We like to think we're in control of how we express our emotions. We cry when we're sad, and we smile when we like something or someone. But much of our nonverbal communication is done unconsciously, and it's a language all humans understand. Here, we'll discuss five nonverbal signals all humans use to communicate and interpret emotions. Let's begin with the importance of posture.
5: Body Posture
Consider how you hold your body. Do you walk with your head high and shoulders back, or do you clench your jaw, slump your shoulders and keep your head down? The way we hold our bodies when we walk, stand and sit gives cues to others about our emotional state. It clues them in to how relaxed or tense we are and how confident or shy we are. And depending on how close we're standing to another person, it can also show aggression or love, dominance or submission.
4: Speech Patterns
Our emotions cause us not only to feel differently, but also to speak differently. We may choose our words carefully when we're angry or expressing happiness, but it's not just the words we choose that cue others into our emotional state. Saying, "I'm fine," when we're noticeably not is a good example of how it's not the words we say, but how we say them. Often, "I'm fine," is what we say when we're anything but fine. What can clue in our listeners to our true moods? Our speech patterns also change depending on our emotional state -- our regular cadence can increase or decrease in rate, and pitch, tone, volume and our inflection and even accent may also be affected.
Gestures take on different meanings in different cultures, but gesturing in general is one way humans communicate emotion to each other nonverbally. Pointing and pantomime are both common human gestures, and while they can be helpful in making a conversational point, they may also serve as nonverbal clues that communicate emotions and knowledge to other people.
As an example, let's look at crossing our arms. While you might be cold, did you know that crossing your arms can be interpreted as defensiveness? Your folded arms convey to others that you're closed off and guarded. Holding your hands in your lap or by your side, on the other hand, shows a more neutral or open emotional state.
2: Facial Expressions
Did you know that humans can identify a smile from as far away as about 300 feet (91 meters)? That's the length from one end of a football field to the other!
Accounting for cultural differences, studies have shown that anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise seem to be seven universal facial expressions that all humans unconsciously recognize and interpret. Our facial muscles -- there are 44 of them -- are able to communicate important nonverbal messages in a split second, and researchers believe that specific areas of the brain, including the amygdala, which is the region that helps us process emotions, help us to interpret those expressions and try to divine the other person's feelings and motivation.
1: Physiological Cues
It may be obvious to most of us that we interpret how people around us are feeling based on their facial expressions, such as a frown or a smile, or even by how they're standing. But what about the physiological cues that happen when we express emotions? While we may not consciously notice it, our emotions are accompanied by subtle physiological changes. A subtle flush of the face or increase in heart rate or body temperature could be a clue to the emotional state of the person you're talking to. These changes happen even before you see the emotion on the person's face.
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