Nonverbal Communication Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

“What role does context play in nonverbal communication?”

There are seven universal emotions humans, on average, identify through specific expressions:

😀  Happiness
😱  Fear
😞  Sad
🤢  Disgust
😲  Surprise
😒  Contempt

According to anthropology and neuroscience, the main reason we universally recognize these emotions is because of our evolved need to decipher between friend/foe and safety/danger by picking up on certain cues quickly. 

Now, while it may seem simple to detect someone is happy with a smile, things get considerably more complex when we get into emotions like confidence, comfort, discomfort, trustworthiness etc. 

These emotions can be expressed in a variety of different ways, depending on the person, their baseline, and the context. 

A great example is with arm crossing. We are often quick to judge someone who crosses their arms as being ‘closed off/disinterested’. 

Without taking the context into consideration, we may not realize that this individual tends to cross their arms as a soothing posture when thinking (they also happen to be nodding their head). Or perhaps, that the AC is on and the individual is cold. 

This is a small, but powerful example. Think of how many times you may cross your arms not because you are closed off, but because you felt slightly awkward having your arms dangle by your sides? 

In the world of nonverbal communication, we must take many things into account when we are observing someone’s behaviors. It’s rarely about just one cue. Oftentimes, it’s a cluster of behaviors, within an understood context that will guide us to the most accurate observations. Not to judge someone, but to better understand how we can communicate with them. 

On the flip side, knowing that those around us may be quick to judge us based on a simple gesture, means we can more intentionally choose how we show up. For example, catching ourselves the next time we have crossed our arms – challenging ourselves to not look away from our computer screens repeatedly… 

What are some of the ways you might consider context over video specifically?