Body Language

AuthorMarcia Simmering

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People in the workplace can convey a great deal of information without even speaking; this is called nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication can convey just as much as written and verbal communication, and human beings read and react to these nonverbal signals in the workplace. Body language is nonverbal communication that involves body movement and gestures, which communications researchers call kinesics. There are hundreds of thousands of possible signs that can be communicated through body movements and gestures. In addition to body movements and gestures, the nonverbal cues given through facial expressions and eye contact, personal space, and touch, influence individual interactions in the workplace. While this body language is fairly well understood in general in each culture, there are major cultural differences in nonverbal communication.


Gestures, or movements of the head, hands, arms, and legs can be used to convey specific messages that have linguistic translations. For example, a person might use a wave their hand rather than saying "hello", or nod his or her head in agreement, which means "yes" or "okay." These gestures can be very useful in the workplace because they are a quick way to convey thoughts and feelings without needing to speak or write. Additionally, many such gestures are generally widely understood, although they may carry different meanings in other cultures. For instance, although the "ok" sign that is made through touch of the thumb and forefinger with the remaining fingers extended is seen as a positive gesture in the U.S., in some other cultures, this is seen as a vulgar gesture.

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In addition to the gestures that people use that have a particular meaning, people also use gestures that do not have specific, generally understood meanings. These gestures, called illustrators, add meaning to a verbal message. For instance, when giving a presentation, a person might use hand gestures to emphasize a point. Many people use gestures while speaking to others to accompany their words, and while these body movements may not have a meaning that can be pinpointed, they serve to embellish a person's words.

A person's body movements that convey feelings and emotions through facial expressions and body positions are called affect displays. These body movements may indicate whether a person is open and receptive, angry, distracted, or a number of other emotions. Many affect displays are commonly interpreted; for instance, individuals who sit in a slumped position and frown are believed to be disinterested or unhappy. Those who sit upright, smile, and have raised eyebrows, are seen as interested and happy. While these affect displays are often appropriately interpreted, they may not be related to the interaction with another person, and thus may be misread. For instance, if a person has a terrible headache, he may squint, look down, and grimace during a conversation, indicating to the speaker that he disagrees with her, even if he is receptive to and in agreement...

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