This is the post everyone’s been waiting for (who am I kidding? Nobody has even thought about asking me to write about this topic–but nonetheless, it’s the topic everyone should have been waiting for!): the post on nonverbals. Nonverbals, it seems, are a hot topic related to people-watching. This is because nonverbals allow us to learn so much; through nonverbal reactions in those around us, we can discover what they are thinking and feeling, what they believe, what their reaction is to us, what their parents were like, who they have as friends, what socioeconomic status they are from, how many pets they have, who they want for president, their true birth date, their place of origin, what kinds of food they eat when they are alone in their bedrooms, and, among others, their subconscious and their motives.
That is, anyway, what we like to read into people’s nonverbals.
In all seriousness, nonverbals do speak volumes. The disclaimer, however, is that these communicated volumes are vague and ambiguous at best. Attempting to put interpretation to nonverbal behaviors is a risky business that can end badly for all involved parties.
Despite this dire warning, I don’t want to spoil your fun. Watching nonverbals is one of the absolute best parts of people watching! And I don’t mean to discourage it.
Yesterday I was filming B-roll for my upcoming blog video. Because my topic is people-watching, I needed lots of extras to walk by. Instead of attempting to organize a bunch of extras, we just determined to use footage of random people walking out of class. Playing my role, I sat there and watched them. It was a hoot.
Understandably, some people don’t like to walk past recording iPads. Some of them gave the camera very odd looks before walking past, some gave odd looks and cut through the grass, and some people ignored it completely. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there were some people who decided to make a big show out of passing in front of the camera.
The faces some people made when they looked at the camera did communicate something. I can state pretty confidently that their nonverbals announced that walking past a recording camera isn’t a normal occurrence. I could tell some seemed rather nervous about interrupting something. Some were happy to be in the spotlight for a few seconds (see pictures at beginning and end of post). I could get a general feel for how comfortable they were with walking by because of the nonverbals they expressed while doing so.
However, what I couldn’t get from their reaction was their specific thoughts.
Take another example: I am leaning far back in a chair, my feet crossed and propped up on a table in front of me. I could be expressing power (with perhaps an air of haughtiness). Or I could simply be expressing a level of comfortability with my situation and surroundings. As I sit here, my arms are crossed. This could be demonstrating anger or disinterest in what I’m listening to. Or I could be cold and attempting to warm up a bit. Squirming could be a sign of boredom–or the opposite: excitement, or even nervousness.
When you are people watching, don’t ignore the nonverbals. Arguably watching reactions and silent messages is the best part of watching people. But at the same time, however, remember that, while much is communicated, the communication is very vague. Don’t jump to too many conclusions based on nonverbals alone. Nonverbals can shout out that a person is alive, awake, and thinking about something, but they can’t accurately, and with certainty, cement what color toenail polish the person would’ve used on his or her grandma, had he or she had the opportunity.
Let me know about the experiences you’ve had with nonverbals. Do you have any good stories where you read someone wrong or they read you wrong?