Zoom in on Nonverbal Behavior

Small body language cues can tell a bigger story.

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Perhaps you saw the video that went viral last Thursday night when Senator Joe Manchin kept putting his head in his hands during Senator Chuck Shumer’s speech celebrating a short-term debt limit hike.

That video should remind us of how important nonverbal communication can be, even if much of it is more subtle and we are often not even consciously aware of it. With Zoom and other online communication that has been so helpful and ubiquitous over this pandemic time, nonverbal communication is actually limited, as we often do not see much of the body and the tone of voice. It is a very different experience than being live.

Studies indicate that from 70% to 90% of all communication is nonverbal. Those include vocal tone, fidgeting, facial expressions, hand gestures, smiling, frowning, body posture, and physical distance. There can be cultural differences in how these are expressed, interpreted, and integrated.

The most common explanation I have seen of Manchin was that he was communicating, consciously or unconsciously, that “this is crazy.” However, nonverbal behavior needs to be interpreted cautiously, especially if there is a sense of unease at what you are seeing or hearing. Sometimes, asking with respect or curiosity can work.

For us in psychiatry, the more incoming data we have on those we are seeing, potentially the better. If one is doing telepsychiatry, for instance, it seems advisable to see the whole body. Given that on Zoom you can also see yourself, it can be an opportunity to see and analyze your own nonverbal communications, especially if it was recorded to review.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.