Taking cues from body language

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Authors: C. Barnum and N. Wolniansky
Date: June 1989
From: Management Review(Vol. 78, Issue 6)
Publisher: American Management Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,664 words

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Taking Cues from Body Language

Globalization has put a great deal of additional stress and strain on the already faulty system of human interaction we call communication. Despite the added wonders of technology, fax machines, satellite connections, and electronic mail, our messages must still pass through the "static" of the human factor.

And with communication passing across many more boundaries, languages, nationalities, cultures, and time zones, confusion is often inevitable. Typewritten communications can be translated to help overcome a language barrier, but who is translating the body language?

This month we will focus on the impact of nonverbal cues on our communication. Studies show that at least 70 percent of what is really being communicated between people is done nonverbally. (For more information on these studies and other research, see Aaron Wolfgang's book Nonverbal Behavior: Perspective, Applications, and Intercultural Insights, Hogrete International, 1984.) This type of communication involves various dimensions: distance and proximity, eye contact, hand and arm gestures, body posture, facial expressions, physical contact, appearance, smell, and silence.


We quickly respond to these cues in the first few seconds after meeting someone. From this we often make several judgments. "Are they telling us the truth?" "Do we like them?" "Do they like us?" However, nonverbal cues vary considerably from culture to culture. And strangers in a foreign land can mistake them for meanings quite different from the ones they were intended for.

Such was the case when Barbara Walters interviewed Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya this past spring for the television news program 20/20. After the interview, she remarked, "He wouldn't look me in the eye. I found it disconcerting that he kept looking all over the room but rarely at me." She wasn't accustomed to that. In America, when people won't look us in the eye, we think they are "shifty-eyed," which translates to untrustworthy. However, in the Arab context, Qaddafi's withholding eye contact was actually a compliment to Barbara Walters. To look at a woman straight on, and continuously, would be considered almost as serious as a physical assault in a part of the world where some women still wear a veil to avoid eye contact with men. Not looking is correct behavior and actually conveys respect.

Eye contact is a nonverbal cue Americans are conditioned to expect in varying degrees. Our reading of it is almost at the subconscious level except when expectations are not met. Then we are jarred into awareness as Barbara Walters was.

In many Oriental...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Barnum, C., and N. Wolniansky. "Taking cues from body language." Management Review, vol. 78, no. 6, June 1989, p. 59+. Accessed 20 Oct. 2020.

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