‘Tis still the season, at least for those celebrating the Christmas season from a religious angle, to think through the ways in which words are made flesh. In honor of that, but in a way that would still hopefully be helpful year-round and for a wider audience, I thought it was high time to talk about the place nonverbal communication occupies in the way we communicate. So yes, let’s dive into the mysteries of the place flesh, and tone, and even emojis have alongside our words, especially in how all this impacts conflict communication as well as prejudice.
NOTE: As a little holiday gift, this article is relatively short (as Mark Twain famously noted, it can be harder to write short than to write long at times). Hope you enjoy it!
The Basics of Nonverbal Communication
So yeah, a quick definition, if you didn’t already know: Nonverbal communication is everything we use to communicate outside the words themselves.
Interestingly, this concept isn’t actually limited to things impacted by our flesh.
Communication scholars looking at nonverbal communication also look at things such as clothing, territory, and other markers of how our bodies seek to make ourselves known.
So yes, the study of nonverbal communication moves outside our bodies to how we try to influence and control others through our use of space, time, and other variables.
That all can get really deep.
But in this article, I’ll try to stay inside the way our bodies communicate. That’s complicated enough. And as someone who grew up bookish—interested in the ways stories put a kind of flesh around abstract concepts—I was as fascinated about these ideas as my students have been semester by semester.
So Yes, The Words Made Flesh
So yeah, here are a few of the most important things I’ve learned about non-verbal communication:
- It has a huge impact on our communication.
- We often communicate through it and process a lot of it unconsciously and unintentionally.
- It is hella hard to interpret accurately, both person to person and culture to culture.
How These Things Work Together
So yeah, in short, when the word becomes flesh it gets messy. One reason it gets so messy is that our non-verbal communication brain connections are both closer to parts of our brain that process emotion than our verbal centers are, and the pathways work faster.
That means if we feel threatened in some way (which, I’ll remind you, is the definition of stress), our vocal tone or facial expression is likely to carry that fact to others whether or not we want it to.
We often consciously or unconsciously rely on such information to find out whether people around us are safe and trustworthy.
It Gets Complicated, Though
The thing is, that we’re always interpreting these things using our visceral senses, often without noticing it. Sometimes our instincts about whether someone is trustworthy or not are correct, and sometimes incorrect.
And nonverbal communication, as I said, is often ambiguous.
Take eye contact.
In the US, eye contact is often seen as a sign of respect and connection. But if you hold it too long, we see it as a sign of poor social skills or an attempt to dominate another. In other cultures, these latter signs are emphasized more and it’s seen as rude to hold eye contact at all, especially when having difficult conversations.
And in all cultures including the US, someone not meeting your eyes may be a sign of rudeness, shiftiness, or just of straight-up shyness. It could even be a sign of a history of abuse.
The Danger of the Single Story of Nonverbals
Let me say that again: the same non-verbal sign could mean everything from the fact that a person is untrustworthy, to the fact that the same person is from a different culture with different codes to interpret nonverbals, to being a sign that a person has been deeply hurt and vulnerable.
It could mean any or all of those things.
And it’s often our socialized biases as well as our own histories that lead us to interpret such a non-verbal as one thing more than another.
Those Interpretations Often Come Too Easily
And as I said, we often do this unconsciously. If we’re stressed, if we’ve been told a particular group of people is suspicious, if we’ve been hurt before, if if if. In all those situations and more, we often use something called confirmation bias to interpret such signs to reinforce our belief that a person is untrustworthy. Even when that may be unjust to the other person.
Or, if we grew up in an environment where we were shielded from seeing a lot of manipulative behavior, we may fail to see those signs when they are presented to us.
But It’s Not Easy
So here’s the kicker: because we’re all different people with differing histories and perceptions, there’s no fail-safe way to determine what someone means by their non-verbal communication.
Our instincts can be quite helpful, but they occasionally lead us astray. And they guide our thought processes more often than we’d like.
Nonverbals and Conflict
The hardest thing is to decipher what nonverbals mean in the midst of conflict situations, especially in times where past wounds and/or socialized suspicions have been activated.
There’s a reason that many of us were taught from youth to only trust our flesh so far in these times—those fight or flight instincts can be so wise, but they can also lead us astray.
What Then Shall We Do?
That’s why it’s so important to figure out how to step back in times between conflicts. And sometimes during conflict itself.
To consider carefully what you know—when you’re not feeling threatened—what really is safe and unsafe.
Trauma therapies like EMDR are designed to help retrain our neurobiology to help our instincts be more trustworthy about others’ nonverbals.
Let’s also remember that words are paired with flesh for a reason. We can use them to get more information about what is safe and unsafe. We can also use them to find out how our experiences compare with the broader world’s. To develop skills of empathy to allow room for multiple perceptions.
A Call to Embrace the Paradox
Here’s the thing: We often want immediate answers, and satisfactory answers, about what nonverbals mean. Becoming more aware of the breadth of possibilities will help build our abilities to interpret things a bit better. And that in turn will hopefully help to create a more just world.
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s embrace the the “fleshly” aspects of communication. But let’s also recognize how much we need to leave their interpretations open at times. It’s the best way to be just and gracious to others as much as possible. May we all do what we can where we are with what we’ve got toward this end.
Want to know more about how our stress reactions tie into our communication? Sign up for the email newsletter in the top bar of this site and confirm your email address. In your final welcome email you’ll receive a link to the “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls,” which helps with both online and offline conflict.