Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

by | NYC/Brisbane, USA/Australia

Monday, 30 January 2012

tags: australasia, making sense, semiotics


Open Your Eyes- Nonverbal Communication Is Everywhere!: Using Semiotics to be aware of nonverbal communication using the METTA method

Nonverbal communication is everywhere.  Looking at nonverbal communication from a semiotic perspective, and how each nonverbal cue and element is a sign, such signs are everywhere.  Yes, everywhere.  Juri Lotman calls all the semiotic signs around us the “semiosphere” and if they are everywhere and all around us, it is easy to lose sight of some and also over-emphasize some to the detriment to others.  Additionally, if these signs are everywhere, it is important not just for semioticians to study semiotics, but everyone.

Imagine you are watching a movie and then watching the same movie with the 3D glasses you see above.  Everything is still the “same”, but you see each sign differently.  You become more aware of each cue and element and each becomes more vivid.

My METTA acronym, as used for my research, does that for nonverbal communication- it takes the gestalt nature of nonverbal communication and allows the “whole” to be viewed through the parts that make it up uniquely in that specific situation.

 METTA represents Movement, Environment, Touch, Tone, and Appearance.  This article will briefly explain each through the perspective that in any given interaction, there are numerous nonverbal cues and elements present that affect both you and the other person(s).  Being aware of these cues and elements can help you engage others in a more accurate way you intended to communicate, as well as understand the thoughts, emotions, attitudes and actions of others.

Movement- Movement, or body language, is what comes to mind when most people think of nonverbal communication.  Yes, it is very important; however it is just one element.  By the way, if you think body language is 90% of the way we interact with others, I insist you [read this].  Movement includes: hand gestures, facial expressions, body posture, eye gaze and contact, head tilt, head nodding, and body orientation.

Keep in mind when studying and observing body movement, it can be both strategic and non-strategic.  This means, for example, some gestures are done purposely such as crossing your arms to display defiance, while other gestures are done unknowingly such as touching your neck or hair when nervous.

Environment- Easily forgotten and overlooked, this element plays a critical role during interactions.  The environment includes: the location, the room layout and design, distance, and time. Consider the difference of having a meeting at a coffee shop compared to the corporate boardroom and the different ‘message’ it has associated with it. Also, based on where you sit effects the situation too.  Research has shown that people tend to sit across from the other person during a competitive interaction and will sit side by side during a collaborative interaction.  Also the type of table is important- a study I conducted with experienced mediators, professionals who try to help find understanding and work out their differences, prefer to use circular tables compared rectangle tables.

Distance and the space between you and the other person have various meanings based on your relationship with the other person. When determining proper space and distance between people, think about how the last time you encountered a ‘space invader’ and how uncomfortable it felt. 

Chronemics, the study of time, reminds us how important time is based on length, such as how long or short th time is for which you are speaking.  Speaking and listening time length plays a pivotal role in developing rapport.  Consider the difference between making preliminary “small talk” first and going directly into a negotiation before even asking the person their name.  An important metaphor for time is TIME IS MONEY. However do not forget that it is not the only way time is perceived.

Touch- for the majority of my research in haptics, or the study of touch, I limit touch to shaking hands.  Consider the first impression, specifically during professional interactions, you have with another person.  Your handshake is part of your greeting.  Is your handshake bone-crushing or the other end of the extreme, flimsy like a dead fish?  Also, notice how some people will shake the hands of only certain people in room- think about the impression that has on others.

Tone- Yes, the saying “It’s not what you say but how you say it” is incredibly important but it does not mean the actual words are not important.  Research on voice tone has indicated a correlation between decibel level and perception of the speaker lacking confidence, being assertive, and being aggressive.  Tone variance and valence can be subtle yet a great opportunity to understand a person’s attitude and emotion.

Appearance- Often I say the first step to looking good is looking good.  This means putting a genuine effort into your appearance is important as research has shown our first impression is often made prior to speaking.  Dressing inappropriately for the situation does not just mean under-dressing but also over-dressing as well.  Wearing a business suit to an informal meeting could send negative signals just as wearing ripped jeans and thongs (that’s flip flops for my North American audience!) can. 

METTA has helped and still helps me not only with my PhD research but also in the everyday context including my law enforcement work, mediation sessions, consulting jobs, and other daily interactions. Just like when you put on the 3D glasses and the movie’s content doesn’t change but rather gives a clearer, more vibrant picture, the same is true with METTA. The interaction remains the same, however now you will be able to see things in a clearer way that allows you to encode your message more accurately while also being able to decode the nonverbal elements and cues that are present.

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

Learn more about semiotics and nonverbal communication by following me on twitter: @NonverbalPhD

This article is part of a series for explaining semiotics and nonverbal communication based on the author's PhD research at Griffith University Law School.

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