What We Don't Know About Body Language

Scholars call for more research on the impact of body language in the workplace.

WHAT PEOPLE SAY in the workplace might not be nearly as informative as what people do, say four professors at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management in Ontario, Canada. Even so, in a recent paper, they note that scholars have yet to develop a deeper understanding of nonverbal communication and body language.

In a review of existing literature, associate professor of workplace psychology Silvia Bonaccio, assistant professor Jane O’Reilly, associate professor Sharon O’Sullivan, and associate professor François Chiocchio find that while many researchers have emphasized the significant impact of nonverbal behaviors (NVBs) on interpersonal interactions and workplace performance, little is known about how to use them strategically. They cite American anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir, who described nonverbal communication as “an elaborate secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and used by all.”

The paper then outlines different types of NVBs, including body gestures, facial expressions (or lack thereof), eye contact, touch, vocal pitch, proximity, and even one’s body odor or choice of perfume. The co-authors then identify five ways that NVBs can have implications within organizations: They allow individuals to display personal attributes, exercise social control and establish hierarchy, and display emotional expression. NVBs also promote social functioning and foster high-quality relationships.

The paper provides a list of potential questions that are ripe for further exploration. For example:

  • How might assessors best be trained to discern deception?
  • To what extent do hostile NVBs affect organizational climate?
  • How might NVBs influence ascriptions of charisma, credibility, and persuasiveness?
  • How do NVBs support verbal communication to produce emotional contagion?

They call for scholars to go beyond anecdotal treatments of body language to develop a more comprehensive body of knowledge on such questions. Such research could inspire training programs to help people develop a broad understanding of nonverbal communication. 

“If nonverbal behaviors are indeed ubiquitous and pragmatic, then it is reasonable to assume that they do have a functional role in personnel decisions,” the co-authors write. “The goal should be to build an understanding of which behaviors are relevant, how the context might influence nonverbal cues, and how to best distinguish between genuine versus inauthentic nonverbal behavior.”

“Nonverbal Behavior and Communication in the Workplace: A Review and an Agenda for Research” appeared online in February in the Journal of Management.