Friday, April 20, 2007

The eyes have it

Poker players are masters at picking up on wordless cues. A slight nod of the head. A barely noticeable change in facial expression. A subtle, nervous tap of the finger on the poker table.

Every day, we communicate more with what we do not say or write than what we do say or write. How many times has a roll of the eyes by a co-worker, partner or child spoken volumes about what that person is thinking or feeling?

This week, judge Simon Cowell of "American Idol" learned the hard way about how a simple eye roll can send the wrong message. While a contestant on stage was paying his respects to the Virginia Tech victims, Cowell was conversing quietly with judge Paul Abdul and rolled his eyes. Many viewers thought Cowell was being disrespectful to the victims. But as Cowell explained on camera the next night, he wasn't rolling his eyes about the contestant's short speech on Virginia Tech. Cowell says he didn't even hear the contestant's words. Rather, Cowell says he was rolling his eyes about the contestant's performance.

Researcher Albert Mahrabian explains that words account for just 7 percent of a message, while tone of voice accounts for 38 percent and body language accounts for 55 percent, according to Wikipedia. As Wikipedia defines it, nonverbal communication can be conveyed through gestures; posture; facial expressions; eye contact; symbols; speech patterns such as voice quality; and even through "object" communication such as clothing, hairstyles and architecture.

Today, heading south on MoPac here in Austin, I used a little nonverbal communication of my own. Yes, right there on the highway. A motorist in a big pickup truck was tailing me a little too closely, so I peered over my sunglasses and gave him a brief "look." Within seconds, he backed off my bumper. Sometimes, it's tempting to use a finger-based form of nonverbal communication. But I figured that gesture wouldn't serve me well, especially since his truck was much larger than my relatively tiny Toyota.

Now, if we could just get more motorists to practice nonverbal communication, instead of clogging traffic by communicating via voice and text on their cell phones and PDAs. That would produce a great form of nonverbal communication -- a smile.

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