For many people the response to this would be ‘no’ – as how can body language be important if the caller can’t see the person they are talking to?
Before this question can be fully answered, we need to understand the part body language plays during the communication process.
First of all, let’s get down to basics.
A message (conversation) is communicated to the receiver by words, the way the words are spoken and body language.
People are surprised when they are introduced to the statistics which indicate that only 7% of the message is transferred and understood by the actual words used, 38% is transferred as a result of the way the words are spoken and a massive 55% by body language. Incidentally, these statistics refer to a conversation that is face to face. Logic tells us that if the conversation is over the telephone the body cannot be seen which means that a massive 55% of the method for transferring the message is lost. To that end, one could argue therefore that body language does not even come into the equation when talking on the telephone.
That isn’t the case though – the body also has a massive effect on our breathing pattern which in turn has a massive effect on the way the words are spoken.
When body language is used as a method to understanding the meaning of a message being communicated to us, it makes reference not only to the actions of the body, but also to facial expressions.
If someone is gesturing wildly, with arms and hands pointing towards us with a firm action and being repeated at speed, we will assume that they are not very happy. Without hearing any words we can conclude that these are the actions of an angry man. How we react to that is based on our own responses. People could react quite differently to an angry-looking person. The anger might be reflected back, with the person on the receiving end responding with fear or nervousness – and some may even burst in to laughter as a way of responding. Whatever the response, the message indicated is loud and clear and without the use of words. That’s how powerful body language can be, when communication takes place in an environment where the receiver can see the message sender.
If the telephone is introduced into the process the receiver cannot see the message sender. This means that a massive 55% of the transfer process is lost – we can’t see the message sender’s body so how can it be used to transfer a message to us? Most certainly, if we take the example above where the man communicated anger without actually saying anything the introduction of the telephone would have prevented the receiver from understanding the message. People rarely pick up the phone to communicate and say nothing, words or sounds are generally uttered.
Words are introduced into the conversation – no doubt, if we continue with the same example of the angry person, the words will endorse and match his feelings. In addition the way he says the words will also replicate his feelings. It would be quite unlikely that someone with enraged anger displayed by body actions and endorsed with words would be able to say those words in a calm and collected manner.
If we are angry, it is evident by our facial expression. If we are happy, it is evident by our facial expression. The muscles in our face are numerous – we have more muscles from our shoulders up than from our shoulders down! Movement of muscles will affect the sound of the voice.
We have all heard the comment – you can hear someone smiling and it is true. If we smile our voice is lighter, higher and indicates happiness.
If we show anger on our faces the muscles affect our voice too, it will be deeper and more stressed.
Facial expressions affect our voice and our voice transfers key parts of a message to help the receiver understand what is being communicated. Whether the conversation takes place on the telephone or face to face, the facial expression which is part of body language plays a major role in the communication process.
The pace of an angry person’s voice may be faster than normal, their voice may be deeper, their words may be clipped and sharp in the way they are spoken, and their breathing will no doubt be faster, which will also have an effect on how the words were uttered. Quite simply, their body language will have a massive effect on how the words are said, and that contributes to the 38% of the message transfer.
When someone is speaking on the telephone their body language will still reflect their mood and feelings. It happens unconsciously. Who would stop to think: “Ah, the person I’m talking to cannot see me so there is no need to move my arms and used facial expressions”?
Breathing patterns play a major role in how words are spoken. As the air from our lungs is exhaled, it passes over the vocal chords which vibrate to make a sound. This sound affects the way we say words. Breathe either quickly or slowly and it has a major effect on the vibration. Breath in a shallow manner and that too has an effect on the vibration.
For the exhaled air to pass over the vocal chords the passageway has to be clear. Crunch your body and the passageway starts to become restricted. Restriction starts to happen when we sit down. This is because our normal reaction is to lower our head and shoulders.
Try this simple exercise.
- Stand up so the air passage is open and say ‘good morning’.
- Sit down and relax into your chair so that your shoulders and chin are relaxed and say ‘good morning’. Can you hear the difference?
- Remain seated, but sit up in your chair, look ahead and repeat ‘good morning’ again. Can you hear the difference this time?
Quite clearly the position of the body has a fundamental effect on how words sound. When our shoulders and chin are dropped the words are more muffled. This could give someone listening to us the impression that we sound unhappy, unconcerned or even bored and uninterested. This may not be the case – in fact it probably isn’t, but that is the message that the person we are talking to will receive.
So this is one instance when body language plays an important part when we communicate over the telephone. A recent example was someone who received a call from the hospital where their mother had been admitted after a stroke. Someone from the hospital made a telephone call to the daughter. The caller spoke with a very slow pace and the pitch of their voice was very low and the tone very deep. This slow, deep tone of the voice meant that the patient’s daughter thought she was hearing bad news. She didn’t hear the words that were spoken, just the way they were said. The caller was in fact notifying the daughter that her mother had been transferred to another ward. If the words had been spoken with a faster pace and a higher pitch she would have concluded it was a regular call with some general information – no cause to worry.
This is a classic example of how the tone, pitch and pace of the voice are affected by body language, which as a result causes an incorrect interpretation of the words spoken.
So we have considered three ways that body language affects the voice which in turn affects the way the words are spoken. This in turn is a key way that the receiver understands the message being sent in a conversation.
- Gestures – lead to facial expression. Facial expressions affect the voice and the way the voice says the words
- Breathing patterns – affect they way words are spoken and can give false messages
Be aware of your body language, the way you sit or stand when on the telephone, and your breathing patterns. They all affect how you speak. Body language clearly does matter on the telephone if we want to send messages that are clearly and correctly understood.
Christine Knott is MD of specialist training company Beyond The Box.