6 Ways to Communicate in English (Without Saying a Word)
The famous statistic that 93% of communication is non-verbal is almost certainly not true.
The communications researcher Max Atkinson is one of many people who have pointed out obvious flaws in that theory – noting that we can understand a good deal more of communication with body language cues (such as the radio or written text) than we can of communication without verbal understanding, such as someone speaking in a foreign language.
But it’s also clear that even if non-verbal communication doesn’t contribute the majority of our understanding of meaning, it still makes up a significant chunk. Think about all of the misunderstandings in internet discussions when you can’t tell if someone is speaking sarcastically, or whether a joke was intended to be friendly or cutting. Think about the range of ways we’ve tried to get around this, such as emoticons, and the amount of internet slang that is just a translation of body language – LOL, *headdesk*, smh, *facepalm* and the whole world of reaction gifs.
Though you may well have been taught the English language, very few textbooks will bother to teach you how British people communicate non-verbally. After all, you can still make yourself understood – but then, the same is true of speaking English with a pronounced accent. Body language and tone of voice straddle the line between language and culture. In this article, we take a look at the body language of the British, and what they’re trying to communicate to you.
1. Personal space and eye contact
The British have a reputation for being standoffish and unfriendly. While most British people would reject this characterisation, they might well accept that other cultures are friendlier. One of the reasons for the perceived difference is about personal space and eye contact.
The theory of personal space – referred to in academia as proxemics – is fascinating. It varies significantly between cultures, and the British prefer to have more of it than most. The theory goes that there is public space, social space, personal space and intimate space, in a series of ever-decreasing concentric circles around yourself. Your personal space, for a British person, might be a metre radius around yourself. You might not have the spatial awareness to be able to say exactly how far that it, but you’ll be extremely aware of it when someone who isn’t a close friend or family member steps into it.
This distance also means that British people who don’t know one another well don’t touch very much, in comparison with touchier cultures with smaller personal space zones; after all, it’s quite hard to touch someone if they’re further away than your arm can reach!
By contrast, British people (in common with most Westerners) are much freer with their eye contact than they are with their personal space. They won’t want others to come too close, but they will expect intermittent eye contact for most of a conversation. There also aren’t any gender rules about eye contact; mixed-sex conversations will have just as much eye contact as single-sex conversations. Veils, sunglasses and other things that interrupt eye contact are likely to make British people feel uncomfortably separate from the person they’re speaking to. Sustained eye contact is seen as intense, expressing emotions from sincerity through to aggression – so while it’s important to make lots of eye contact during a conversation, it’s also important to look away frequently in case you give the wrong impression.
2. Body language on public transport
Have you ever been on the London Underground at rush hour? Commuters pack themselves into the carriages like they’re 1960s students trying to set a record for the maximum number of people in a Mini. This seems to contradict every principle of how British people view their personal space, as they fold themselves around complete strangers. Surely, if maintaining personal space was so important, they would just wait for an emptier train?
Well, if you’re waiting for an emptier train during London rush hour, you could end up very late for work, so the commuters just deal with it. But they don’t like it. The feminist writer Germaine Greer famously noted that “Even crushed against his brother in the Tube the average Englishman pretends desperately that he is alone.” The normal rules about personal space (lots) and eye contact (also lots) are completely inverted when there simply isn’t enough space – so everyone squeezes themselves in, and then pretends that there’s no one else there. Headphones help.
No one makes eye contact, because to make eye contact is to acknowledge the existence of other humans in the vicinity. Certainly, no one makes conversation, except with the people they know well enough that being so close to them isn’t unpleasant. But there is silence even among people who know each other well, but not intimately; a Londoner pressed up against their colleague will pretend the colleague isn’t there, so that the personal space violation can be denied.
In China Miéville’s novel, The City and the City, the two cities – Besźel and Ul Qoma – are woven around one another, but the citizens of each are bound by a strong cultural taboo to pretend that the other doesn’t exist, so they are separated just as surely as if there had been a wall between them – for instance, they dive out of each other’s way on a crowded street without any acknowledgement that they had even noticed each other. It doesn’t feel surprising to learn that Miéville lives in London.
Even on public transport that isn’t crowded, the seats are normally too close together for British people’s sense of personal space to be satisfied. They will avoid sitting next to each other as much as possible, and when they have to, they pretend that no one else exists. This doesn’t mean dancing like nobody’s watching; it means being as unobtrusive as possible, in order to ensure that everyone else around them can pretend that they are alone too.
3. Greeting and touching
While eye contact isn’t much modified by gender or age, how we greet each other and when we touch each other very much is. People meeting for the first time in a formal setting will shake hands, and this is a sign of respect. Anyone who doesn’t wish to shake hands with a subset of people, for instance based on gender, should avoid shaking hands with anyone at all, rather than singling out a particular group. Some explanation is probably merited too (“we don’t shake hands in my culture” is fine) to avoid giving offence. Being singled out for a handshake by someone in authority is a mark of esteem.
For informal greetings, it’s a little more complicated. Women may hug, and there might be some continental-style cheek kissing. But there are no hard-and-fast etiquette rules (at least, not ones that everyone follows) so there might be handshakes on first meeting, there might be a wave, or an awkward nod that shades into a slight bow. Which one someone opts for is usually an indication of closeness (going straight for a hug suggests a good friendship) or how much touch they’re personally comfortable with.
From this point on, only good friends will touch one another routinely, and it’s possible to be quite close friends without ever making skin contact. People only hold hands romantically or with small children, very seldom with other adults who are platonic friends. Hugs are usually reserved for time of high emotion, whether sadness or triumph, and women hug each other a lot more often than men.
4. At meals
For a British person, any appreciation of food should be verbal, rather than nonverbal. While other cultures might rattle cutlery, say “mmmmm!”, smack lips, belch or otherwise show noisily or with gestures how much they’re enjoying the meal, British people prefer to show their appreciation only by saying “this is delicious” or asking for the recipe; anything else is rude.
Just as in any other circumstance, British people keep themselves confined to their own personal space at meals, elbows tucked in, unless they’re eating with very close friends; sharing food from the same plate is reserved for couples and the closest of friends. And that sense of keeping yourself to yourself isn’t just physical; it’s also about not making too much noise. If you’re in a restaurant, and you’ve drawn the attention of someone eating on the other side of the room, you’ve made a social faux pas.
Do you want to show someone how much you’ve enjoyed their cooking without saying anything? Eat it – not so slowly that you’re the last one to finish, not so quickly that you don’t have time to enjoy the flavours – and clear your plate completely. In some circles, not finishing your entire serving is actively rude; in others, it’s acceptable, but finishing everything is more of a compliment to the chef. If you don’t finish everything, you can indicate that you’ve finished eating by placing your cutlery side-by-side on your plate.
5. Smiles and frowns
The British don’t think of themselves as smiling a lot, but they do. A small, probably closed-mouthed smile is normal when passing a colleague in a corridor, seeing an acquaintance on the street, hearing any small positive comment (“it’s nearly lunchtime”, say, or “would anyone like a biscuit?”) or affirming your mood as being in any way positive. Given that a) it’s polite to ask people how they are when greeting them and b) it’s polite to answer something vaguely positive, perhaps with a commonplace platitude (“I’m not too bad – looking forward to the weekend!”), regardless of your actual emotional state, affirming a positive mood happens pretty frequently. Only subtle smiles are normal; big grins are mostly saved for photographs, if that. But if you don’t smile at all, or smile mostly with your eyes as is usual in other cultures, you’ll soon seem unfriendly.
Frowning is a similar matter. A small frown is expected as a reaction to hearing something negative, to indicate that you’re listening and that you care. An overblown cartoon-character frown will seem childish, possibly mocking. It’s easy to get this wrong, because people assume that the British stiff upper lip means disguising all emotions, like the Vulcans on Star Trek. But it doesn’t; showing emotions is expected, just not very big emotions. “I’m not too bad” and “I’m a bit disappointed” are typical British phrases and facial expressions correlate with these; “I’m having a fantastic time!” and “I’m feeling really terrible” are best saved for theme parks and serious illness, and the corresponding extremes of body language are the same.
6. Tears and laughter
The rule about extremes of emotion also apply to tears and to laughter. Tears are highly gendered in Britain: women cry in a range of circumstances, from happy occasions to tragedy, although it’s also socially acceptable to keep tears to a minimum (it’s fine not to cry at a funeral), while men seldom ever shed a tear. These norms are slowly changing in favour of allowing men to express more emotion, but the cultural shift has been slow. These kinds of extreme emotions, especially for men, are usually only normal under particular settings, especially contexts where a whole crowd is moved to feel a particular emotion – sports matches, for instance, or certain concerts.
An exception is laughter. It’s true that in general, British people will laugh quietly, almost to themselves, when they’re moved to laughter at all – but laughing often and heartily is usually seen as a positive trait, much more so than expressing any other emotion so blatantly. Comedy, from sitcoms to stand-up to satire, is an integral part of British culture, and having a good sense of humour is a personality trait to be prized. But authenticity is also seen as important when it comes to these extremes of emotion; fake laughter and fake tears are much worse than no laughter or no tears. By contrast, a fake smile in situations where smiling is called for is an effort that’s appreciated as being better than not smiling at all.
So there you have it: to communicate using British body language, you need to maintain personal space, make eye, pretend strangers don’t exist if they get too close, and express emotion but, for the most part, keep those expressions small. Thank goodness for the British that so much of the world is prepared to communicate with them verbally instead.