The power of body language

Have you been social smiling?
18 August 2020

Interview with 

Harry Witchel, Brighton and Sussex Medical School


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Language is all well and good, but not all of how we communicate is through verbal language.  Lot of it is non-verbal communication, or body language. Harry Witchel, lecturer in physiology from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School joined Adam Murphy and Katie Haylor to talk about the body language we do day-to-day, and how the current pandemic is affecting it...

Harry - Hi, Adam. I'd say that nonverbal communication is extremely important as part of our communication repertoire. I'm not really talking about gestures that substitute for language, but rather how gestures and facial expressions contribute to both the meaning of words that we say, and also to the small gestures of courtesy. So there are many social situations associated with what I would call acknowledgement, recognition, and hierarchy. The classic examples are when you would say "sorry", "thank you", or "please"; or any time, say you go into a shop and you are buying something, there would be little gestures that you would make that would be really important to make that go smoothly. There are many such signals that we take for granted. Every culture has these signals, although the form that these signals take will vary from culture to culture.

Adam - And how has the pandemic been getting in the way of that?

Harry - The pandemic has had a profound impact on what people can do in terms of nonverbal behaviour. Obviously people can't get close, they can't make little small gestures of touching; all sorts of other gestures are interrupted. But the most obvious thing concerns face masks. Now for people who are hearing impaired or deaf, having face masks that are completely opaque makes it impossible for them to actually do lip reading, which is really profoundly problematic. And at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, we actually have had discussions about this with a staff member who is so - hearing impaired. So it is a big deal. But it's also really important for people who are 'traditional hearing' like us. We think that there's enormous amounts of signals that are communicated by smiling, and particularly social smiles; these are all these little gestures that help us to jog along.

Adam - What kind of gestures are you referring to there?

Harry - Okay, well why don't we talk about a little bit about things like social smiles. Real smiles involve both the eyes and the mouth; so the eyes crinkle in the outer corners because of a muscle called orbicularis oculi, and the lips get pulled back and up by muscles called the zygomaticus major. So eyes and lips are really important in natural smiling. Now in Anglophone cultures we tend to use mouth-only smiles a lot, in which only lips are smiling but not the eyes. Some people call these social smiles, and they are brief but extremely important signals in the way we express courtesy. For example, when you're buying stuff in a shop, when you exchange people, you might meet the eyes of the shopkeeper and smile at them. It's a small courtesy. But without these small gestures social interactions feel wrong; they can almost feel abrupt or brusque, even rude sometimes.

Adam - I've noticed stuff like that as well; when I walk into Tesco with my mask on and I smile at the security guard, but with the mask it just looks like I'm staring them down and I get really worried about what they're thinking. So is there anything I can do, or we should do, to alleviate that?

Harry - It's really amazing you should talk about this; this idea that when we lose the ability to communicate with our mouths and when we can't approach people, we suddenly lose a whole aspect of the way that we normally treat others with respect. And what I've noticed in Brighton is there's a little two-step that people do these days to make up for the fact that they're now wearing masks, and that we have all of these pandemic-based social rules. The first is: when people see each other and they acknowledge each other, instead of approaching, they actually take a little tiny step backward, as a representative that "I'm not going to come close to you and touch you". Then what they'll do is they might nod once - a little tiny nod - and then they'd mix that with an eye smile; that is, they'll crinkle up their eyes, the corners of their eyes, just slightly, as if they were smiling for real; but it's actually a social smile but with eye action. It's really quite interesting the way people are doing this in Brighton.

Adam - Harry, I've been doing the same thing, because I realised that I actually wasn't smiling as much as I would do otherwise, so I've really tried to exaggerate smiles, like you said with how I'm crinkling my eyes. It suggests that communication can be quite adaptable, doesn't it? Nonverbal communication.

Harry - Yeah, you're absolutely right. Nonverbal communication is really adaptable. Every culture has elements of nonverbal communication, but that nature, the specific gestures of nonverbal communication, are very variable. Now that said, there are six basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, fearful, disgust, surprise. These kinds of emotions are expressed fairly consistently on the face. But that said, the way that we express other emotions like love, like humour, you know, exasperation; there are all sorts of different emotions, and those are all culturally determined, and they can actually be individually or contextually determined as well. So there are vast opportunities for changing the way we communicate at a nonverbal level.

Katie - I just wanted to ask you quickly about not communicating in person, but say if you're, I don't know, talking to someone on a video call or something, it can be - I find - quite difficult to communicate well sometimes. Do you have any tips for how to communicate nonverbally in a positive way?

Harry - It's really interesting how computers... a lot of my laboratory work concerns how computers interfere or change the way communication is mediated. So when you talk to people on the phone, sometimes people will gesture even though they can't possibly see you. In a video call it's not really possible to gesture properly. You can't really approach the screen or anything like that. Instead, what you have to do is look towards your camera so that it looks like your eyes are looking at them. That's a really important thing, because often people position their cameras in the wrong place; so they're looking at their screen so they can see the other person, not realising that the other person cannot see their eyes. So that's the first thing, is just looking at the camera to make sure that people know that you're looking at them, and that you really are interested in them. The other thing is giving people the time to communicate; that is, giving them a tiny bit of extra space, because we can't have small turn-taking gestures. It's really difficult to do that on a computer. You might have noticed that it's very difficult for different little groups of people to pair off; it's almost like one of these really boring parties where five people are sitting in a circle and only one person can talk at a time. And that's a real challenge. It really involves a lot of eye contact, and knowing how and when you're supposed to speak up.

Adam - And can you manage that, given that there's generally a delay in Zoom? I find that you get these phases where everyone just talks on top of each other.

Harry - Absolutely. It's amazing. I spend a lot of time saying, "sorry," and "gentlemen first"; you know, that sort of thing. But I think if you really want to get your thing together, you can actually be quite polite and say, "ah, well, what I was going to say," and then you can actually push forward. It's really interesting because if everybody goes at the same time and then everyone backs off at the same time, nothing happens. So you have to be really prepared sometimes to go forward. Although my first instinct is to let the other person go first.


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