Why Study Nonverbal Communication?

The Allegory of the Cave, found in Plato’s Republic, is the most famous passage in the philosophical literature. Plato describes a cave where people are only able to see the shadows cast by a fire on a wall. The chained slaves, having always lived in the cave and having only seen shadows, believe the shadow world to be real. They have no idea that reality is actually outside the cave in the sunlight. Plato suggests that you and I live in the sense-perceived world, a world like the shadow world, which is a mere copy or imitation of the unseen, eternal, abstract world, of the daylight.

Centuries later, the empiricists followed by Kant, argued that Plato was at best half right. The sense-perceived world, the empiricists argued, was not a false representation of a hidden world someplace else, it was the only world that existed. The senses, to the empiricists, were the source of all knowledge. There was no ultimate, abstract reality beyond what we could see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Kant took this position a step farther, arguing that we could never know the reality behind what we sensed. Knowledge of the thing-in-itself, Kant argued, was impossible.

As technology evolved, shadows cast on the wall became a weak example of the representations we could make of what we hear and see. The phonograph, when first exhibited, was said to have shocked people. The sound of someone’s voice produced by a machine seemed magical; it was thought to be created by some kind of trickery. Photographs and films were just as astonishing. Movies showing trains allegedly scared some people out of the theater. These and subsequent technologies gave us a powerful ability to preserve what we sensed, which furthered the shifts from oral, to written, to mechanical, to today’s digital forms of cultural memory.

In our new world of audio and video broadcasts and copies, the distinction between what is real and what is mere appearance became less clear-cut. Baudrillard, a postmodern philosopher, claimed that we lived in a world where there was no ultimate reality behind appearances. We lived in a world of signs, he argued, where individually constructed representations have no material world providing a foundation for meaning. Signs took their meanings from other signs, resulting in a hyper-reality which is a world based upon simulations of other simulations.

Baudrillard’s basic point, bolstered by the fact that we live increasingly in artificial realms of media, is well taken given the rise of the Internet and the power of the computer. The shift between using a computer at work, talking on the phone, watching a movie on TV, listening to music, and placing an online order for pizza is no longer a shift from acting in the material world to entering into a realm of media; instead we live in an electro-material world. Our reality is no longer enhanced or diminished by the Internet; the Internet is simply another generator of signs in which we live and from which we draw meaning.

This lack of a distinction between appearance and reality has had consequences. Fiction, the stories people tell, is more powerful/influential than ever before. Donald Trump, for example, is an expert on branding. He draws his news from what he reads on the Internet and makes news himself by telling an attention attracting story. What’s true about Trump depends upon the other beliefs one holds, not upon the world itself. The distinction between fact and fiction, the real and the apparent, matters less today, and will matter even less in the future. The lack of a fundamental distinction between what’s real and what is a mere appearance has not only affected what we individually believe, it has affected our relationships. Our relationships no longer have to be tied to a mutual satisfaction of basic needs, which had been one of the material world’s holds on us. We can build relationships without physical interaction via email, social media, and FaceTime. Ironically, in a way Plato could not have anticipated, we live our lives in an abstract realm, one built upon computer code. But, the abstract world is not more certain for the user; it is more ephemeral and malleable because its symbols lack the ties to material reality that would constrain interpretations.

Some post-structural philosophers of today argue that our language and sign systems constitute the entirety of our reality. They deny that a material world exists and argue against any scientific understanding of the world. It’s all about language they contend, with science being simply another language. That may be, but they can’t ignore material reality which has a way of intruding on our thoughts and acts. The material world establishes boundaries. Not even the most extreme post-modern philosophers can jump off a building and talk away the resulting injuries. Nor can today’s theorists deny science’s successes. Post-structuralists drive cars to visit the doctor when ill and watch movies on their iPad in the waiting room, using the Internet while denying that science is real. But, while our understanding of the material world is limited, it is clear that the material world has some regularities that are independent of our thoughts and language. Science understands this world to some extent, and we will always have one foot in that world whether our brain considers it matters or not.

Nonverbal communication provides an important window to the influence of the material world. When we communicate nonverbally, which we do all the time, we generate signs and symbols subject to interpretation, but often, the origin of our nonverbal behaviors is not the result of abstract thought processes, it is the product of unfiltered emotion. At times, we think about the nonverbal messages we send. We buy clothes, for example, to create an identity and make a certain impression. However, we often communicate nonverbally by expressing what we are feeling without giving it any thought at all. Thus nonverbal communication often provides a window to the material world. It provides a kind of direct access to a person’s being that cuts through some of the clutter of other signs. Nonverbal communication’s connection to what is “real,” gives it power.

Have you ever met people you took an instant dislike to? You may have a vague understanding that your dislike has something to do with their nonverbal manner, but you may not be able to express exactly why you feel negatively about them. You may also like someone the minute you meet them. Scientists argue that much of our nonverbal communication is rooted in our emotions, arising out of our lizard brains, the parts of the brain that developed first. These core areas of our brains are old; they are our evolutionary heritage. They arose at a time when survival was all important, back when living in the material world was all there was. Our choices back then were more limited–ranging from fight to flight. Nonverbal behavior, presumably, became the means of forming or not forming alliances. It was the means of building trust before language was well-developed. Today, that primitive part of the brain is still with us. It tells us quickly not to trust some people and to trust others. This doesn’t mean that our lizard brain is always accurate, but it does influence how we use the rest of the brain to perceive others.

We have come a long way toward divorcing ourselves from the material world. The Internet allows us to bypass some nonverbal channels of communication, and it allows our communication to be much more intentional. The fundamental distinction between what’s real and what’s a myth in the Internet Age has crumbled quite a bit, but the rubble can not be swept away. The rubble will cause us to stumble if we do not keep an eye on the foot still touching the ground. Nonverbal communication is one of the ways we can still see what is at our feet; it gives us access the material world. Studying nonverbal communication gives us insights we cannot get anywhere else.

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