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Is non-verbal communication innate?



Virginie Graziani

Talent Management & Synergologist

9 March 2023

Reading Time: 5 minutes


In the beginning, our communication was only bodily, long before the development of verbal language. This means that our non-verbal communication is innate. This is why we do not think when our gestures accompany our words. However, certain gesture registers are learned according to our environment and our culture. So how do we determine what is innate non-verbal communication and what is cultural? And what is the place of the verbal in our communication?


Same gestures for all


Most of the time, our body communication is unconscious or semi-conscious. Unconscious when it is mostly mechanical. Semi-conscious when we are able to remember the gesture made previously. Our gestures become voluntary in order to support our words, convince or explain.

However, we can differentiate between two types of body language: on the one hand, universal gestures and on the other, those that are cultural. The latter are therefore part of our genetic heritage. This universality guarantees that they are shared by everyone, everywhere in the world.

This makes it easier to understand this part of non-verbal communication. In order to understand them properly, there are three basic elements that have an impact on the register of universal gestures: emotions, the indication of hierarchical position and those linked to seduction.

Paul Eckman‘s work on reading emotions through our facial expressions has made it possible to differentiate between universal elements and those that are more cultural. Thus, our emotions (fear, anger or joy) show up on our faces in the same way around the world.

Secondly, some of our gestures are linked to our hierarchical status within a group. Thus, most signs of submission and dominance are universal. However, the breadth and depth of the range of gestures related to position may vary between cultures.

Finally, some of our gestures related to seduction are also innate. Indeed, everything linked to our survival instinct corresponds to our animal part. Allowing the safeguarding of our species, the fundamentals of our body language are universal. Just like protection, the interest is that these gestures are understood by all, immediately.


Cultural specificities despite universality


We have therefore been able to define that on the one hand our gestures and postures are innate, shared by all. However, other elements of our body language are linked to our culture. For example, the simple act of saying hello is very different in different countries: handshake, kiss, nod.

Moreover, our gestures also vary according to our socio-professional category or our region of origin. For example, in France, the number of kisses differs according to the region. On a global level, some cultures are very expressive in their non-verbal communication, others are very sober.

In Latin and African cultures, people use their bodies extensively to communicate. In contrast, Nordic, Anglo-Saxon and Asian cultures tend to inhibit body language. For example, expressing strong emotions is frowned upon in some countries.

In a way, non-verbal communication works a bit like verbal communication. Just as a language conveys the culture, philosophy and history of a people, non-verbal communication also indicates how we see the world.

Also be aware of emblematic gestures, those signs that substitute for words. Some are recognised and understood all over the world. However, others are really country-specific. Indeed, they may even mean something completely different elsewhere. They are therefore not all universal and can be the source of real misunderstandings.

For example, the well-known thumbs-up emblem, which usually means “great” or “okay”, might be taken as an insult in Greece. The Hungarians or the Japanese would understand less than 30% of our emblematic gestures. A good reason to keep your hands in your pockets when travelling!


What is non-verbal communication?


Contrary to preconceived ideas, the field of non-verbal communication is very broad. Indeed, it is not only the gestures made by our hands. Also, from the feet to the head, our whole body expresses itself through our walk, our position on the chair or our head axes.

All the elements of non-verbal communication to be taken into account are
– posture,
– body movements and gestures (hands, arms, head, chest, etc.),
– facial expressions (eyebrows raised, facial expressions, etc.),
– eye movements,
– unconscious biometric changes (redness, pupil dilation, etc.).

Thus, the separation between verbal and non-verbal communication does not apply. What we need to understand is that our communication is global. It includes everything that can be seen and heard. It therefore also includes our verbal communication and everything that goes with it: rhythm, tone, intonation, volume, silence. Speech is therefore not the element that is primarily processed by our brain.

Moreover, we often (re)discover that our voice is only an expression of our body in the form of vibration. Indeed, even if we mobilise the throat to speak, our whole body is in fact involved. Indeed, physiologically, our phonatory apparatus uses many organs and parts of our body: lungs, larynx, vocal cords, oral cavity and tongue.

To sum up, our communication is all the messages we convey using our speech and our body. Therefore, body language is the set of body manifestations such as body postures, gaze, a smile, a shrug of the shoulder, etc., which can convey meaning.

Non-verbal communication refers to the information not transmitted by the voice in a communication situation. As a reminder, Albert Mehrabian established the 7% – 38% – 55% rule following his research. This means that non-verbal communication represents at least half of the elements transmitted in a face-to-face communication situation.


The secrets of body language


Mistakes in recruitment, management and negotiation are costly. On a daily basis, your colleagues, managers, peers and leaders are also trying to decipher your intentions and emotions through your verbal and non-verbal cues. Know how you are perceived by your professional environment, whether it is at the first meeting or every time you arrive in a colleague’s office.

Do you want to stop misjudging an individual? Do you need to better identify risks in others? You’ve come to the right place.

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