Language Without Words

In this week’s Thursday Night Insight, Julia Cupman considers a language without words that is right before our eyes and yet which few of us tap into…

I remember being in a meeting when a client I hadn’t met before held out his hand to shake mine, right after he had let off the most horrendous mucus-infested sneeze into the palm of his hands.

I can recall a time when, in a claustrophobic meeting room, I shook the hand of a client, whose return limp handshake brushed my skin just enough to deposit all the perspiration he had worked up during our apparently sweat-invoking presentation.

I can still picture the scene when, many years ago, I turned up at a quaint guest house in rural England where the owner opened the door, grasped my hand, proceeded to bow and at the same time placed a well-positioned kiss on my knuckle.

I can remember the occasion I shook a client’s hand – a rather rotund client about twice my size – and who almost dropped dead to the floor as he exclaimed, “What a super firm handshake for such a petite lady!”

The importance of giving a firm handshake was drilled into me from an early age. I could never understand why so much importance is placed on such a trivial gesture, for a handshake is merely an extension of a greeting or farewell.

But I’ve come to learn over time, after having shaken hands with hundreds of people and therefore experiencing a myriad of hand-to-hand moments, that actually a handshake is very telling. Indeed body language experts talk of a multitude of handshakes, from the bone cruncher (where the receiver wonders whether hand surgery is required afterwards), to the “I’m in charge” handshake where the dominant hand is on top, to the sandwich handshake where two hands are placed around the receiver’s one hand (apparently indicating trust, friendliness or sympathy), to the dead fish / limp handshake (which usually construes distrust or indifference). And there are many other connotations in between.

The impressions we set and the messages we transmit through our body language stem not only from a handshake but from everything we exhibit. This includes hundreds of facial expressions; the angles we tilt our heads; how we stand or sit; the positioning and movement of our hands, arms, legs and feet; acts such as playing with jewelry, biting our lips, scratching our heads, avoiding eye contact, and many more. In other words, body language comprises a plethora of gesticulations and expressions – most of which we are completely unaware.

Studies show that words account for only 7% of the message conveyed. 38% of the communication is through tone of voice, and 55% is transmitted through body language. Body language is thus extremely important in communications, and yet we seldom acknowledge the unspoken messages we convey to others or the signals others are emitting to us. We rely so much on the spoken and written word that we fail to make the most of this additional, rich language right before our eyes.

Key drivers of customer satisfaction and loyalty are people-related, but it seems that no importance is placed on the role of body language in communications. As market researchers, reading body language is central to so much of what we do, from observing behaviors in face-to-face interviews and focus groups, to distinguishing client reactions to a presentation, to simple observation in ethnography.

Awaken your intuition for body language and you will be surprised at the non-verbal emotional and behavioral signals you will detect. And you will find that the most powerful language is sometimes that which is unspoken.

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