The Importance of Non-Verbal Language
By: Linda Villamarín
When I arrived in Germany for the first time (from Latin America) a few years ago, I though the German course I’d taken back in my home country would be enough, at least to understand simple things. Naturally, It wasn't like that at all. I remember standing in the long line to pass through immmigration at Frankfurt airport, surrounded by people from all over the world, all of us who did not belong to the European Union, and apparently, we had to be examined with a magnifying glass before getting in.
I felt like I was in the tower of Babel since all the people there spoke different languages to each other. I saw them talking with each other, reviewing papers, organizing documents, yawning, and talking about things that, in my head, could have been anything. When we arrived at the window where the immigration officer sat waiting for us, it was the moment when everything had to be unified, the moment of truth had arrived. We tried to speak our best version of English or German. In return, we received a very cold greeting, a stamp in the passport and a NEXT! The officer meant for the next in line, but to me, it was my welcoming ceremony: “Welcome to our beautiful country, welcome to your new life, to a period full of opportunities, etc, etc, etc...”
I guess everyone hears what they want to sometimes.
When I left the airport and faced the city, the language situation didn’t improve. I didn't understand anything. Absolutely nothing. I felt frustrated and silly. It was such a hard and complicated language for me. I had to learn to observe and imitate what others were doing that seemed to be appropriate or to garner a positive response from others. Not understanding a language, not even a little, makes you observe details and look for new ways to communicate.
Every day, I watched the people around me. On the subway routes, I put my headphones and social networks aside and dedicated myself to observing people while they were talking. The same thing happened when I attended meetings where most people spoke a language other than my own, I just kept watching and trying to figure out in my mind what came out of other people's mouths.
By doing that, I learned something very important. Sometimes, we have conversations with words: we speak, the other person listens and responds, and so forth. There's a sound in that conversation, a sound that one responds to. But behind those sounds, on the mental backstage, communication, what we’re really saying is made up of a thousand little things apart from what we said. So, I watched and watched. The words didn't make sense to me, but I could see the gestures that people might inadvertently make as they spoke. Gestures more universal than they seemed.
I saw a couple talking and noticed how the eyes of one of them caught sneaky glances of someone else while he was pretending to listen. Then I saw the other person make a lot of involuntary gestures with their hands. People apparently couldn’t express what they wanted using only words; they also needed to use the rest of their bodies to help them to express themselves. I noticed legs trembling with an apparent desire to run away, strong voices that seemed to impose an idea, trying to make their voices stronger than the argument. I also noticed childish and spoiled voices, which sometimes seemed to affect tenderness in the other but on other occasions, clear irritability. I saw smiles only with lips and not with eyes and laughs that made people cry. It was a different universe. It was like watching a movie with subtitles in which the narrator explains everything the characters don't say, like those that are oddly specific: [fake laughs] or [cries in Spanish.] It was even funny to watch. Having the virgin ears of that language made me understand the importance of non-verbal communication in everyday life, no matter where we are.
Sometimes when we talk to someone and we unintentionally give them a bad impression of ourselves. Although our words were really well thought out, the rest of our body expressed something totally different. It also happens when we dislike someone immediately upon meeting them for reasons that aren’t clear to us. Rationally, we know that this person could be perfectly fine, but for whatever reason, we simply don’t like him or her. It may be that our mind and the rest of our body perceived things in the other that made us uncomfortable. Movements, tones of voice, some gesture that leads us to some unconscious memory and without realizing, it repels us from the other. Or it could be quite the opposite. We see someone and immediately like them, even though we haven't talked much with them. It goes beyond their physical appearance. What is transmitted with all parts of their body has a very powerful effect.
All this made me wonder what kind of message I myself am conveying to others. Of all the people in the world I have come across, how much have I said that I didn't mean, how much truth has my body given away that my mouth refused to pronounce? How much does my body say that my voice isn’t?
I guess there are things that are just too hard to control.
I must confess that one of the things I like the most when I travel to new places is to observe what people do. I’m not referring to their typical activities, but precisely those small, involuntary gestures that identify them. The hands, the glances, the tone of the voice, that unconscious improvised choreography that dances in front of others, that other language beneath their words which they learned at birth. It's just wonderful and very interesting to watch.
We can try to synchronize body and mind to achieve, in some way, being able to say what we really want to express. However, in our day to day, this conscientiousness is lost in our actions. I suppose that's the beauty of that other language, which has its way, its time, its rhythm. It's a stronger voice than the one coming out of our lips. I don't know if it's worth trying to control it or not, but what I do know is that it's very curious to observe. At the end of the day, non-verbal language is a key tool in being successful with many things: interviews, dates, speeches. It’s precisely those involuntary sounds and movements, which are purely human, that identify us and make us individual in a way that we cannot describe. So, in a way, it is also worth letting the unconscious be and allowing the body and mind to speak beyond words. It’s what tells the world who you are.