Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Non-verbal communication has a huge impact on a child's social well-being, yet development of this skill is often overlooked, says Emory psychologist Steve Nowicki. Photo credits, above and below: iStockphoto.com.
By Carol Clark
What you don’t say during a face-to-face encounter can deliver a stronger message than words.
“Non-verbal communication is at least as important, if not more important, than the verbal part of relationships,” says Emory psychologist Steve Nowicki, a leading expert in the nuances of body language. “When you break a non-verbal rule of language, it almost always has a negative emotional impact.”
And yet, the elaborate codes of facial expressions, postures and gestures that form the basis of non-verbal communication are learned informally and indirectly, primarily from our parents, he says.
He cites his own experience of having a reserved, Polish father and a boisterous Italian mother. “At times, the only sign that my father was upset was the way he would raise one eyebrow by a certain degree,” Nowicki recalls. “My mother, on the other hand, never met an emotion that she didn’t express immediately and vividly.”
Between the pair of them, Nowicki learned to interpret and use the gamut of non-verbal signals. “But imagine what a boy who was raised by two parents like my mother would be like when he got to school,” Nowicki says. If a teacher delivered a command in a soft, even tone characteristic of preschool instructors, the child would be likely to miss the teacher’s message entirely and perhaps get labeled as “oppositional.”
For more than two decades, in association with Emory psychologist Marshall Duke, Nowicki has produced a groundbreaking body of work in how non-verbal communication impacts a child’s development. They developed the Diagnostic Analysis of Non-verbal Accuracy (DANVA) a set of tests to access subtle cues to emotional expressions, including visual signals and tone and cadence of voice. The test is in use by researchers around the world.
“Research has shown that most people overestimate their non-verbal communication skills,” Nowicki says.
In the following Q&A, he answers 10 questions based on research by himself and others.
Is non-verbal communication skill associated with personal and social adjustment?
Yes, DANVA errors in children can help predict future personal and social difficulties, including anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, lower self-esteem and being the victim of bullies.
Can the ability to read non-verbal emotions be improved?
Yes, direct teaching of children, including those with high-functioning autism, can lead to significant improvement in their DANVA scores.
Are there any drawbacks to being extremely good at reading others?
Yes. You have to be careful if you are especially adept at sensing the non-verbal signals of others, because you may pick up emotional signals that they are unaware of sending and would rather hide. For instance, when you tell someone that they look a little tired and sad, they might take offense, even if it’s true.
Is non-verbal communication skill tied to cognitive ability?
No, except when the IQ is below 70. For those with average IQs and above, there does not appear to be a correlation between non-verbal communication skills and intelligence.
Is the ability to interpret non-verbal cues correlated to the ability to express them?
No, not much. Even if you’re good at reading people’s non-verbal cues, it doesn’t mean that you’re not sending out faulty messages yourself. They appear to be two different skills.
Is non-verbal communication interpreted the same way across cultures?
No, culture has a significant impact. Studies have shown, for instance, that African-Americans can read white faces as well as they can read African-American faces. White people, however, do not read African-American faces as well, and when they misinterpret their facial expressions, they tend to read them as angry. You can imagine the potential kinds of problems this might cause.
Do children acquire the ability to read the emotions of facial expressions in a particular order?
Yes, studies show that children tend to learn to read a happy expression first, followed by sad, angry and then fearful expressions.
Does older age affect non-verbal communication skill?
Yes. As we become elderly, our ability to read emotions can erode, and it seems we lose skill in emotions in the opposite order that we acquired them as children. Happy is the last one to go.
Between the ages of 45 and 55, we begin to lose the ability to pick up emotions in voices, and by ages 55 to 65 loss in the ability to read faces follows. However, what remains the same at any age is that better skill compared to peers is correlated with better personal and social adjustment.
What is the effect of a neutral expression?
There is no such thing as a neutral face, because a neutral face is usually interpreted negatively.
About one-third of people have an off-putting “resting face” and they don’t realize it. Their faces, when they are thinking about nothing in particular and feeling no emotion, are actually communicating something negative. As we age, this tendency grows. It is estimated that more than half of people above the age of 65 have a negative resting face.
Do nonverbal communication skills correlate to attitudes toward robots?
Yes. Believe it or not, a study showed that people who are not good at reading the emotional cues in human body postures tend to dislike robots.
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