Framework for Understanding

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, we are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of social scientist-the non-verbalist. Just as the birdwatcher delights in watching birds and their behaviour, so the non-verbalist delights in watching the non-verbal cues and signals of human beings. He watches them at social functions, at beaches, on television, at the office or anywhere that people interact. He is a student of behaviour who wants to learn about the actions of his fellow humans so that he may ultimately learn more about himself and how he can improve his relationships with others.

It seems almost incredible that, over the million or more years of man's evolution, the non-verbal aspects of communication have been actively studied on any scale only since the 1960s and that the public has become aware of their existence only since Julius Fast published a book about body language in 1970. This was a summary of the work done by behavioural scientists on nonverbal communication up until that time, and even today, most people are still ignorant of the existence of body language, let alone its importance in their lives.

Charlie Chaplin and many other silent movie actors were the pioneers of non-verbal communication skills; they were the only means of communication available on the screen. Each actor was classed as good or bad by the extent to which he could use gestures and other body signals to communicate effectively. When talking films became popular and less emphasis was placed on the non-verbal aspects of acting, many silent movie actors faded into obscurity and those with good verbal skills prevailed.

As far as the technical study of body language goes, perhaps the most influential pre-twentieth-century work was Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872. This spawned the modern studies of facial expressions and body language and many of Darwin's ideas and observations have since been validated by modern researchers around the world. Since that time, researchers have noted and recorded almost one million nonverbal cues and signals. Albert Mehrabian found that the total impact of a message is about 7 per cent verbal (words only) and 38 per cent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection and other sounds) and 55 per cent non-verbal. Professor Birdwhistell made some similar estimates of the amount of non-verbal communication that takes place amongst humans. He estimated that the average person actually speaks words for a total of about ten or eleven minutes a day and that the average sentence takes only about 2.5 seconds. Like Mehrabian, he found that the verbal component of a face-to-face conversation is less than 35 per cent and that over 65 per cent of communication is done non-verbally.

Most researchers generally agree that the verbal channel is used primarily for conveying information, while the non-verbal channel is used for negotiating interpersonal attitudes, and in some cases is used as a substitute for verbal messages. For example, a woman can give a man a 'look to kill'; she will convey a very clear message to him without opening her mouth.

Regardless of culture, words and movements occur together with such predictability that Birdwhistell says that a well-trained person should be able to tell what movement a man is making by listening to his voice. In like manner, Birdwhistell learned how to tell what language a person was speaking, simply by watching his gestures.

Many people find difficulty in accepting that humans are still biologically animals. Homo sapiens is a species of primate, a hairless ape that has learned to walk on two limbs and has a clever, advanced brain. Like any other species, we are dominated by biological rules that control our actions, reactions, body language and gestures. The fascinating thing is that the human animal is rarely aware of his postures, movements and gestures that can tell one story while his voice may be telling another.

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