Non Verbal Signals
Posted on August 24, 2015

Think of a coy smile with the head somewhat lowered but the eyes uplifted to meet yours. It is a non-verbal signal of romantic interest moderated by caution. Think of a bold wink. It’s the same non-verbal signal without the caution. Think of a nod of the head – up-and-down for affirmation, side-to-side for disapproval. Similar messages are sent by the thumbs-up or thumbs-down gestures. All are non-verbal signals.

Prospective employers look for those signals during interviews. Job placement coaches often say that how we present ourselves is almost as important as what we articulate during interviews. On the positive end of the spectrum: Do we sit upright and look the interviewer in the eye? Do we smile, exuding both friendliness and confidence? There are even ways to listen that subconsciously communicate we are taking every word seriously (e.g., if we listen with our chin resting on folded “prayer hands”). On the less positive end of the spectrum: Do we look down or avoid eye contact? Do we nervously twirl our tie or strands of our hair? When we cross our legs, if we bob the airborn leg it is a sign of nervousness. If we use the sound “Uhhh” before answering questions it is a sign of uncertainty. If our fingernails show signs that we are nail-biters, it says to a prospective employer that we might bring anxiety into the workplace. I knew an executive once who said he never seriously considered a man for a job if his shoes needed shining. HR people are detail-oriented when it comes to looking for on non-verbal signals.

I have often wondered what non-verbal signals I communicate to people around me.

Some years ago seminary students in a certain class at Candler School of Theology (Emory University) were given an assignment. They were to spend a week intentionally looking disheveled and inattentive to personal hygiene. Each day they were to place themselves on busy street corners in Atlanta with signs that said “Hungry” or “Homeless” with cups nearby for gifts. At the end of the week, the class gathered to reflect on their experiences. One by one they reported on the donations they received (all of which were subsequently given to an agency that assists the poor). They told how location and time of day affected giving. Some gathered significant amounts of monetary gifts, some very little. But interestingly, all the students shared one experience in common. They called it “the invisibility factor.” They all said that by and large people failed to look at them. They would not make eye contact. They would not engage in conversation. They would simply pass by as if the students were not there. And even those that dropped coins in the cup did not stop walking, did not engage in conversation (usually even as minimal as a simple greeting), and did not look at them. One student said: “It felt like I was more a nuisance that a real live human being.” What those students picked up on most of all (and what they found most painful) were the non-verbal signals that made them feel unimportant and virtually invisible.

The late great Christian ethicist, Dr. George Kelsey, once told a group of us at Drew University about an experience of his in a Chicago airport. He was on his way to the boarding area when he passed by a woman standing alone. She looked him in the eye. He said her expression was sad and almost pleading, as if hoping someone somehow would do something to lift whatever shroud had her encompassed. “For a moment our eyes locked,” he said, “as I walked by to catch my plane. We did not speak. I did not linger. But I have always wondered about that moment. What did she see in my face as I looked at her, the compassion of Christ or the irritation of someone too busy to be bothered?”

Non-verbal signals are sometimes more important than empty words glibly spoken. A simple smile, a warm handshake, a pat on the shoulder, a nod of approval, a gesture acknowledging to someone that they are seen and affirmed, all those things are means by which the compassion of Christ is communicated through us. It doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t take much time. And for some folks on the receiving end, it can make all the difference.

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