Whenever we approach the study of nonverbal communication (NVC), we are reminded of the contributions of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Nonverbal communication in business often means to people how they act in a job interview. How do people use their hands, faces, eyes, legs, and gestures? What impression does this nonverbal communication have on the viewer or the job interviewer?
We need to become aware of the cultural differences of different societies with nonverbal communications. A hand gesture in one society will be interpreted differently in another society. Our own global survival depends on our ability to interpret gestures from other societies. Edward Hall in The Silent Language tells how one Westerner was put out when his South American counterpart kept him waiting for hours without reason. The American did not understand the difference in time expressed by South American societies and the United States. That difference caused a problem in communication.
Let us start the study of nonverbal communication with the handshake. In class we learn that web-to-web handshake in the best in most business situations. The handshake was originally, probably in Medieval Times, used as a way of checking whether a person had a weapon. The handshake revealed the other person probably did not possess any weapons. Desmond Morris, the famous anthropologist and author of many books, believes the handshake is a "tie-sign" because of the bond it creates.
I asked my older son about some recent job interviews he encountered. He said the interviewer offered his hand. He then shook, "web to web." An article in The New York Times, July 6, 1997, suggested the handshake does not always represent respect as it once did. Suppose a pro basketball player shakes hands with an opposing team after his team has won an important playoff game. The other team may not interpret the handshake as a sign of respect. That is what happened to Alonzo Mourning when he attempted to shake Michael Jordan's hand. Jordan rejected Alonzo's handshake.
Did you ever consider that a friendly handshake could convey some illness? Let's say we stopped shaking hands because of the germs that are loosened. Something could be lost in nonverbal communication. An experiment was recently tried with a sales training company. A quarter was left in a telephone booth. The student experimenter asked if the quarter had been found. Most strangers lied about the quarter. However, when the student shook hands with the strangers, only 14 of the 75 lied about finding the quarter.
Do you wonder how politicians can find all that stamina to shake hands with so many constituents? According to the The New York Times, that is how the masses achieve some quality time with their politicians. Have you heard the phrase in computer circles about certain pieces of hardware/software achieving a handshake with other pieces? The word, handshake, is not going to go away. IBM, one of the leaders of "handshake" technology is developing a product that will astound us: "Though it won't be available for a while, the company says it has the technology to transmit data-like a digitized business card-between two people with just a handshake." This PAN device uses the "natural salinity of the human body that can transmit data to, and receive data from, someone else with a PAN device." Then, the device can later be transferred to a computer for viewing of the data.
Will the handshake as an important nonverbal tool disappear? I don't think so. Maybe we should reserve the handshake for special moments. Should we blame e-mail, faxes, and telephones for the decline of the handshake?
Dimitrius's book proposes that we should all look for the patterns in people. We should also recognize the rogue action of people, such as a ring in the nose, that appears out of the ordinary. Depend, though, on the patterns rather than isolating one characteristic. We need to "listen" to the individual. At a recent book signing Dr. Dimitrius suggested we need to look beyond the personal appearance to the physical and human environment, including the quality of the voice. With a prospective jury, ask the following questions: How forthcoming is the person? Why is the person not responsive?
Mark Mazzarella, the other member of the authoring team, believes a person is like a house with many rooms. Jo-Ellan Dimitrius thinks we should first zero in on compassion as a human trait. How honest or egotistical is the individual? According to Dimitrius, in our technology-based world we are getting out of practice in looking at the person's eyes. Reading people, therefore, helps personal and business relationships.
First impressions are important, but we cannot rely on them. The ideas from Dimitrius and Mazzarella can be used for dating and employment relationships. We need to observe makeup and hair styles. These observations represent other pieces of information to keep in mind. Can you detect from a person's personal appearance the warmth and caring nature of that individual? Are the clothes worn warm and inviting?
So much can be heard in a person's voice. Can you detect things are not going well? Is the voice even, harsh, or shrill? How does the individual respond to people and situations? Does the person ask you to finish your thought? Does the person you are observing ask questions? Jo-Ellan tells the story about the cat's meow of a man her friend was dating. At the restaurant during the date, the cat's meow man gave the third degree to the waiter. He was charming with his companion, however. He gave a stare to the busboy that would kill. Did Dimitrius's friend really want to get involved with this man? We need to work on a very "good read" of people. Does the method of communication reflect compassion? Is the voice consistent?
Mark Mazzarella believes we have "reading" skills we all can develop. Jo-Ellan started her "reading" education by always being fascinated by people. In her book she suggests we need to become aware of liars in our everyday dealings: occasional liars, habitual liars, and professional liars. You have to know when someone is lying on the witness stand and in everyday dealings. We have to get into the other person's space to detect liars. An occasional liar, for example, is upset about the lying experience and understands the implications.
One more point needs emphasizing. You need a guide as an acronym when you are reading people. Consider Jo-Ellan Dimitrius's S.P.E.E.D.in Reading People. The S stands for Scan as you scan what the person is saying. The P stands for Pare as you narrow the traits and characteristics you have observed into a recognizable pattern. The first E stands for Enlarge as we check out once again our first impressions and the person's traits that are observable. The second E stands for Evaluate as you consider the total pattern. The final D stands for Decide as you make your final evaluation of the individual's patterns and your observations. Doesn't that S.P.E.E.D. help you the next time you meet someone or visit with somone?
I urge you to look at Reading People to gain a better understanding of people's and your needs. As Mark Mazzarella would phrase it, we are all capable of reading people and making that knowledge work for us.
Wouldn't you think a supermarket customer would appreciate being smiled at and greeted in the produce section, for example? Some of the male customers have misinterpreted the smile and created problems for the female employees. An innocent smile as an appropriate nonverbal gesture has created a slight firestorm in the Safeway chain.
The firestorm has been reported on NBC Dateline and USA Today, "Safeway's Mandatory Smiles Pose Danger, Workers Say." According to USA Today, 12 female employees have filed grievances over the supermarket chain's smile-and-make-eye contact rule. Richelle Roberts, one of the grievants, said "she is hit on every day by men who think she is coming on to them." One employee reported male customers followed her to her car. The female employees are concerned they should make the first overtures without Safeway exercising its rule. A vice president and spokeswoman for Safeway reported a different viewpoint about the smile rule: "We don't see it (the male actions) as a direct result of our initiative.
The nonverbal action of smiling and greeting becomes one of freedom from the standpoint of the female employees. The retail clerks' union wants the employees, especially the women, "to have more freedom to choose not to make eye contact with a potentially threatening customer." Certainly, this story gives new meaning to the importance of eye contact in certain cultures.
During my sabbatical I met Richard Branson at a booksigning. He appeared just as gracious as seen on TV and on the radio. He still possessed the goatee and the friendly smile. The booksigning crowd was busy, and a quick handshake ensued. Still, I met one of my heroes.
To me Branson remains a hero in business because he attempts the impossible. I remember him more for his recognized balloon flights. He is what one would call an adventurous entrepreneur. From the standpoint of nonverbal communication he make up his mind about a business plan or a person in 30 seconds. That doesn't give much leeway when you are trying to impress with a business deal.
In Branson's book, Losing My Virginity, he describes how the edge was always reached with the bankers. Sometimes he had to cut back on his companies and employees to meet the bills. Always, he was willing to try new ideas. Branson continues to soar. He may not have been the first balloonist around the world, but he tried for that record.
Last updated Tuesday, August 27, 2002
(c)G. Jay Christensen, All Rights Reserved
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