One of the most commonly recognised forms of non-verbal communication is body language and eye contact can be one of the most powerful forms. For instance during a normal conversation we, on average, look at each other about one-third of the time, however if one makes contact less than this it can convey boredom, lack of interest and make the other person feel uncomfortable. In contrast, if you make eye contact more often, you increase the ability to engage the other person and illustrate interest and/or enthusiasm (Fletcher (2000). If you consider this in an environment such as a workplace interview, it’s crucial to use eye contact to convey interest for the position and the organisation while creating the best impression.
However, most nonverbal communication is decoded in the limbic system in our brain which is beyond our conscious control (Thorne (2005). An example of this in relation to body language and eye contact is the iris because when something is of interest to us the iris dilates. In this way, when you consider a Human Resources context such as a negotiation between employers and unions, a sharp negotiator may be able to read if you are still willing to make concessions or not (Barnum & Wolniansky. 1989). Pretty amazing, hey?
It’s also useful to consider that there is cultural disparity in the way in which body language is used and interpreted. For example, maintaining eye contact when you are being asked a question in considered polite in some cultures, whilst rude in others. This was made clearly apparent when Barbara Walters interviewed Colonel Muamar el-Qaddafi in Libya (Barnum & Wolniansky. 1989). After the interview she commented that he looked all over the room, gazing past her and refusing to look her in the eye. She explained that in America, refusing to look someone in the eye conveys a somewhat ‘shifty’ or untrustworthy quality in a person.
However, in an Arab context this non-verbal communication through the use of body language was actually a compliment as it is a way of paying respect. Looking a woman in the eye straight on, would be perceived on a similar level to physical assault in some parts of the world where women still wear a veil to avoid eye contact with men (Barnum & Wolniansky. 1989). This example highlights how the cultural framework that one uses to view non-verbal communication through, can impact the way the message is interpreted and received.
This was something I hadn’t really thought much about before, but found to be quite interesting.