During a confrontation or the period leading up to a confrontation, communication plays a large part in whether the confrontation ends or is escalated. Facing an angry person is a harrowing experience. It would seem that the person is telling you everything you need to know about his or her intent in the words he or she is yelling; however, studies have shown that 65% to 95% of a message’s meaning is communicated through non-verbal clues.
Verbal versus non-verbal
There is relatively little agreement on where the boundary between verbal and non-verbal communication may be drawn. Especially, the importance of non-word utterances, such as a throat-clearing noise, is highly debated. This article considers anything other than word utterances as non-verbal communication.
As with so many other cultural factors, non-verbal communication is subject to the interpretation of the non-verbal signs by the recipient of the communication. Frequently, the interpretation and recognition of non-verbal messages are subconscious, and may therefore be extremely misleading when in intercultural encounters.
Non-verbal communication may be roughly divided into two groups: active behavior that is consciously controlled and passive behavior that is unconsciously displayed.
Kinesics is non-verbal behavior related to movement, either of a part of the body or the body as a whole. Kinesics communication is the most obvious non-verbal communication form. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most confusing areas since the various meanings communicated through body movements seem endless across cultures. Kinesics may be subdivided into five categories.
- Emblems. Emblems are non-verbal messages that have a verbal counterpart. Emblems have a bewildering array of possible interpretations and meanings. For example, the British sign for Victory (forefinger and middle finger erect) symbolizes the letter V, a sign for victory. However, the same movement may symbolize the number two in the United States and may be insulting in Australia.
- Illustrators. Illustrators are less clearly linked to specific sayings or words being used. Illustrators are consciously used to illustrate what is being said, such as holding the hands wide apart to illustrate something big. Again, the usage and the number of illustrators used are different from culture to culture. For example, in some Asian cultures, extensive use of illustrators is often interpreted as a lack of intelligence, whereas in Latin cultures the absence of illustrators may be construed as a lack of interest.
- Affective displays. Affective displays are body or, more frequently, facial movements that display a certain affective state, such as emotions. For example, facial expressions that show anger. Affective displays are often less conscious than illustrators and occur less frequently. The subconscious nature of affective displays and the varying degrees of their usage make interpretation of affective displays frequently quite bewildering across cultures. For example, the frequent and extensive subconscious usage of affective display movements by an Italian may be understood as threatening in a culture in which affective display movements are more restrained.
- Regulators. Regulators are non-verbal signs that regulate, modulate, and maintain the flow of speech during a conversation. They may be both kinesics, such as nodding the head, as well as non-kinesics, such as eye movements. These are the most culturally determined kinesics signs. Since regulators moderate the flow of information and are used as feedback of whether a person has understood the message, they may be confusing.
- Adapters. Adapters include postural changes and other movements at a low level of awareness, frequently made to feel more comfortable or to perform a specific physical function. Because adapters are usually carried out with a low level of awareness, they have been hailed as the secret to understanding what your conversation partner really thinks. However, many adapter movements, such as moving in a chair, may be employed more frequently to resolve a specific physical situation, rather than being an indicator of "secret thoughts."
Oculesics is the way eyes are used during a communication exchange. This includes eye contact, or the avoidance of eye contact and it may also include all other eye movements, such as looking at other body parts of the other person. Occulesic movements are also frequently associated with kinesics movements. For example, regulators often rely on both a kinesics component, such as raising of an eyebrow and an occulesic component, such as looking into the eye of the other person, to get a message across.
People from some cultures may lower their gaze to convey respect, whereas this may be understood as insulting in other cultures. Direct eye contact may be insulting in some cultures or convey attention in others.
Eye contact and the amount and length of eye contact may be confusing. For example, many United States women feel insulted and embarrassed at being looked at for a prolonged period by Italian and French men. Conversely, Italian, and French females may perceive United States men as cold because of their relatively short eye contact with females.
Haptics refers to touching behavior. Although used most frequently during greetings and departures, touching may occur in a variety of circumstances, including during a conversation. Some cultures place great emphasis on physical contact between people during a conversation, while people from societies in which touching is limited may feel uncomfortable.
While haptics can be hostile, such as pushing, more often, haptic behavior is used to indicate the degree of intimacy. Haptic behavior may be divided into the following degrees of intimacy:
The boundaries between the different levels of intimacy are somewhat fuzzy, even in one culture. However, across cultures, their boundaries may be completely different. Where different haptic standards are used, touching behavior may frequently cause irritation and misinterpretation of what is intended with the touch. For example, in many Arab countries, men frequently touch each other in public or walk arm-in-arm. Such behavior could easily imply an intimate sexual relationship between those two men in other cultures.
The way personal space is structured is referred to as proxemics. Personal space, or the distance from other persons, is a powerful concept. Research suggests it relates to our interpretation of the meaning of messages conveyed by the other person. For example, a person expressing anger is perceived as less threatening the further away that person is, and conversely, the closer the person is close, the more threatening the person is.
As it non-verbal communications relates to self-defense
Being able to interpret non-verbal communication can help you avoid confrontations. A person who seems to need your help may non-verbally communicate that they are trying to lure you into a trap. A person who is verbally saying they are telling the truth may be non-verbally telling you it’s all a lie. But as discussed above, the indicators are not always reliable or correctly interpreted, so use them wisely.