Talking Without Words: Non Verbal Communication

“We’re getting married,” my son announced. We cheered. “In Brazil.”
We hooted at the prospect of an escape from England, as it shivered in mid-December. What’s more, the wedding venue was Salvador, in the hot north-east of the country near the equator, where the new in-laws live.
Yes, it really does look like this.© Lisa James | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Sunshine: check.  Palm trees: check. Heat 30 degrees: what’s not to like?

Girls with tanned bodies and long hair. No wonder my husband was so keen.
Did you know that Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish as I imagined? So much for my vague memories of learning Spanish on holiday on the Costas, then.
We did not speak Portuguese. My son’s fiancée’s family spoke no English. How then, were we to understand each other, let alone spend the entire day of the wedding together? The thought was daunting, but the solution simple.
We had to loosen up our British stiff upper lips and let our bodies do the talking.
We dipped our toes in the water with smiles and nods, hugs and multiple kisses on the cheek (at least two). Good relations established, we saw rougher seas ahead. How do you make small talk, or just chat or crack jokes, when you don’t share a language?
We would not let words get in our way. We took deep breaths and plunged in, arms waving and eyebrows waggling.
“Oh,” we said, with smiles and two hands to our faces. Everyone saw it meant, “She looks beautiful.”
We shrugged, frowned and glanced to either side to ask where we should sit. They pointed and patted the seats.
“Have some cake” was easy, so was “More champagne?” Everyone can mime eating and drinking.
With a little help from our dictionaries, some paper to draw on and more champagne we didn’t look back.
We waved our hands; we jumped up to perform elaborate mimes. If one person couldn’t guess what we meant, another one could.
We found out who was on their second marriage, who had been having affairs and who with. We talked about the price of houses and debated how to travel by car around Salvador. (Tip: close your eyes.)
Sometimes, the conversation stopped for a while. But it didn’t matter. We sat together, not talking, to enjoy each other’s company.
Of course, everything’s easier when the sun shines and you sit outside around the pool, but some of the lessons from that day will stay with me always.
So here’s what I learned:
  • If you want to communicate you can do so without words. All it takes is goodwill and the willingness to lose some of your inhibitions.
  •  Silence is no enemy to communication. Sitting quietly together can create a real bond.
  •  Always have paper and a pen with you.
  • Don’t be afraid to draw – stick people are the high points of my ability, but they get the message across.
  • Use your hands, your facial expressions and even inarticulate grunts: anythingto help people understand. Unleash your inner actor.
And yes, since you ask, the women are scandalously gorgeous over there. But, on the other hand, our new Brazilian family swooned over our fair hair and blue eyes.

Handshakes, Hugs and Kisses: tiptoe through the minefield of non verbal communication

Around the world, we smile, hug and kiss, shake hands or bow when we meet. Our arms, bodies, voices and faces all have a role to play in meeting and greeting. How strange that we behave so differently, depending where we live.
Leloft1911 dreamstime stock images
It’s easy to undermine our communication messages if we don’t take care. For example, Mary thinks hugs are warm and cosy. She throws her arms round someone when she’s pleased to see them, because she loves them, or maybe wants to comfort them. Sadly, though, as a serial hugger she doesn’t always realise when the huggee is uncomfortable.
When she hugged Diane, her cousin stood still and stiff, waiting awkwardly until she finished. It wasn’t because she doesn’t like Mary. It’s just that people don’t behave like that where she comes from. She’d have preferred a simple smile.
Learn a little about the culture of the person you greet. The Chinese, says blogger Hsin-Yi, don’t hug. They prefer to nod and smile, even when greeting an old and close friend after years of absence. Even fond mothers don’t hug their daughters, but show their love in practical ways, like in the food they cook.
In South America, on the other hand, hugging’s just not quite enough.  Warm and friendly, Brasilians and Argentinians like to plant a couple of warm kisses on your cheek, along with a hug and a pat on the back. Men kiss men there, so northern Europeans may have to deliver something more than their usual handshake, brief eye contact or (very) restrained hug.
In other parts of Europe, the French and Belgians kiss once, twice or three times on the cheek, depending on familiarity or even the part of the country. Walk into a room here and you’ll find yourself passing from one person to the next, kissing each cheek separately.
Helpful hint: try putting your left cheek forward first when you kiss to avoid untidy nose-bumps.
Northern Europeans may prefer the sort of hug that makes sure no body parts actually touch, or the “mwa-mwa” air kiss. Without the body contact, it’s often eye contact and a warm smile that shows you care. You could try the politician’s favourite handshake, where you clasp the other person’s hands with both of yours, or grab their forearm at the same time, but beware of seeming controlling or condescending.
Maybe the Maoris in New Zealand manage things best with their Hongi, where they touch noses and breathe together.
If you go to Japan, learn to bow politely, or in India you may need to touch an older relative’s feet in order to show real respect.
Your best bet is to research the country you visit carefully before you go, then spend some time people-watching when you arrive, so you can see how most people behave.

More Communication blogs:

How To Make Friends When You’re Shy

How To Be an Introvert

Verbal and Non Verbal Communication Skills: Ten Golden Rules