I was recently asked during an interview about the relative importance of nonverbal communication in our everyday lives — and I replied that I couldn’t think of a moment when nonverbals were not important. When pressed to offer three examples of when nonverbal communication was especially important, I suggested the following three, arguing that these were also, in my opinion, the most important things we do as humans, and so it is no surprise we do these three things nonverbally:
We want to think that we are above such trivial things as how a person looks, how tall they are, the color of their hair, how they smell, how they feel, what the tone of their voice is like, how they walk, how they dance, how their eyes look at us, or even the color of those tiny pupils — and yet, all the research shows that we select our mates on those very important messages that we receive and interpret nonverbally. Courtship decisions, after all, are not based on a written exam or a resume. Those decisions are influenced by nonverbals that we pick up through our senses at a conscious and subconscious level. Are we then not attracted by words? Of course words can be seductive (poetry, for example), just as intellect can be attractive; but in the end, in every culture studied where individuals have a choice (and do not rely on arranged marriages), it is the nonverbals that are primarily responsible for who we end up with, and that is no small matter.
Babies come into the world unable to speak. Through everything from squirming in their diapers to making cooing noises, and to smiling as well as frowning, babies telegraph their needs, wants, and desires, as well as when they are distressed or uncomfortable. It is through nonverbals that we communicate love as parents, and through touch we bond reciprocally with a child. No amount of words can compensate for a hug, a smile, or a soft caress. It is through nonverbals that we learn if a child is sick, has a fever, or has seeing, hearing, or even neurological problems. If not for nonverbal communication, how would a baby know it is loved and welcomed? But it doesn’t end there: When that child attends the first day of school, it is their nonverbals at the end of the day that attest to how everything went — even before they say a word.
Imagine trusting everyone who comes to your front door wanting to come in just based on their words. Have you ever looked behind you while at an ATM to see who might be standing too close? We live in a world where predators are no longer of the four-legged variety, and yet we still freeze in place when we see a snarling dog, as our forebears froze when they saw a lioness. We still assess for danger nonverbally, because it is critical to our survival, as Gavin DeBecker wrote in The Gift of Fear. That is why at night, as we get into our cars, we look to see if someone is tracking our movements or getting too close. We don’t ask strangers if they will hurt us; we assess them nonverbally to determine their intent and trustworthiness.
These were but three examples, and there are many more. And so to the question, “To what extent do nonverbals matter?” I would answer that nonverbals are the sine qua non for interpersonal relationships, perhaps even for our survival.
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