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Our world of words.

Are your hands doing all the talking?

We’re resident experts at communication here at 44, and we spend more of our time thinking about words and their impact than your average Joe. However, as 44’s Katie Grace finds out, there’s more to communication than what we say out loud…

Working in an office jam-packed with creative thinkers and design gurus, I sometimes wonder how my colleagues would feel if I said to them I could (sort of) tell how they were feeling without listening to a word they said.

No mind reading or magic involved, just a little bit of knowledge about non-verbal communication (NVC).


NVC is a lot more than twiddling thumbs or a shake of the head. One less obvious example is that of paralanguage[1], which refers to all the other aspects of the voice apart from speech. Think back to the last time you were caught out in a conversation… do you recall pausing for a few moments and blurting out a slightly squeaky response? These are classic cases of hesitation and pitch, two examples of paralanguage.

How close you position yourself to your conversational partners, the amount of eye contact you make and your general body language are other great tellers of how you’re expressing yourself without knowing. Ever take a subconscious step back during an argument or uncomfortable conversation, or avoid looking directly at someone you don’t like? Chances are you didn’t realise at the time, but these are indicators of dislike that require no words at all. They can be as obvious as breaking out in a nervous sweat, or as subtle as pupil dilation in a stressful situation.

Everyday conversation

Gestures are another example of non-verbal signs, and although you might be thinking of the stereotypical extravagant hand gestures from the Italians, you might be surprised how often we use gestures in everyday conversation, and how much meaning they contribute. In fact, it’s been said that only 7%[2] of what we communicate is verbal, so your non-verbal signals are probably quite important.

People generally have less control over their non-verbal messages and this is because your brain is usually more focused on what you’re saying verbally. As non-verbal tends to be more emotional and instinctive, it could be said that you’re safer trusting this than what’s being said if you find yourself in a situation where there’s a mismatch.

Say you’re presenting to a room of important clients. They may be commenting and thanking you for a great presentation, but their lack of eye contact, slumped shoulders and lack of gestures may be telling a different story. Similarly, if you’re on a first date and your partner is playing with her hair (I’m definitely guilty of this one) and shifting around in her seat, she may be more nervous than she’d like you to know.

Non-verbal signals

Non-verbal communication is fascinating, and although it varies from person to person, we say a lot more with our bodies than we realise. So, what does this mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, if you’re a fan of people-watching then you’re probably a fan of non-verbal signals. Although ‘people-watching’ sounds a lot less geeky, so I tend to stick to that.

It’s by no means a completely accurate measure of someone’s true feelings. I’m not sure how much truth there is to the myth that our eyes flicker to the left when we’re lying and so on. However, in the same way the skin indicates how much sun we’ve seen in the last few months, the body can reveal a lot about the implicit messages we’re conveying.

I think non-verbal communication is a little like Where’s Wally: once you’ve found him on the page you can’t un-see him. Next time you’re subject to a particularly long meeting or group discussion, cast your eyes around and see who has the best poker face, and poker hands, and poker eyes…



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