But according to new research by professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Brigham Young University, body language -- while important -- is only part of the interpersonal communication picture.
Focusing on body language alone in order to "mind-read" can cause serious misinterpretations, say CU-Boulder communication department Professor Stanley Jones and BYU Professor Curtis LeBaron.
The new perspective, they say, is that one has to read the total message, including how body language and spoken words fit together and how individuals synchronize their behavior with each other. Even the environment where the communication takes place can give special meaning to both body language and spoken words.
"Nonverbal communication, vocal conversation and the environment of personal exchanges play a large role in how people relate and communicate," said Jones. "But many academics in the communication field appear to be drawing more distinct lines between verbal and nonverbal communication."
As a result, Jones and LeBaron -- a former CU-Boulder communication department professor -- have written two articles and edited seven others that appeared in the September issue of international Journal of Communication.
The most effective method of understanding human communication is to videotape a conversation with the participants' consent and do a frame-by-frame analysis, said LeBaron, a business professor in BYU's Mariott School of Management. LeBaron uses videotapes of workplace interactions to help organizations improve communications.
"Emerging technology has been paramount in this line of research," said LeBaron. "We have moved from field notes to film and tape recorders to multimedia to better understand the spectrum of interpersonal communication."
The September issue of the Journal of Communication was sent out with CD-ROMS containing video clips that journal contributors used in case studies, said LeBaron. "This is very exciting, since it is the first time a journal has done this."
According to Jones, certain nonverbal behaviors signal different intentions. "Turn-requesting" behavior, for example, often involves a person seeking to speak leaning toward the speaker and nodding rapidly with direct eye contact. "What the person is signaling means 'I want my turn to talk,' " said Jones.
In contrast, "turn-suppressing" behavior often involves the speaker holding a hand in the air and keeping his or her voice tone at a higher pitch, he said. "Turn-relinquishing behavior involves the speaker finishing a sentence with a slow drawl, dropping his or her hand at the same time."
Successful turn-taking communication between speakers is the most valuable skill people in an organization can use to successfully communicate, said Jones.
One study in the special issue authored by LeBaron and Jones shows how people effectively close conversations. The person who needs to depart, for example, can signal his or her intentions by turning slightly to the side, perhaps inspecting a handbag or briefcase as if getting ready to leave while nodding enthusiastically with affirmatives but not contributing new content to the conversation, Jones said.
For the conclusion to be effective, the other person must catch on and do his or her part, perhaps saying, "Well, I better let you go," and getting up from the chair and getting ready to say good-bye. "The most positive departures require coordination of words and body language as well as synchronization between people," Jones said.
In another study in the special issue, British scholar Christian Heath examines videotapes of doctor-patient interactions. As patients describe their illness to a doctor, he shows, they often dramatize their condition by acting out the symptoms with facial expressions, gestures and body touching behaviors.
The idea, said Jones, is to prevent the doctor from rushing ahead to fill out a prescription before the patient's condition has been thoroughly diagnosed.
Both Jones and LeBaron at times take on private consulting work for business groups who perceive they have communication problems. Communication consultants often use tiny, inconspicuous video cameras set near conference tables with the knowledge of the employees, tape a session, and then break it down frame-by-frame and phrase-by-phrase to help employees improve their communication skills.
Physical touch also is a form of non-verbal communication that requires verbal communication to clarify meaning, said Jones, author of "The Right Touch" published in 1994, which was sponsored by the National Communication Association.
Appropriate, positive modes of workplace touch include appreciation touches, congratulatory touches, support touches and enthusiasm touches, Jones said.
"However, you can't tell what a touch means just by observing what part of the body is touched," Jones said. "A touch on the shoulder, for example, could have all of those meanings, depending on whether the toucher is saying 'thanks,' 'nice going,' 'hope you feel better,' or 'I'm really excited about today.'
"You really have to read the whole message, and not just a part of it," said Jones.
Curtis LeBaron, (801) 422-6348
Jim Scott, (303) 492-3114