Invisible Communication

Human communication consists of 93% body language!

Arguably then, 93% of what we communicate is invisible. Not literally as it is there on show and if you know what to look for you can read someone’s body language to understand what they ‘really’ mean, but how often do we do that, we tend to focus on the words they are saying when there is a much deeper level of communication happening in their gestures, posture, handshake, facial expressions and smiles.

In the name of research I have recently been reading a book called The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease.

It is a fascinating book on this topic and here are some of my favourite nuggets of information from that book:

  • It is proven that less than 5% of people can identify the back of their hands from a photograph (so be careful next time you say ‘I know it like the back of my hand’)
  • Phrases we use highlight the importance of body language to our communication, get it off your chest, keep your chin up, face up to it, put your best foot forward, and shoulder a burden are just a few examples.
  • Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell estimated that we can make and recognise around 250,000 facial expressions (dare you to try and find them all)
  • 7 out of 1o people cross their left arm over their right arm.
  • There are many cultural differences but the basic body language signals are the same everywhere. One universal gesture for example is shoulder shrugging.
  • Modern humans are worse at reading body signals than their ancestors because we are now distracted by words.
  • A natural smile produces characteristic wrinkles around the eyes – insincere people smile only with their mouth.
  • Science has proved the more you smile the more positive reactions others will give you.
  • When you fold your arms your credibility dramatically reduces.
  • American television is the prime reason cultural body language differences are disappearing.
  • If you make a V sign with your fingers it can mean ‘two’ to an American, ‘victory’ to a German and ‘up yours’ in Britain.
  • When a man is excited by a woman, which part of his body can grow to almost three times it size? His pupils!
  • An American survey found the 3 words women would most like to hear from their male partner were not ‘I love you’. They were … ‘you’ve lost weight’.

This is by no means a definitive list and if it is a topic that interests you then I urge you to buy the book. It doesn’t end with people though. Invisible communication is all around us. An overview of some examples include:

Supermarkets – they are designed to make us buy things. It’s a science! Not only are we subconsciously made to buy lots of things but we are influenced to buy specific products the supermarket want us to buy. The biggest influencer is the layout of the store and positioning of the shelves.

Colour is used effectively, red for offers, green for fresh and so on. Popular brands are placed at the end of aisles to ‘welcome us’ to that section, fresh fruit is almost always placed as you enter the store as it says ‘we have fresh food here’, items like bread and milk are at the back as they are often items people need when doing a quick shop so they make you walk past everything else to get to them.

The trouble is, supermarkets don’t put the customer first, it’s all about the money for them which can make for a poor user experience for the shoppers

Airports – It is no secret that airports too are designed in a way that means passengers can get to where they need to without too much thought.

Different floor surfaces represent different areas and signage is vital. The most talked about airport is Schipol. Yellow signs here provide information, signs for cafes and shops are blue and green is used for escape routes.

A considered combination of terminology, colour coding, placement and fonts can make for a much more pleasant airport experience, subconsciously of course!

Advertising – this fascinates me. I like to think that I am not influenced by adverts, I am above it and I decide what to buy, not the global corporations.

If truth be told though, I am influenced by advertising. Again I think this influence is invisible in the sense that I may not see an advert and immediately rush out and by the product but next time I am in the supermarket I am drawn to it.

Messages are communicated to us which we think we ignore but perhaps we don’t. If you buy this aftershave you will be more like Ewan McGregor, eat this cereal and you will lose weight, wear this deodorant and you will be fighting the opposite sex off, and so the list could grow and grow as adverts use idealistic lifestyles to influence us. (a blog post on advertising is coming soon!)

Films – We may think we go to the cinema, we watch a film, we leave. Not so. Films are rife with character types, narrative twists and turns, storytelling techniques, and codes.

Throughout our childhoods and into our adult lives we learn about storytelling conventions and the characters of hero, villain, princess etc and even though we may not recognise it when watching films, we can often look for these characters and apply these storytelling methods to what we are seeing.

That’s why it works so well when the conventions are played with and turned on their head. (Lost for example!) Films communicate a lot more than what is presented literally on screen to us. This is also true of the media in general.

The web – And so to the web. Invisible communication is also present here. In the colours of websites, colours that can connote various messages to users and influence their moods and colours that have different meanings depending on which part of the planet you live.

Navigation should communicate to users too and if it is designed with the user in mind then they should be able to move around websites with little thought as to what we are clicking on, it is almost like an innate sense.

Navigation tells the story that guides the user to where they want to go without having to think about it. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end and this storytelling should be applied to navigation telling the user, where they have been, where they currently are, and where they can go next.

Signs and icons communicate messages to users too, we can see an icon and know instantly what it represents. If I see an envelope I can send an email, a green tick means go, proceed, ok but a red icon is likely to be a warning.

Types of websites also share conventions that could arguably mean that there are genres of websites. The words we use are important, the design/layout of a website creates the ‘scene’ and brings together all the elements of copywriting, colour, design, typography, navigation and so on, in the same way the scene of a film brings together the lighting, script, actors, set decoration and costumes.

So much to say.

This topic is deep and something else I will blog about in the coming weeks but nothing is as it seems, adverts, supermarkets, pictures, colours, websites, they are built with layers and if we peel back those layers then we can reveal some interesting insights into human behaviour, the media, and the web.


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