The Impact of Nonverbal Communication

Pamela Perkins

Reprinted from winter 2008 edition Diversity Works! Magazine

Nonverbal Communication within the corporate culture is often overlooked and/or undervalued in its impact upon the health of the organization. Communication Practitioners often cite that Nonverbal Communication accounts for as much as 93% of an individual's believability. This 93% can be broken down into 53% visual and 38% vocal (not to be confused with verbal). In other words, the old saying "actions speak louder than words" is just as true today as when it was coined centuries ago. Let's take a closer look at the impact this area of communication has on the organizational culture.

What is Nonverbal Communication? As a Communication Practitioner, I define nonverbal communication as

Ok, so now we start to look at some of the areas of NV that affect the organizational communication environment. It is these communication issues that often create a substantial amount of miscommunication and misunderstanding between cultures. NV Communication includes arenas such as: silence, appearance, space, time, touching, gestures, facial expressions, smell, paralanguage and rituals. These arenas of NV communication greatly impact issues of negotiation, conflict, boss/worker expectation, deadlines, promotion and EVERY area of organizational progress. So in other words, the culturally bound nonverbal communication of each employee is added to the mix of all organizational interaction. An individual may think they are saying or transmitting one message and the message is being received by the listener in a totally different way. Or they may not be trying to transmit any specific message but their nonverbal manner is being interpreted in a certain way that impacts the co-worker relationship and context. Just think about how much miscommunication exists between people of the same culture, then add to the mix differing world views and NV patterns of communicating. Yes, it is a lot to absorb!

Let's examine a few NV arenas in an effort to understand just how great its impact is on the organizational setting. First, we will examine paralanguage. Paralanguage can be defined as "how you say what you say; the noise surrounding your words." It includes variables such as tone, pacing, accent, dialect, emphasis, stress and so on. These tend to be regional and ethnic markers identifying where a person is raised. However, many cultures have transcended these basic areas of identity to include measurements such as: class, education, intelligence and viability. Yes, we often "label" people by how they sound. An example of this might be how the Southern accent often labels a person as "slow or dim witted". We see this in the television spoofs such as the Dukes of Hazard, Hee Haw, and other caricatures of Southern identity. We never tend to hear southern accents on National News Broadcasts. We generally must tune into the BBC to hear any accent other than the General American accent. Understand how different this must be for individuals that live in much more globally aware countries.

Some individuals immediately distinguish between Black and White culture vocal patterns when determining an individual's worth to the situation. I have an acquaintance who is an African American female professional that recently experienced a very traumatic dismissal from a post she held for well over 8 years in spite of glowing appraisals and awards she received during her tenure. She shared with me and others who were surprised by her situation, that several of her European American colleagues stated that "she scared them" with what they deemed abrasive communication patterns. They particularly cited her vocal aggression and excessive use of gestures during communication altercations. There were of course other variables used to substantiate her dismissal but the aforementioned factors were included in the determination. This was very surprising to those of us who know this individual to be quite humble and tactful in her manner of communicating. It is a substantiated fact that African Americans tend to be more nonverbally expressive in their paralanguage and kinesics (body language). It is interesting how this issue surfaces in many areas of collective behavior such as sports and politics. Just think of how many rules and regulations are mandated by the NBA and NFL in their attempt to curtail what is often considered "inappropriate behavior or apparel" based mainly on the cultural contributions of African Americans. Notice the attention given to political activist Al Sharpton in terms of his manner of speaking. Remember when Howard Dean lost the Democratic presidential nomination when he was caught acting un-presidential while on the campaign trail? This is only one variable of NV import impacting the workplace; just think of the infusion of multiple variables.

We experience this same phenomenon when distinguishing male and female voices and the fact that male voices and their speaking patterns are most often equated with power and dominance. So who is more likely to be promoted and given positions of authority?

Time or chronemics is another NV arena that impacts the organizational culture. Think about the vast amount of attention paid to meetings, deadlines, schedules, and other mandates of worker time and bottom-line results. Remember that NV Communication is culturally bound. U.S. American culture is extremely time conscious. We are futuristic in our focus on time and consistently looking to the future as a measurement of security and attainment. This drives our economy and our global relationships. We expect the world to adhere to and follow our rush towards technological and scientific achievement. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING is done according to a schedule, the clock. We punish individuals who do not adhere to the perceived prescription of time. When we travel and do business, we often find it hard to deal with the slow pace at which negotiation takes place or the lack of punctuality exhibited by others not on our schedule. We can look at structured time in two ways: activity driven (monochronic) and relationship driven (polychronic). This is a very basic way to explain a complex social behavior. The United States and most of the technologically "developed" countries operate on monochronic time. Everything is based on the importance of the activity. The meeting starts promptly at ___. The deadline is hard and fast. We live our lives by the clock. As a result, we experience a highly stressed culture. Many of our dis-eases are the result of stress bought on by mandates on our time. Cultures that are polychronic tend to base their lives on harmony of relationships and to nature as witnessed by Native American cultures. We travel south of the border or to Spain and experience a siesta in the middle of the "working" day. We visit the Caribbean and are encouraged to slow down – no problem man.

I remember growing up and being aware of the cultural marker of CP Time – Colored People's Time. As I became knowledgeable about time as a NV code, this cultural proclivity began to make sense. After slavery, people of African descent in the U.S. became the victims of negative caricatures and stereotypes. One of these caricatures was "Step & Fetchit". These distortions were built on the stereotype that Black people were "slow and lazy". They required consistent oversight in order to get things done in a timely and proficient manner. Hmm… Could coming from polychronic cultures and being forced into monochronic patterns have anything to do with the clashing between the two ideologies concerning relationship to self, others and nature? As cited earlier, there are many cultures that have a more polychronic perception of time. I will never forget listening to a sport casters commentary on a talented young Dominican athlete that had been recruited to play minor league baseball here in the U.S. He sang his praises concerning his skills and accolades while in the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, the young player could not seem to "cut the mustard" here in the U.S. His behavior was "unprofessional" and he lacked "discipline". Why? Well according to the commentator, he just could not seem to get to practice ON TIME! It appeared his family obligations kept getting in the way. Hmm…

What about the impact appearance has on the organizational dynamic? We have young workers in urban apparel. Devout Islamic women wearing head to floor coverings for modesty. We experience young women intermingling social and business wear. Many businesses establish dress codes to deal with the cultural variations, but this is not always easy to adjust as in the case of cultural/religious mandates. Lastly, ponder the impact on space when adjusting to accommodate the physically challenged worker. How about trying to create ergonomically correct office space?

It should be obvious the MAJOR role Nonverbal Communication plays in workplace dynamics. The organizational culture thrives positively or negatively based on the Communication environment and its ability to move the company forward in its mission. And yes, the mission should be the connecting factor of the organizational culture. But it is important to remember that we all bring ourselves to the table. Hopefully, this brief insight into the realm of Nonverbal Communication will assist you in determining the type of training tools you want to incorporate into your Professional Development and Educational Training Programs. We can all alearn how to get along, but first we must acknowledge that our differences exist and instead of mandating that everyone become "yellow pencils" or assimilate, let's move towards Organizational Acculturation (reference fall 2006 article) and understand the behaviors that make us unique and similar. I hope you understood what I think I said! Otherwise, there's always the future of robotics, but you did see Will Smith in I, Robot didn't you? Scary!

P.S. Perkins
Founder & CEO
Human Communication Institute, LLC
Copyright 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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