Body Language: Lost in Translation?

Posted: June 12, 2014

Digital communication leaves key gaps

No matter where, if someone taps their patella just right, it’ll trigger a knee-jerk. If a sudden weight is dropped onto them, their knee-jerk reflex immediately causes their legs to contract, allowing them to maintain their balance without dropping the weight. Ample scientific evidence suggests that the same kind of universality is true of humans’ innate knowledge of body language.

Recent improvements in technology have increased the number of opportunities people have to connect with one another, but what about nonverbal connections? By texting, emailing and messaging, are we rendering nonverbal cues obsolete, or are passing up on a boon to understanding one another?

How are we missing out?

In the 1970s, Paul Ekman studied the Sadong of Borneo and the Fore of New Guinea, people who “had seen no movies, neither spoke nor understood English or Pidgin, had not lived in any of the Western settlement or government towns and had never worked for a Caucasian (according to their own report).”

Ekman found that his subjects matched emotion words to facial expressions in the same way that college-educated subjects from Brazil, the United States, Argentina, Chile and Japan did, identifying seven universal facial expressions: anger, fear, disgust, contempt, joy, sadness and surprise.

Furthermore, these seven expressions seem to be involuntary; when a person conceals a feeling, they often make a micro expression -a brief facial expression lasting only a fraction of a second- which reveals their true colors. If these concepts seem vaguely familiar, you may have seen Lie to Me, a Fox series starring Tim Roth based on the application of Ekman’s research in lie detection.

However, not all nonverbal communication is instinctual. Kimenics, the study of gestures, has varying degrees of universality. To clarify, kimenics is not sign language. In sign language, gestures represent words, but in kimenics, gestures don’t necessarily have a specific verbal meaning -they represent general sentiments.

In Romeo and Juliet, Sampson starts a fight by biting his thumb at Abraham. The offensive gesture isn’t universal, but has a modern equivalent: raising only the middle finger. On the other hand, pointing at an object to call attention to it, another gesture under the umbrella of kimenics, can be generally understood throughout most times and cultures.

Like kimenics, paralinguistics are not universal and don’t directly convey one of the seven universal facial expressions, though kimenics and paralinguistics are usually consistent within a single culture. Paralinguistics is to language what kimenics is to body language. Paralinguistics is the study of semi-verbal modes of expression -how you say what you say- including changes in pitch, volume, intonation (tone) and prosody (stressing of syllables). In English, sarcasm is indicated by speaking more slowly, with a lower pitch and with larger tonal changes on stressed syllables.

Paralinguistics also includes the intentional use of grunts, sighs, gasps and laughter. For instance, English speakers use “uh huh” to indicate a response of understanding and/or agreement and “uh uh” to indicate understanding and disagreement. In its most basic form, laughter universally indicates amusement, but a single “ha” can indicate irritation, disbelief, disapproval or indifference, depending on other nonverbal context.

“Nonverbal communication is really, really important,” said social studies teacher and debate coach Nathan Johnson. “Two people could get up in front of chapel or assembly, for example, and say exactly the same thing, the same words. But tone, body language, eye contact…all of these nonverbal cues are half of your ability to communicate effectively. It’s essential to delivering your message.”

“I think there’s a lot of communication lost,” said Psychology and Business teacher Julie Johnson, “in texting and emailing and all the other social networking things that we’ve been doing. It’s not all necessarily bad, but I think some of that form of communication -in person [communication]- is lost. And that can be kind of difficult, and sad, actually.”

How do we compensate online?

“If [you’re dealing with] an issue with a friend, for example,” said Julie Johnson, “if they’re going to speak to you in person, it’s going to be a completely different conversation.”

The absence of nonverbal cues leads to more semantic misunderstandings. However, users have attempted to quell the dearth of nonverbal cues with different “dialects” of virtual culture.

Yes, I’m talking about emoticons. Curiously, some of the earliest emoticons, or pictorial representations of facial expressions, correspond nicely to Ekman’s seven universal facial expressions.

As digital communication has become more prevalent and sophisticated, so have virtual dialects. The winky face was one of the first ways to indicate sarcasm or satire over text, though such indications have become more nuanced. In lieu of body language and facial expressions, we utilize emojis, reaction gifs, Internet memes and bounded asterisks.

Emojis, literally “picture character[s]” in Japanese, have superseded emoticons and represent many facial expressions in a universally accessible matter. Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) images allow users to send each other short clips of real facial reactions. Because the Internet profligates popular culture references within a single language or user base, Internet memes use popular culture as common ground from which to express nonverbal nuances such as frustration or awkwardness. Bounded asterisks, denoting dramatic reactions vis-à-vis stage directions (e.g., *stomps out indignantly*) allow users to provide caricatured nonverbal reactions.

Text and email also allow for pseudo-paralanguage and -kimenics through acronyms and phonetic spelling. The acronyms “LOL” and “JK” act as paralanguage denotations of sincere laughter, while “IDK” and can operate in the place of a kimenic shrug. Phonetic spelling includes all-caps, additional vowels or line breaks, which may denote yelling, special emphasis or pauses between lines.

How is this affecting us?

Informal digital nonverbal cues have made it easier to avoid misunderstandings online, but can a colon and a right parenthesis really substitute for a friend’s smile? Are we losing our ability to communicate effectively offline?

“So [prospective employers] find,” said guidance counselor Dr. Lauren Bae, “that in the workplace or in interviewing situations, you can be at a disadvantage if you don’t practice these skills regularly with people: how to talk to people, how to answer questions, how to respond appropriately. It’s not that you can never learn it, but it’s people who do a lot of it, are just much better at it.”

A recent Brigham Young University study found that if a person is lying via text, they tend to write shorter messages and take 10 percent longer to compose and edit their message. While this implies that there may be nonverbal cues unique to digital communication -like message length and response time, which are harder to scrutinize in person- the increased ability to pick and choose which nonverbal cues to send is troubling.

“Face-to-face [interaction] is best,” said Bae, “because there is so much information. And then, probably voice. And then, probably words, but you can do a good job depending on how good of a writer you are. One of the problems of college essays is that students have so many people read it, and then it sounds like somebody else.”

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