Direct communication doesn’t just come in the form of a well-written email or a grammatically accurate sentence that your grandmother doesn’t correct you over. Direct communication, or lack thereof, can be spoken without using words at all.
In fact, this kind of communication is essential when you’re learning things like self-defense or you’re trying to train a dog, like Cesar Millan. It’s called nonverbal communication. And it’s a pretty big deal when it comes to both communicating and building your identity.
Just so that we’re being clear, let’s define what nonverbal communication looks like.
In “Verbal versus Nonverbal Communication” on the Livestrong website, nonverbal communication is:
“made up of tone of voice, body language, gestures, eye contact, facial expression and proximity. These elements give deeper meaning and intention to your words.
Tone includes the pitch, volume and inflection of your voice. Posture is an important part of body language; sitting up straight conveys confidence while slouching conveys apathy. Eye contact suggests interest. Gestures are often used to emphasize a point. Facial expressions convey emotion. Proximity can demonstrate aggression when the speaker is too close, or fear when the speaker draws back.” (Livestrong)
Nonverbal communication may seem secondary to speech, but it can speak just as much as words, if not more. Take dogs, for example. Cesar Millan has made his career off of teaching people how to communicate more effectively with their dogs.
In his article called “Failure to Communicate,” Millan writes, “Like all other animals [dogs] ‘talk’ through energy. Think about how dogs behave around each other. They circle each other, then approach gradually and sniff each other. There’s a calm, relaxed energy to the encounter as each dog indicates he’s comfortable before they get closer to each other.”
In other words, nonverbal signals are speaking on your behalf, often without your conscious intention. You say, “Everything is fine,” with your arms folded and your eyes downcast. Whether you meant to or not, you just gave away your secret that everything is, in fact, not fine.
This isn’t the first time you’ve heard that nonverbal communication is a significant portion of our interactions. Obviously, body language and tone of voice, all the way down to the subtle art of eye rolling, can exchange the gifts of flirting, passive aggressive behaviors, and even the joy of sarcasm.
But what does it mean for your identity? How can twiddling your thumbs and crossing your legs change the way you feel about yourself? How can self confidence be improved by unknotting your body?
In “Training the Human for the Walk,” Millan writes, “Here’s a tip that I think will help you: Try to walk with your back straight, head up, and eyes forward. Not only with this help you scan the area ahead, it’s also physically the posture of a Pack Leader. You’ll find that walking like this encourages you to be calm and assertive.”
Notice that Millan is saying that this posture encourages you to be calm and assertive. Essentially, walking like a Pack Leader to a dog actually helps you gain confidence in yourself. Many people assume that you need to have beauty or brains, a good job or a good butt in order to believe you’ve got something worthwhile to gain some self-esteem points. The reality is, though, that you don’t need confidence to have better posture; you need to have better posture to help gain confidence.
Chalene Johnson, fitness guru and lifestyle coach, has an article devoted to gaining more energy.
Johnson writes, “Sit up straight – pull your shoulders back, open up your chest, and pretend like [you’re] getting a school picture taken. You’ll feel your energy level immediately go up. [Your] own body language has an instant impact on your energy! Even if no one else is around, change your body language and immediately your energy level will improve.”
Johnson and Millan, though in different career circles, tend to share the same message about how you hold your body: your posture reinforces and invites confidence and energy; not the other way around.
It’s easy to blame external circumstances for our lack of self-confidence. But in Identity, we’re taught to take responsibility for ourselves. While it may not be our fault that something is happening in our lives (good or bad), it’s our responsibility to do something about it. We don’t need to have hunched shoulders and always look at the floor just because we feel victimized.
So get rid of the victim stance and build yourself up. Stand with your chin parallel to the floor. Meet the gaze of strangers and don’t hide behind your lashes. The more you hide who you are and make apologies for the space you’re taking up, the more you tell people you have no right to be here. And the more you begin to believe it.
If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking, “Oh, it’s not the right time. I’ll do that later,” “No, I can’t go to that party; she’ll be uncomfortable if I’m there,” or “I’m going to just wallflower this situation and hope nobody sees me,” then you’ve probably told yourself (unconsciously) that you’re not worth the extra floor space you’re taking up.
And those thoughts translate to you standing in a corner with your eyes on your next refreshed social media page. Your arms and legs get crossed, uncrossed, and recrossed in different positions because you can’t get comfortable. You make polite conversation about the weather without letting it spill over into something more substantial, even though you know you could. Your body is reflecting what your mouth won’t say: You don’t like who or where you are, and you don’t know how to get comfortable.
In my Krav Maga self-defence classes, my instructor always says we must center ourselves. Lift our sternums, take smooth breaths, and remain calm even in the face of danger. Holding calm and assertive postures helps us communicate our true selves and build confidence.
Because it is only when we are calm and centered that we are able to make good decisions and free ourselves from that which is holding us back.
-Catie Hall, Identity Graduate