Skip to content
Health, Sports & Psychology

Do we say it best when we say nothing at all?

Updated Tuesday 9th August 2005

Best known for his role as Max in Brookside, actor Steven Pinder is keenly aware of the importance of what he says in his line of work. But what he’s never really thought about is the other way he communicates…non-verbally. Ever Wondered sends him to find out more about the secret signals we send with our gestures

Arlington cemetery Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Steven’s first port of call is the Department of Psychology at Manchester University - where he meets up with Professor Geoffrey Beattie, who is conducting research into the link between talking and non-verbal communication.

Steven: I must confess I’ve never really paid much attention to non-verbal communication. Should I ?

Professor Geoffrey Beattie Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Professor Beattie: Definitely. We take it for granted because it’s always there…but imagine trying to interact with someone without using posture, gesture and eye contact. People can’t really talk without using these signals - even when they’re on the telephone! Non-verbal communication sends very clear signs of your emotional reaction to what you’re saying. We have conducted experiments where we ask people to verbally describe the action in a cartoon story. What we find is that when they tell the story they don’t use just their vocal ability but use gesture to enhance the communication. We find that people who listen to the speech and see the gesture pick up more information about the original story.

Steven: As an actor, would the audience get more out of my performance if I incorporated more non-verbal communication?

Professor Beattie: Yes - and the point is it’s absolutely natural. When you start gesturing when you speak, people will think it’s a more natural performance.

So who else would find non-verbal communication useful? The police for one, when they’re trying to tell if someone’s lying or not. Steven’s next stop is at the West Yorkshire Police HQ to meet Detective Chief Superintendent Andy Brown…

Detective Chief Superintendent Andy Brown at the West Yorkshire Police Headquarters has made numerous TV appearances, including on Crimestoppers.
Detective Chief Superintendent Andy Brown Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Steven: So what can non-verbal communication tell you about a suspect?

DCS Brown: Normally a police interview can be rather stressful and people react in a certain way to that stress. But there are signs above that which a police office may take note of to indicate that something is wrong.

Steven: Does the non-verbal communication differ depending on the crime?

DCS Brown Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission DCS Brown: Generally not. Obviously the stresses are different if you’re brought in for shop-lifting to if you’re brought in for murder, but the kind of gestures - eye movement, hand movement, foot movement, sweating - all these are classic common signs. It’s based on the individual rather than the crime. Generally people are guarded in what they say and any verbal lying that might come out….non-verbal communication isn’t as considered and can be used by the police in an interview situation.

Steven: Do you think you can separate non-verbal communication from ordinary talking ?

DCS Brown: I think normally the two go hand in hand - it’s part of human behaviour. To try and separate them would take a great deal of control, ability and consciousness of what they are doing.

If you would like to find out more about human nature then have a look at course A211 Philosophy and the Human Situation

If you would like to find out more about Non-Verbal Communication you might try these suggestions :

Books you can read

"Communicating Across Cultures", Maureen Guirdham, Macmillan Press, ISBN 0333754093

"Non-Verbal Communication Skills", Joyce Breasure, Advanced Development, ISBN 0931975131

"British Sign Language", Dorothy Miles, BBC Consumer Publishing, ISBN 0563211342

"The Silent Language", Edward T. Hall, Anchor Books, ISBN 0385055498

"Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication", John Durham Peters, University Of Chicago Press, ISBN 022666274

Links You Can Surf

For more information about Geoffrey Beattie

For more information on Manchester University Psychology Department

For more information on Non Verbal Communication

Also on this site : You can join Tamara Beckwith as she finds out why we love to Gossip or join sociologist David Goldblatt as he asks are we suffering from information overload?

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what the Open University has to offer.

The BBC and the Open University are not responsible for the content of external websites

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?