Body language is clearly a major part of nonverbal communication. Each encounter you have with the people in your life involves not only what you say, but also what you do with your face and body. Ideally, what you say actually matches what you do as well as what you feel, so that you create the best impression possible. An interesting example of communication through body language came during the 2019 State of the Union Address on February 5, 2019. You might have seen the footage in your newsfeed of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump exchanging nonverbal barbs when, at one point in the speech, Pelosi stood up to clap. In putting her hands together, though, it was abundantly clear that she wasn’t feeling in an appreciative mood at all. The smiles both of them exchanged seemed artificial and forced. Even though Pelosi denied later that this was sarcastic clapping , social media exploded with memes, gifs, and hashtags suggesting that the world saw her nonverbal behavior as a clear expression of disdain.
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Researchers studying nonverbal communication have long understood the discrepancy that can arise between what people say and what their faces and bodies actually reveal about their inner states. For example, there are a number of muscles in the body that must all move in a certain way in order for a smile or pleasant emotion to be registered as genuine by someone else. It would make sense, therefore, that in the very public Trump-Pelosi exchange, doubts would be freely expressed about the sincerity in either party’s outward display of good-natured acknowledgement.
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In a particularly well-timed article appearing in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior , University of Missouri-St. Louis psychologist Miles L. Paterson (2019) cited the “affiliative-conflict,” or “equilibrium” theory as the dominant approach in the field to explain and predict the course of nonverbal interactions. According to this theory, people signal their intimacy with others through a variety of behaviors that include personal space (distance), eye gaze, smiling, and self-disclosure. The theory predicts, he notes, that if one person deviates from the “comfortable” level of intimacy, the other person (or possibly both) would compensate by adjusting the level of intimacy downward.
This theory may apply to certain kinds of encounters in which people adjust their behavior based on how their interaction partners respond, but something beyond an attempt at equilibrium seems to be behind the antagonism that Trump and Pelosi showed to each other in their seemingly public display of mutual regard. Patterson proposed that, instead, nonverbal behavior needs to be understood in terms of the functions it serves.
Rather than engaging with the anxiety, it’s easy enough to jump to boredom as a facile explanation for why we feel stuck and a way to avoid engaging with the more thorny issue of how we spend our time, and why we may be having difficulty identifying and pursuing activities about which we are curious and perhaps even passionate.
People initiate, Patterson suggests, “patterns of nonverbal interaction to serve different social functions” (p. 3). They use nonverbal expressions to help them achieve these goals, either consciously or unconsciously. You might try to use your facial expression to provide information (such as your emotional state), regulate the way the interaction unfolds, express feelings of intimacy, show who’s boss, or manage the way other people perceive you. Someone who wears a perpetual smile, for example, is trying to appear friendly and easy-going, even though that frozen expression might have the exact opposite result. A good model of nonverbal behavior, therefore, needs to also consider the factors that influence how people perceive the people emitting these cues.
By now, you may be thinking that the idea of coming up with anything approaching a comprehensive and useful theory of nonverbal expression may seem impossible to achieve. Emotions, cognitions, social context, and level of intimacy are just a few of the possible complications affecting the way that people interact at a nonverbal level. Recognizing these complexities, Patterson believes that it is still possible to come up with a systematic approach that reduces these many complexities into a workable set of factors that could pass the empirical test.
How Free Is Our Will?
Rather than propose that people in an interaction behave simply in reciprocal ways, Patterson’s “parallel process model of nonverbal communication” proposes that people and their interaction partners are part of a larger system in which multiple processes occur simultaneously. You and your partner, Patterson proposes, are part of a social environment to which each of you bring your own individual determinants of biology, culture, gender, and personality. You each have cognitive resources that include your expectations, feelings, goals, and dispositions, and you can direct these resources by focusing your attention and deciding how to expend your energy. Finally, your behavior reflects all of these factors, as do the social judgments made by your partners.
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The idea of a systems approach means that you can't realistically pick one set of factors out of the other forces operating at the moment. The entire set of influences all play an interacting role. For example, you're walking down a crowded sidewalk when someone bumps into you. To be sure, you have “no relationship,” but each of you carries cues about yourselves (age, gender, race, and even social class) that will prime you to interpret each other’s behavior. What transpires between you and this stranger over the course of this interaction will reflect your expectations, whether you give the matter any thought (those cognitive resources), what your goals are (such as not making an enemy out of a stranger), and whether you’re—to put it simply—a “nice” person or not. The other person, at the same time, is judging your behavior and depending on who “blinks first” metaphorically, the situation can lead to a great deal of ill will or instead a pleasant moment in which you exchange apologies. Clearly, the context plays a role because none of this would matter if there were no crowd to serve as the reason for getting too close to each other, but the interpretations that each of you brings to the situation also play a crucial role. Perhaps this is why road rage is more likely to occur than sidewalk rage, showing the importance of both nonverbal communication and context.
There are no simple explanations, according to Patterson, of exactly why people interpret the nonverbal behavior of others from simple cues, but context is clearly a major influence. When Trump and Pelosi exchanged their anything-but-sincere smiles and gestures, they were influenced not just by potential feelings of personal animosity but by the fact that they were on the world stage, with the cameras recording every gesture broadcasted to an audience of millions. Your own nonverbal behavior is unlikely to receive such wide attention but still, in your own world, the way you interact with the people close to you is also part of a larger set of systems. Patterson regards nonverbal interactions as partly automatic, but also partly under your own control if you’re motivated enough and are able to devote enough mental resources to the situation. You can adjust, he believes, your nonverbal behavior to allow you to meet your goals, if you just put some mental power behind your gestures and facial expressions.
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To sum up, very public interactions between well-known public figures simply highlight what everyone goes through on a daily basis out of the limelight. In your own communication, the systems approach that Patterson proposes suggests that you look at all aspects of those situations that can affect how you perceive, and how you are perceived, by your interaction partners. Relationships are the sum of many complex factors, and attending to this key element of nonverbal communication can help ensure that your feelings and thoughts will be interpreted in a way that provide your own fulfillment.