When I finished my presentation at the sales conference, I opened the floor for Q & A. The first person to raise a hand asked the following question.
‘Aren’t body language and nonverbal communication the same thing?’
As a conference speaker, I had waited years for this question. I paused momentarily to compose my answer and then I began to speak.
‘Thank you for your question,’ I replied. I wanted to acknowledge the speaker before addressing his question. ‘Most people see no difference between the terms body language and nonverbal communication, but you’re observant enough to suspect a difference between the two and you are absolutely right.’
‘Body language is a subset of nonverbal communication,’ I explained. ‘It focuses on visual cues tied directly to the human body. It is limited to cues you can see. These include channels of nonverbal communication like posture, gesture, eye contact, facial expression, kinesics, which refers specifically to body movement, and touch. It provides a good amount of information, but excludes many high impact cues that aren’t the product of movement. Nonverbal communication is far more extensive because consists of both body language and a wide range of other cues as well.’
‘What are some of the additional cues?’ the audience member asked.
‘Nonverbal communication includes appearance factors, chronemics, the use of time, proxemics, the use of space, vocalics, a wide range of vocal characteristics associated with speech, and paralanguage, the sounds we make that are not actually words like hmmm, um, or aha. Nonverbal communication even includes assessing your breathing and how it may change during a conversation.’
‘Can you give me an example of a nonverbal cue that isn’t body language?’ he probed.
‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘I’ll focus on one aspect of the use of time. Experts look at four distinct factors regarding the use of chronemics: accuracy, response latency, intervals, and duration. I’ll use the first one, accuracy, in my example. You have a job interview set for two o’clock. The applicant arrives at 1:15. What does that tell you about him?’
‘Um, he’s early,’ the audience member was uncertain how to respond.
‘That’s right, he’s early,’ I agreed. ‘But coming that early may tell you a lot about that person. It could mean that he’s unaware of the expectations associated with professional behavior. It might suggest eagerness or even incompetence. But it does send a loud message about the person. What time should he arrive for a two o’clock appointment?’
‘Five or ten minutes early,’ he answered.
‘Exactly,’ I confirmed. ‘But let’s look a bit more closely at what we’re saying about the appropriate use of time in a professional setting. The meeting is set for two o’clock, but he is expected five to ten minutes earlier. That’s a reasonable expectation based upon our professional experience. We say two o’clock, but our expectation is that 1:50 or 1:55 is really the appropriate time of arrival.’
‘We’re now dealing with expectancy theory,’ I advised him. ‘There’s a set a time for the meeting, but we have an expectation that is different. Any deviation from that expectation provides us with information that is message rich. That is, it gives us a greater amount of information about that person than if the expectation had been met.’
‘If he’s on time, great,’ I suggested. ‘If he’s 45 minutes early, well, that’s awkward. If he’s 20 minutes late, don’t hire him! He’s sending you a loud message with his nonverbal communication. Don’t ignore it.’
‘This example illustrates a single aspect of one of the nonverbal communication cues that is not what we know as body language,’ I concluded. ‘Nonverbal communication gives you with a much wider range of information than body language alone. For a thorough assessment, you would need to go beyond the limits of body language to consider every subconscious message that is presented in a face-to-face communication.’
‘So, why do we refer to body language instead of nonverbal communication?’ he asked.
‘I think there are several reasons for the prevalence of that term,’ I said. ‘First, it’s a lot easier to say than nonverbal communication. Second, it’s used because most people fail to distinguish between the two terms. Even dictionaries refer to body language as communicating nonverbally through body movement. It’s technically accurate, but may be incomplete or misleading. And third, we like shortcuts. Common usage patterns lead us to focus on visual cues rather than engaging in more thorough analysis using a full complement of nonverbal communication tools.’
‘But, even you refer to yourself as Bill Acheson, the Body Language Expert,’ he said impulsively. ‘Why aren’t you the Nonverbal Communication expert?’
‘I use language that is familiar and comfortable for my audiences,’ I explained. ‘In my field of expertise, I use technical jargon in an academic setting and a more informal level of speech as a conference speaker. For example, I use the term ‘touch’ when I speak at a conference, but I refer to ‘haptics’ when speaking in the academic world. One key to success in any environment is using language the audience understands and appreciates. I adapt my speech to appeal to my audience. That’s the Hidden Message.’