Did you know that the words you speak out loud make up less than half of what you say? Even when you don't say a single word, your body is talking to other people all the time. Your gestures, facial expression, eye movements, and even your posture constantly tell your ongoing story to the world. Your body language may even give away some things you don't want to tell.
The 7%-38%-55% rule
In 1967, Albert Mehrabian discovered that when it came to liking or disliking people, what was said carried much less impact than how it was said and the body language that went with it. The ratio goes like this:
"Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking" (Mehrabian)
Verbal liking is what you say in words. Vocal liking is the tone in which you say it. Facial liking is the body language which accompanies the words. Together, these make up the 7%-38%-55% rule of what makes someone like or dislike you.
Mehrabian's original research concentrated only on the tone of voice and facial expressions, but the basic idea behind the 7%-38%-55% rule has been supported by many newer studies. In particular, another study found that body posture has more than 4 times as much influence as verbal cues on whether someone else believes you or not.
It's all about attitude
The body language of other people can tell you a lot about who they are inside and how they feel about you, which will often affect their future actions towards you. This nonverbal information can be much more valuable than what they choose to say out loud. People don't often say what they are really thinking, but their body language does.
Being able to read another person's attitude through body language is important in just about every part of life. Words alone don't tell you enough. You'd feel good about your boss telling you that your work is fine if you also see that your boss is relaxed about it. Some bosses may even smile. But what if your boss says exactly the same thing to you while standing back more than usual, tensing up, and avoiding eye contact?
Body language doesn't lie
Body language brings across emotion and attitude much better than words alone. This is because it's very hard for your body to tell anything other than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
If you're trying to be completely frank without any concealment, your body language will communicate your open honesty. Without you doing anything consciously, your face and torso will open up on their own, and you'll make eye contact without even thinking about it. People usually react positively to this kind of open body language. Over time, they may even find you trustworthy.
However, if you're holding anything important back, your body language will communicate that as well. No matter how carefully you choose your words, your body language will tell other people more than you may want them to know. It doesn't matter if it's a little white lie to save someone's feelings or something a lot more dangerous. If you know you're concealing something important, your body language will close up on its own.
The signals your body language sends to other people may also be much more subtle. Some people freeze and stop breathing when they're holding onto something important without saying it. Some people gasp, or blink, or rub their nose. The best poker players rely on these kinds of "tells" to make a living.
However, you don't have to be a poker player to know that learning something which is deliberately concealed can save you a lot of grief later. If your date claims to be attracted to you but the body language is constantly insisting that you keep your distance, which part do you think is telling the real truth?
From job interviews to dating, nothing is more important than the first impression. What you see in another person the first time you meet will decide where you go from there. What others see in you will decide what their next actions will be. In fact, the first impression decides if there is even going to be a chance to make a second impression.
Body language plays a crucial role in making that first impression. Before you can say a single word, your facial expression, eyes, handshake, and posture will say it all for you. A wet noodle handshake can utterly derail a job interview, while a firm handshake radiates confidence. If your body language clashes with your appearance or your words, people may instantly judge you untrustworthy without taking the time to know you better, even if they don't know exactly why.
You won't get a second chance at this. Most people will make up their minds about you in the first few seconds of meeting you. Once the first impression is made, it's very hard to overturn it.
Choosing your signals
Fortunately, once you become aware of how your body communicates your attitude, a lot of what your body says is under your control. Every visible part your body is moved by voluntary muscles, which you can consciously control. You can decide what your hands are doing, or where to look and for how long.
By using kinesics, the study of body language, you can decide what you will communicate with your body. You can even learn how to make your spoken words much more effective by pairing them with the right body language signals, both in public speaking and in small group interaction.
The more you learn about your own body language, the easier it will be to read body language in other people. As you learn to shape the natural communication skills of your body, you will become more aware of the body language signals other people send out.
Kinesics is more than just abstract knowledge, it is a practical life skill. To learn more about how to use kinesics in practical communication, check out "Three Classic Techniques of Body Language."