The communication crisis

Why we are non-verbally illiterate

Since the work of Milton Erikson, psychologists now know beyond a doubt that one’s body language is vital for communication, and in many respects more important than spoken language. Whilst experts vary in their estimates, most agree that around 70-93% of all communication is non-verbal. Yet, while rates of global verbal literacy have risen, most of us are almost completely nonverbally “illiterate” argue psychologists and body language experts Alan Crawley and Ronald Riggio. Resolving this would require a radical shift in our outlook on education.


Every individual worldwide wants to be able to speak and write – to be verbally literate. When it comes to nonverbal communication, however, there is a paradox: we are instinctive “experts,” yet simultaneously illiterate. From birth, we are able to communicate nonverbally, through various “body language” channels, including facial and vocal expressions, body movements, and touch. Through trial and error, we may get better at communicating nonverbally, but as we navigate delicate social situations – such as a job interview, a public speech, or making a sincere apology – we may stumble and realize that we really don’t know much about nonverbal communication at all.

Why? Unlike our native spoken language, nonverbal communication is not a true language. The term “body language” is a misnomer. In language, words have particular meanings. There is syntax and structure to language, and grammatical rules. A particular nonverbal cue, such as a head nod, or a gesture, can mean many things, depending on the person, the context, and on other nonverbal cues that accompany it. Unlike language, there is no dictionary for “body language.”


Unlike our native spoken language, nonverbal communication is not a true language.


Think of this: by the time we finish school, we have spent thousands of hours learning our native verbal language in classrooms. One to two hours are spent every day in elementary school on language arts, and our learning of language increases with secondary and higher education. We read books and use reference materials to understand the meaning and subtle nuances of language. We are tested. In fact, our vocabulary – our stored knowledge of the meaning of words – is a good predictor of not only our level of learning/achievement, but it can be a proxy for our intelligence, or IQ. However, we receive no formal education or training in body language. For most of us, what we do learn about nonverbal communication occurs informally, from occasional feedback from parents, family members and friends (“Wipe that smirk off your face, Mister!”). In comparison to verbal language, we are nonverbally “illiterate.” With essentially no formal training in school, we have to learn body language informally, with some of us being better at it, some of us worse, and none of us really being masters of nonverbal communication. Our research shows that there is wide variance in peoples’ abilities to communicate nonverbally. Like verbal language acquisition, there is little evidence that this is due to some inborn capacity to understand nonverbal communication. Instead, we pick it up over time, from our experiences communicating with others.

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This begs several questions: Should we receive some formal training in nonverbal communication? If so, what would that look like? What would be the outcome(s) of improving our skill in nonverbal communication be?

Fortunately, research in nonverbal communication can provide some of the answers. A simple model that we use is to focus on three different forms of nonverbal skill: expressiveness, sensitivity, and control, or regulation, of nonverbal communication.


In comparison to verbal language, we are nonverbally “illiterate.”


Expressiveness is one’s ability to accurately “send” nonverbal messages. For example, being able to “put on a happy face” in order to convey that you are joyful in a way that others can immediately know your emotional state. Sensitivity is our ability to read, or (in research terms) “decode” the nonverbal messages sent by others. Nonverbal sensitivity is related to being empathic. This is critical when we are trying to appear calm when we might actually be agitated or frightened. Nonverbal control helps us to appear poised and professional when giving an important speech or presentation.

Of course, these three nonverbal skills interact to some degree. We have found that people who are good at accurately expressing emotions, are also slightly better at “decoding” others’ emotional expressions (“It takes one to know one”). And, imbalances in these nonverbal skills can actually hinder good nonverbal communication. For example, a person who works hard to control their emotional expressions, and who lacks skill in emotional expressiveness, will be “stone-faced” and hard to read.

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Let’s look at some of the research findings that are related to these three types of nonverbal communication skills:

Nonverbal expressiveness is related to making positive first impressions because the individual appears energetic and engaged. In fact, highly expressive persons are often labeled as “charismatic.” Additionally, more expressive individual report lower levels of loneliness and social anxiety because it is critical for establishing social relationships, and it is easier for others to connect with someone who seemingly “infects” us with their positive emotions – in a process that is known as “emotional contagion.”


We have found that people who are good at accurately expressing emotions, are also slightly better at “decoding” others’ emotional expressions (“It takes one to know one”).


In terms of ‘sensitivity’, more nonverbally sensitive clinicians have higher levels of patient satisfaction, and it even relates to patients’ willingness to keep their appointments and to come back for return visits. Car salespersons with more sensitivity sell more cars, and have better bargaining skills. Leaders with higher levels of nonverbal sensitivity have more satisfied followers/subordinates, and they are considered to be “empathic” leaders who seem to be concerned about their team members’ concerns, feelings, and needs.

Finally, control over nonverbal communication is related to being a better actor, and a more successful poker player!

Skill in nonverbal communication is much of what underlies the construct of “emotional intelligence.” It is also a major contributor to the all-important “soft skills” that are much-touted for effective management/leadership.

While some training in the soft skills, which includes skill in nonverbal communication, has become somewhat common in developing business leaders and managers, these programs are still rare and of limited duration. Training in nonverbal communication can also benefit clinicians, therapists, salespersons, teachers, and a variety of professions where interacting with people is critical. Even these training programs, however, are a far cry from the enormous amount of training that people receive in verbal communication skills. Still, soft skill training, even with factory workers, has been found to increase employee performance. Imagine if everyone received substantial education and training in nonverbal communication.

Almost one hundred years ago, anthropologist, Edward Sapir, wrote: “[W]e respond to gestures with an extreme alertness and, one might also say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all.” While true, it seems clear that we are still a far cry from educating our society to master nonverbal communication as a tool for our professional and social lives.

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