What we say when we say nothing

Paul Watzlawick’s famous phrase: “You cannot not communicate” sums it up nicely. We communicate even without words – whether we want to or not, because a large part of communication is non-verbal.

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: Unsplash

Distance: Don’t come (too) close

The person we’re talking to moves towards us, and we move back. Closeness makes many people uncomfortable. “The distance we choose says a lot about how we relate to other people – or at least it did before corona,” says Christa Dürscheid, professor of German language at the University of Zurich. The following distances tend to apply in our culture: Sales meetings and job interviews are conducted at a distance of between 3 ½–1 ½ metres. Colleagues are allowed nearer: at around ½–1 ½ metres. Only friends and family are welcome at a more intimate distance of less than ½ metre. 

Touch: hands off

“Physical contact during a conversation is a no-go,” says Dürscheid. Most people find this uncomfortable. “Unless you know each other very well.” In our culture, we have developed ritualised forms of greeting, such as the three kisses on the cheeks and a handshake or hug at the start and end of a meeting.

Smell: good or bad?

A person’s smell dictates whether we like them. Particularly when looking for a partner, smells subconsciously play an important role, because they give an indication of their genetic make-up and immune system. “Our natural smell cannot be masked by perfume,” explains Dürscheid.

Body language: find your resting position

Is a person being serious or ironic? We can often only tell from body language. “By consciously sending out signals, we help the other person understand what we are trying to say,” says Dürscheid. And it’s the little things that have a big impact. Crossing your arms and legs makes you seem dismissive, holding your head at an angle means you are unsure, and a straight and open posture with both legs on the floor shows that you are confident. In fact, studies even show that this posture causes the cortisol level in the body – an indicator of stress – to fall.

Pacing: in perfect harmony

People sometimes speak over each other or talk at the same time. We just can’t seem to get it right. In this case it can help to actively listen and to adopt the pace of the other person. Pacing is when you partially imitate their posture, gestures, facial expressions and speed of talking and breathing to show that you are in harmony.