With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, this time of the year is often marked with more and more dates for couples new and old. Oftentimes, we put a lot of effort into knowing just what to say. This is important, but maybe not as important as we might think it is. The famous findings by researcher and UCLA psychology professor Dr. Albert Mehrabian suggest that the likability of a person in a situation is determined by the following parameters: 7 percent what we say, 38 percent the tone of voice we use and 55 percent by the body language we use.1 Also, as a relationship progresses, non-verbal communication accounts for even more of the communication between you and your partner. How is it that what we say can be so relatively unimportant in our interactions with those around us, and how can we use this knowledge to more effectively communicate or make a good impression on a date?
Nonverbal communication–our posture, hand gestures, facial expression and even timing or tone of voice–accounts for 93 percent of information communicated between people in face-to-face interactions.2 Dr. Mehrabian’s findings also suggest that when people’s words do not match their nonverbal cues, we will go with what their nonverbal cues suggest. For example, if you say to your friend, “I don’t care if we do that” but avoid eye contact, cross your shoulders and say it in a discouraged tone of voice, your friend may not believe you.
Nonverbal communication is believed to be an external expression of what we are feeling,3 giving great power to those who know how to manipulate their nonverbal expression or decipher others’ nonverbal expressions. We may be able to understand what others are feeling even before they are willing to tell us. Many times we pick up on these nonverbal signs subconsciously, but other times we don’t pick up on them at all; being able to recognize them during an interaction may help us better navigate it.
The signs to look for and express vary with the situation and what you want to communicate. In light of Valentine’s Day fast approaching, let’s look at a date scenario. Research suggests that in the absence of nonverbal cues, people’s perceptions of you are heavily based on physical attractiveness.4 The same researchers found that the more nonverbally-expressive participants were, the more attractive they were rated during an initial interaction.5 Yet another study suggests that saying one thing while non-verbally expressing something completely different resulted in a negative impression.6 This finding highlights the importance of using nonverbal communication effectively and making sure yours is consistent with the words you use.
Researchers have concluded that what really makes you stand out is not primarily your looks but rather your expression of availability.7 This availability is expressed through social cues such as smiling, having uncrossed arms and legs and making direct eye-contact. Showing interest is expressed by leaning in towards them, tilting your head while listening to show engagement and pointing your feet towards them.8
Men are found to take longer to pick up on nonverbal cues than women,9 making it important for men to focus on recognizing nonverbal cues and for women to err on the side of providing more nonverbal cues when interacting with men. Men will generally express their interest using the previously mentioned signs of availability and interest, while women may be more expressive by nodding their head, gazing into their date’s eyes, tilting their head and smiling or flipping their hair. Women do this, in theory, to expose their neck, releasing pheromones.10
The way we carry our bodies and move throughout a situation gives those around us far more information than what we say. Understanding the importance of these nonverbal cues and using them to effectively communicate what we want to about ourselves is highly valuable. Although it may take practice to become good at recognizing and using these cues to our advantage, practice is more than worthwhile; it is vital for effective communication. In the frame of a relationship, nonverbal communication plays a critical role during the beginning stages as we begin to form our impressions of the other person. The importance of nonverbal communication only increases as a relationship develops, when words may not be needed to express what you have to say. With this in mind, this time of the year is the perfect time to work on recognizing and developing nonverbal communication skills with those around us, both with our valentines and everyone else.