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Without Saying A Word, We’re Sending Silent Messages

Our face, our posture, our every mannerism communicates volumes.

It took the Dean of Students in college to tell me about it.  I had a facial habit that hurt people’s feelings.  To my utter astonishment, my facial habits made me an open book.  A grimace awaited anyone whose suggestion or idea I didn’t like while a nod and smile was my ready response for those whose ideas or suggestions I did like.  As president of a student organization, this mattered.  I was hurting others.

We forget that we’re inside ourselves.  We don’t see what other people see.  We don’t have the experience of encountering ourselves on the street or at a family reunion or in a meeting.  Without saying one single word, everyone around us is receiving our silent messages. 

To begin, our face!  First, there is the automatic human response.  We recognize a look of surprise just as easily as we recognize a look of fear or anger.  All humans have facial expressions that represent their current condition – these expressions happen automatically.  We do not consciously say to our brain or our face, show that I'm surprised.  No, it's human to show surprise.

We also develop our own individual set of facial muscle habits.  These reflect our own unique response to our life experience; they are the result of years of practice.  These, too, have become automatic; they have become habits.  Our facial muscles offer our personal response to what is happening around us. 

Many of us like to think we have a poker face, that no one can read our thoughts or feelings.  Often, that’s not true.  Whether it’s a raised eyebrow, a quick frown, a wink or a nod, it’s likely we have long-held expressions that speak to others. You might ask yourself what your facial expressions are saying about you.  Are your expressions showing the message you intend? 

Our posture and the way we walk are also communicators.  How many times have you heard someone say, “she stands tall” or “he holds his head high”? Rounded shoulders and a slouch are visual cues for a lack of confidence or laziness while standing straight with one’s head up are received as indicators of confidence and energy. 

Mannerisms and gestures are communicators, telling others what’s on your mind.  We’ve long known that folded arms send a closed message while arms at our side send an open message.  What else?  Twisting hair, frequent facial touches and wringing hands may reflect angst.  A high-five is a mutually positive gesture.

Many people speak with their hands and body.  It adds to the expressive quality of their words.  Saying “no” emphatically while strongly pointing your finger makes the sentence more powerful.  A shrug of the shoulders indicates a lack of knowledge, a lack of interest or meekness. 

Even in this day of relaxed attire, our clothing, hair care and personal care send messages.  Casual can be casual and positive.  On the other hand, wrinkled and unclean is rarely positive.  While old rules have been sent packing, when it’s a situation you value, consider your appearance.

Much is written about the first impression rule.  Some say it happens in three seconds, others insist it happens in a fraction of one second, still others say it takes seven seconds.  Whichever it is, we each make a lasting impression during the first few seconds of a meeting.  Rarely do these impressions change over time.  If you think it’s an important meeting, be aware of the silent messages you are sending.

Gender makes a difference in nonverbal communication.  Men will often reveal less emotional information.  In a business setting, that can be positive.  In a personal setting, however, that may have a negative impact.  Women, on the other hand, will generally maintain less physical distance and make more eye contact.  In a business setting, that may not always be positive while in a personal setting it likely will be positive.

Using similar posture positions, mannerisms and conversational style may enhance the positive quality of an encounter.  For example, some career advisors suggest using similar seated positions and gestures in a job interview.  The purpose is not to mimic the interviewer but to establish a connection.  Leaning in towards another is positive unless you are invading their space at which point, it becomes negative.

It all fits together.  Your silent messages are many.  Your face, your posture, your gestures, mannerisms and appearance are all sending messages about you.  Taken individually, each sends a message.  When combined, these traits and habits send a louder message.  Will others read the messages you are sending as confident? As trustworthy? As smart? As happy? As depressed? As anxious? As lazy?  As energetic?  You are sending the messages.  Be sure they represent you.

Why do you care about your silent messages?  Hopefully, your nonverbal communications are sending the messages you intend.  In college, I was not sending my intended message.  To make sure I changed, I drew a funny image as a reminder and kept it in front of me at every meeting.  Awareness is everything.  Simply stay alert to the messages you silently send to others, making certain they are the messages you intend.