meeting someone.
- Punctuality. Punctuality can also be a form of non-verbal communication. In some countries, such as Germany, punctuality is highly valued. In others, such as Mexico, punctuality is less important.
- Silence. Silence can also have different meanings for different people. In the UK and USA, silence can be seen as uncomfortable or awkward. To the people in Japan, silence is seen as a sign of respect.
- Appearance. Appearance can also be a form of nonverbal communication. In some areas, for example, the UK, it is important to dress professionally for business meetings. In India, it is more important to dress modestly.
Breaching cultural body language norms can lead to social embarrassment and even ostracisation. With such huge variation in norms, when it comes to understanding body language, the complexity seems to compound the more we look at it.
Theories to explain body language
What explains human body language? Here are some theories:
- Evolutionary theory suggests that our nonverbal communication has been inherited from our animal ancestors.
- Social learning theory claims that we learn nonverbal communication through social observation and imitation.
- Cognitive appraisal theory proposes that our nonverbal communication is influenced, even controlled, by our thoughts and feelings.
- Communication accommodation theory posits that we adjust our nonverbal communication depending on the context of the situation.
It seems to me that there is an element of each of the above explanations in most, if not all, of our body language, depending on context.
Whatever the explanation, it seems that becoming more aware of the body language that we read and write can have a positive impact on our wellbeing, as long as we don’t cross the line into obsessing over it or making our body language so contrived that it disconcerts us and all those around us.
How will you become more aware of your body language? By using a mirror? Watching yourself on video? Ask friends for their perceptions.
By becoming more aware of the non-verbal communications we send, we can improve our relationships and our well-being.
What steps will you take today?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.