February 2009

So, What Are You Really Saying? Nonverbal Cues & Unlocking the Mysteries of Courtship

Author: Craig Hysell

Woman #1
(smiling demurely)
I’ve got a date tonight.

Woman #2
(sighing morosely)
I’ve got a date tonight, too.

While the above sentences are practically the same, what the women are implying about their circumstances is vastly different. (Poor Woman #2… she has a terrible name and she isn’t happy about her date.) How can we so obviously tell? By using the one thing human beings employ instinctually, and yet consistently take for granted: nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal cues make up anywhere between 70-98 percent of our daily communication. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a nonverbal communications scientist for that matter) to realize it’s not what we say, but how we say it (and how it is interpreted) that usually makes all the difference in both our and others’ perceptions. In one memorable episode of the television show, Seinfeld, each member of the cast tries out individual interpretations of the line, “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” The exercise exemplifies both the dynamism of nonverbal communication and its oftentimes humorous results.

Has anyone ever yelled at you or made a pass at you in a foreign language? Have you ever watched a television program in a foreign language and still been able to follow the plot? How do you do this when you can’t speak the dialect? How do you know when a baby is hungry, a dog is uncomfortable or what “the mean-mom look” indicates? Once we understand the proliferation of the nonverbal experience, paying attention to these cues can not only be fun and enlightening, but be of immense assistance in every aspect of our lives, including that curious little twilight zone we call dating—or what the kids these days are dubbing “the urge to merge.” Which is the bomb. Fo’ shizzle.

Dating is an immensely complex ritual, full of norms, mores and theories most of us (by “most of us” I mean guys) do not fully understand or never knew existed. Cultural gaps make the matter even more enigmatic. (In Kiev, women do not like holding hands with men or shaking hands; it is considered unfeminine. In Australia, girls usually ask boys out. In Thailand, a woman often brings a friend on the first few dates until she gains confidence in the man and his intentions.) Tender moments suddenly turn awkward. Wrong moves are made, misinterpreted things are said, we make a less-than-stellar first impression, or “drop the ball” (a nonverbal act) when asking someone out. However, understanding nonverbal cues can minimize our fumbles and maximize our enjoyment.

Charles Darwin pioneered nonverbal research in 1872 with his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. He argued that men and animals show emotion reliably in their faces. Today, nonverbal study extends to posture, gestures, touching, eye contact, smells and paralanguage such as the tone or pitch of our voice, among other things. None of which stand alone as tell-all signs to a person’s true intentions. Dr. Jo-Ellan Dimitrius writes in her book, Reading People—How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior—Anytime, Anyplace, “Always consider whether you are missing a key piece of the puzzle. Some single factor can drastically alter an otherwise clear picture.” Indeed, reading people is a complex business, but paying attention to even a few subtle keys can vastly improve our conversational skills and take us from zeroes to heroes in no time flat. Here’s a sample:

Eyes
If you want to know a person’s undistorted objective, you’ve got to understand the power of their eyes. For example, frequent blinking during a conversation means the person is interested in you. Dilated pupils denote sexual arousal… or it can also mean that the lights are dim, the person is on drugs or they are dead. Guys, if she looks at your mouth while you are speaking she is hungry for you (or she might be deaf). Girls, if he maintains eye contact with you while you are speaking he is definitely interested in you (or is a psychopath).

What to look for: How do we get someone to notice us? We lock eyes. The difference between a casual glance and a flirtatious glance is merely 50 milliseconds, but we know it immediately when we see it or when it happens to us. Come out from behind those Gucci sunglasses, girls, and let guys see your eyes. Gents, look for the woman’s response to your gaze. If she looks to the left or to the right after meeting your eyes, she isn’t really interested. If she looks down, however, you might have a shot. Looking down shows modesty or submission and is instinctual if she is into you.

When to bail: If the person you are speaking with is looking at their watch, trying to get a friend’s attention on the next bar stool or is completely avoiding eye contact, you have derailed. Get off at the next stop… which should be coming up immediately.

Posture & Gestures
Posture is also a fantastic barometer of conversational weather. Most people’s posture reflects their feelings on a subconscious level… meaning they can’t fake what they’re really feeling. By paying attention to the signs, you can tell if you’re on the right track or not.

What to look for: Confident people stand up straight, hold their chin high and puff out their chests. Does that mean you should walk around like a Parris Island drill sergeant in public? Only if you want to look like an arrogant jackass. But, if you want to get noticed, don’t slouch; don’t look at the floor, and smile often. If a woman is enjoying her conversation with a prospective suitor, look for her to have her hands in her lap, her chest turned toward the conversation and watch for impromptu flips of the hair or tucking the hair behind the ear. (One of the reasons women constantly mess with their hair is the instinctual need to throw their pheromones in the air when attracted to a potential mate. Meow…) A man will lean in and nod often if he is interested in a conversation. A woman will tilt her head coyly, in an almost puppy-like way, to show both the elegance and vulnerability of her neck if she likes what papa be rappin’ to mama.

When to bail: Arms or legs remain crossed; one person leans back when the other leans in; the person hides his or her hands—hiding one’s hands denotes a hiding of secrets; middle fingers are bandied about like popcorn buckets at a movie theater.

Paralanguage
People don’t whisper when being attacked by a wild animal, and most of us don’t shout to each other during church. The context in which our conversations are held, the tone and the pitch can all help us seal the deal or reap the whirlwind.

What to look for: A low, even voice indicates a high level of testosterone and is a much better aphrodisiac than a high, squeaky voice at an intimate dinner. But save the Barry White impressions and be honest with your lady; women can tell when a man is lying 85 percent of the time. (Men can tell when a woman is lying about 20 percent of the time… which is both discomforting and comical at the same time. Kinda like tighty whiteys.) Don’t mumble; ask questions instead of talking about yourself, and relax. Fake smiles do not show lines around our eyes, so don’t show those pearly, Crest-whitened whites unless you mean it.

When to bail: If the conversation is flowing like molasses, the person has no “inside voice,” or if uncomfortable pauses abound, move on. Life’s too short to suffer fools in the name of politeness.

Look, dating is supposed to be an entertaining adventure, not a conquest, a necessity, or a “can’t live without” situation. Lighten up. Laugh! Touch the person if you’re interested. (Human skin is our most abundant organ!) Look the person in the eye if you like the attention. Listen to what he or she is saying and respond with a comment or question of your own. Don’t take it so seriously; pay attention to the signals, keep a sense of humor and live it up. Keep an eye on the nature of human beings and nature will eventually take its course.

Of course, if it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of the world. You can always people watch. Study others’ nonverbal cues on a night out and impress your friends by predicting the outcome of across-the-room conversations until you’re ready to try your hand at courtship again. See ya later, dater. By the way, it might be just me but, these pretzels… are making me THIRSTY.

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