Nonverbal Cues in the 21st Century

The more impersonal communication gets, the more we remember the need for personal contact.

While technology has many great features, it can often distill communication down to text messages, emails, or instant messages. These really can help manage spread out workforces or enable people to work from home, but they also prevent us from reading each other’s nonverbal behavior. This does more than just prevent effective communication and can even prevent the development of trusting and empathetic relationships.

A 2012 study found that when comparing impersonal communication with face to face interaction, there were measurably different neurological responses in the brain. Moreover, the study authors concluded that the neurological effects unique to face to face dialogue may be crucial to successful interactions.

These neurological findings fit closely with the first hand experiences of a variety of entrepreneurs. For instance, Max Brown, the founder of Silicon Beach Trust emphasized the trust building aspects of in-person interaction: “Overall the biggest value of face time is that it’s really the only legitimate way to build trust with someone.”

This notion of trust proved crucial to other testimonials. Anna Barber, the managing director for Techstars, stressed the need for trust to mediate possible interpersonal conflicts. Barber contended that without trust “you won’t have a basic mutual empathy and understanding to fall back on when you hit the inevitable bumps that arise.”

Barber also emphasized that creative problem solving is much better employed while in the same room than when relying on phone calls or emails.

With such a wealth of benefits for in-person communication, it is a little concerning to see a tendency towards less personal methods of cooperation. However, the notion that all young people eschew conversation in favor of texting doesn’t seem to be correct.

Perhaps surprisingly, a 2016 survey found that 55 percent of millennials actually do prefer in person communication! That said, this is not a particularly overwhelming majority.

Followers of this blog will have already made the connection between in-person communication and either nonverbal behavior or microexpressions. We have found repeatedly that both are critical in really understanding a person, either by recognizing their underlying emotional states or by telling more effectively if they are lying to us.

While we cannot help you emphasize in-person communication, check out our past blog here about the power of reading into the sound of a voice, or just get better at handling the face to face conversations that are so important.

The Contagious Smile

Many of us often feel that smiling can be irresistibly contagious, but is this actually true?

In fact, a recent study published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences adds to a growing body of evidence that indicates that other people’s expressions really can have a tangible impact on our mood. The study authors, Dr. Paula Niedenthal and Adrienne Wood, found that we instinctively mimic other people’s faces, triggering the associated expressions.

This serves as a way for people to learn to empathize and to better read others by literally trying on their facial expressions. Amazingly this process can happen in only a few hundred milliseconds.

As Dr. Niedenthal said, “You reflect on your emotional feelings and then you generate some sort of recognition judgment, and the most important thing that results is that you take the appropriate action–you approach the person or you avoid the person.”

While they did not report exactly how this works in our brain, their results are reminiscent of previous research on the use of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that are triggered, when we see other people’s actions. This can include facial expressions and many neurologists see mirror neurons as the key to explaining how we experience empathy.

However, the authors mentioned that this critical skill is not accessible to everyone, including those who have social disorders or challenges presenting facial expressions. Dr. Niedenthal pointed out that “There are some symptoms in autism where lack of facial mimicry may in part be due to suppression of eye contact.”

This is an exciting connection, given recent research that has shown that an autistic individual often struggles to empathize due to the inability to recognize faces and emotions. If an autistic individual has trouble even recognizing another person’s facial expression, it is that much more difficult to mimic it and thus empathize.

Similarly, Humintell has previously worked to draw attention to those who live with Moebius Syndrome. Those with this condition experience a form of facial paralysis that makes it impossible to display facial expressions. This causes challenges relating interpersonally as the lack of expression makes emotional communication challenging.

Presumably, from Dr. Niedenthal and Dr. Wood’s research, this also prevents effective facial mimicry for both the person with Moebius Syndrome and their interlocutor.

Thankfully, as we have discussed, reading facial expressions is not merely an innate ability on which we cannot improve. Instead, we can learn to better recognize people’s expressions and emotions.

That is exactly what Humintell is here for! If you want to better learn this skill, check out our workshops and training programs.

The Voice of a Cheater

How effective are verbal cues in exposing our emotions and character?

Throughout this blog, we have dwelled extensively on deception detection but have also focused almost exclusively on nonverbal cues. However, a new study in the journal of Evolutionary Psychology, subtle verbal cues can reveal a wealth of detail about a stranger, even including past infidelity!

In an effort to see how revealing our voices were, Dr. Susan Hughes of Albright College procured a series of audio clips of different people simply counting from one to ten. Half of the speakers had elsewhere admitted to having cheated on a romantic partner in the past, while half had not.

Then, Dr. Hughes asked a series of participants to listen to various audio clips, asking them to extrapolate what they could from just the sound of the voices. These participants were given no outside details or context besides the mundane numerical recitation.

Amazingly, when asked to rank the speakers’ likelihood to cheat, the participants’ rankings matched closely with whether the speaker had a history of infidelity!

These results do have some precedent. Past research has found that verbal cues can reveal a great deal of accurate information, including the speaker’s sex, age, race, height, weight, and even social status. Perhaps most relevantly, previous studies found links between one’s voice and the emotional states beyond deception and past sexual activity.

However, despite the groundbreaking nature of Dr. Hughes’ research, there are still many unanswered questions. For example, she declined to offer a comprehensive explanation for how this is possible!

Dr. Hughes attempted to test whether the pitch of the voice had any effect on participant evaluations. She adjusted the pitch in many of the audio clips, so that the same voice was presented with a higher or lower pitch. This had very little effect, except that men tended to associate infidelity with low pitches in female voices.

This was surprising, as previous research found that pitch does impact listener judgments. Still, while pitch has some role, it “does not represent the entire picture,” as the authors wrote. Instead, “other vocal cues such as clarity of articulation may have also contributed to perceptions of infidelity.”

Perhaps this study asks more questions than it answers, but it brings the verbal aspect of deception detection into a new light.

While we wait for more information, it might be helpful to work on strengthening your ability to detect lies face to face. Similarly, you can read some previous blogs about using microexpressions to tell when you are being lied to here and here!

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