When we speak, we use much more than just words. We also communicate with our face, our hands, and even our own body. This kind of communication can be called "body language" or "non-verbal communication". Non-verbal communication not only includes how we move our body, but also hand gestures, facial expressions including eye contact, and how we use our voice. Psychologists estimate that between 60% and 80% of all of our communication with other people is non-verbal. We communicate a wide range of information non-verbally. We also show our feelings, attitudes, moods, hopes and wishes far better with non-verbal language than with words.
Not only is a large QUANTITY of communication non-verbal in nature, but the QUALITY is high as well. For example, if a person says something positive while his face looks negative, which are we more likely to believe? In most cases, we will believe the non-verbal facial expression. In the end, his words will not succeed in communicating his message. If we want to succeed in our everyday conversations, we really must learn to "speak" with our body well!
Let me begin by giving you some general advice. The main thing is to relax and be natural. Trying too hard to use "body language" will make you seem a bit strange. Instead, you should allow your body language to naturally follow your words. If you say something positive, then your face, body and hands should show it too. If you are expressing a sad or worried feeling, then your face, body and hands should change with that feeling. As you think about it more and consider how you can use your body to communicate, you will become more and more natural.
More specifically, let's talk about hand gestures. Using our hands, we can emphasize our main points, remind our listener how many main points we have, and let our listener know when we are changing topics. A dramatic movement of the hand or moving our hands wide apart can signal how important something is. We can even use two fingers, either close together or far apart, to show how big something is. To show VERY strong feeling we could clap our hands together loudly or make a fist (put our fingers in a ball as though we want to hit someone) and hit a table or desk. To show that we welcome someone, on the other hand, we can hold our hands out with the palms up, and maybe move them towards a chair to invite someone to sit next to us.
Of course, we can also use our fingers to count, but be careful. People in some countries do not count the same way as in China. In France, for example, people do not count "one" by holding up their first finger, called the "index finger". Instead, they hold up their thumb. In Japan, some people put their thumb DOWN (with the four fingers up) to mean "one"! This can create confusion sometimes, so be sure not to use only non-verbal communication. Use words too, so that your listener will be sure to understand you.
Some hand gestures that are popular are waving to someone as a greeting or holding your index finger and thumb into a circle to mean "okay". However, there are some countries where these can have bad meanings! It's important to be careful when using certain common gestures. Don't assume that everyone in the world understands one gesture in the same way. Still, you can use basic gestures most of the time, then when you see a strange reaction from your listener, you can make sure to emphasize your real meaning by using words and a different hand movement.
Facial expressions are a very common way that we use to communicate every day. When speaking English, it's generally good to smile at your listener from time to time, especially when he or she has made an interesting comment. Also nod your head up and down to show you are really interested. From time to time, you can add a sound of agreement, such as "Uh huh" or even just "mmmm", to show you are listening. Above all, it is important to maintain eye contact while listening. Sometimes it is okay to move your eyes away when you are speaking, because you do have to think about what you want to say. However the listener should almost always look at the speaker without moving the eyes away (without "averting" the eyes).
If you are speaking to someone while standing, it is important to stand neither too close nor too far from the speaker. Stand at a position that is comfortable for both of you. Again, though, you must be careful when talking to people from different countries. People from some southern European countries, such as France or Spain, often stand closer together when speaking than do Chinese people. And people from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia stand even closer! You do not always have to adapt your behavior when you meet people from around the world, but you should be aware of potential misunderstandings.
If, instead of standing, you are speaking to someone while talking, you can show your friendliness and "openness" by leaning a little bit toward the speaker. Try to avoid folding your arms in front of your chest. Many people consider folding your arms as a cold, "protective" gesture. Instead, you could have your hands on your knees, or one hand on your knee and the other at your side. You can fold your arms sometimes if you wish, but don't hold them there for a long time. As long as your hands move from time to time, the listener will not think that you are unfriendly.
Besides all of the obvious physical ways to communicate non-verbally, we have our voice. We use "intonation", loudness and "pitch" (how high or low our voice sounds) to change our meaning. Even when our voice does not make an actual word, it still can communicate feeling and attitude. Combined with the words we use, our voice can be a very powerful way to express what we mean. A strong voice can communicate confidence while a quiet voice communicates intimacy or some secret message. A loud, high pitched voice (similar to a girl screaming) can communicate nervousness or excitement, while a deep voice might mean we are tired or not enthusiastic.
Body language is one of the basic skills that all students need.