Critical Nonverbal Cues in Business: Don't Overlook These 8 Messages

Whether it’s a business or personal interaction, studies show that as much as 60-90% of the communication is nonverbal. That means that people addicted to text messages, twitter, and email may be sending less than half the message, and receivers often misinterpret even that half.

Yet the use of SMS text messaging for all purposes, including business, has grown consistently worldwide since it was introduced 25 years ago, to an estimated 2.5 trillion/year for business alone, according to statistics. In addition, Twitter adds another 500 million messages per day, with over 160 million daily active users. As well, email volume just continues to increase.

But are any of these text-only messages an efficient and appropriate business tool?  Where body language is part of the message, it definitely is not.  Let’s look at the most commonly recognized forms of body language, and see how they apply to business.

  1. Eye contact. The eyes are the most powerful part of our body language, and can express everything from happiness, annoyance, interest, to pain. Frequent eye contact is interpreted as honesty and forthrightness. Staring is interpreted as too aggressive. These are obvious in person, but lost in a text message.
  2. Posture. If you are trying to appear dominant or authoritative, stand erect with shoulders back. A slumped position usually indicates insecurity, guilt, or weakness. A dominant sounding text message, on the other hand, generates anger rather than acceptance.
  3. Mirroring. Most people feel more comfortable and open with people in a similar position to themselves. An example would be sitting down to meet with a key vendor, rather than standing to deliver demands.  Good managers practice this one for personnel issues.
  4. Handshake. This, of course, comes into play to signal openness or goodwill at the beginning of an interaction, and agreement at the end. Palm-to-palm contact is important for sincerity. This cultural icon is totally missing from text messages and emails.
  5. Hand-to-face. Even when the words sound good, hand-to-face movements such as holding the chin or scratching the face shows concern or lack of conviction.  If a person is covering his mouth while telling you something, he may be lying.
  6. Facial expression. A critical message delivered with a smiling face will have a totally different impact than one delivered with an angry face. ‘Smiley face emoticons’ were invented to simulate this in text messages, but they don’t always work, because the sincerity is lost.
  7. Arms and legs position. Folded arms or crossed legs, perhaps turning away slightly, indicates a lack of interest and detachment.  Later uncrossed arms and legs may be a sign of acceptance of your position or terms. An extrovert will have toes pointed out, introvert will keep them pointed in. None of these come through in texting.
  8. Space occupied. Some people stand up and move around to be more dominant, maybe even threatening. Even sitting, you can stretch your legs to occupy more space. Standing while talking on the phone will make your voice sound more urgent. Maybe all CAPS will satisfy this one.

Sure, there are many cases where a 10-word text message, or 140 character tweet will communicate a simple message more efficiently than a face-to-face discussion. But most business processes, like negotiating a contract, closing a sale, customer support, or managing employees, are much more complicated than just words.

Overall, the most successful people in business learn to use the right tool for the right job. I’m supportive of using text messaging for agreeing on a time and place for a customer visit, but when I read that text messages are the new pink slips for layoffs, that’s just wrong! I’m beginning to believe that people don’t want real communication anymore.