The Power of Communication

We all know how to communicate. In fact, many of you are writers, specializing in manipulating one of our primary mediums of communication. How much attention do you give this in your writing?

Maybe not as much as you think. Let me explain.

When people share language, they also share a common attribute of cultural identity that has been learned. Language is the basis for our social contexts, evident in the very style of our speech. Meaning is imbedded in our tone, diction, word choice, and even the poise of our body.

It’s more than speech and writing.

Non-verbal communication is critical for effective interaction. Spend fifteen minutes in the company of family or friends without using postural expressions, facial reactions, or any of the common gesticular responses we’ve come to expect and within minutes your companions will likely inquire if you feel ill. Or angry.

Try it.

Growing up we learn to use gestures, glances, slight changes in tone of voice, and other auxiliary communication devices to alter or emphasize the meaning behind our words and actions. Paralanguage is a redundancy that helps prevent ineffective exchange. Consider how often you say one thing and imply the opposite.

Paralanguage prevents the wrong message from being inadvertently passed on because observable face-to-face contact takes place. Studies suggest as much as 60% of what is communicated when we speak, occurs through paralanguage.

What are your characters doing?

Add greater dimension to your writing with kinesics. Use the language of gestures, expressions, and postures.  In North America we commonly manipulate our arms and hands to say good-bye, point, count, express excitement, beckon, warn away, and threaten.

In fact, we learn many subtle variations of each gesture and use them situationally. We use our head to say yes or no, to smile, frown, and wink or flirt.

When we make eye contact across a crowded cafe we might nod an acknowledgement before looking away – but consider how you would react if it were an elderly woman, an attractive member of the opposite sex, a half-clothed drooling lunatic, or a gap-toothed grinning infant. I’d guess you’d respond differently to each. Maybe not.

Another item to add to your writing arsenal is a consideration of proxemics. In plain english these are interaction zones. We all have ’em and they’re not the same. Some cultures encourage individuals to cozy up and snuggle when they talk – others expect a measure of air space. Anyone ever invade your personal space in a negative way? That’s your proximal zone.

The comfortable and ideal interaction distance for talking about personal topics varies dramatically from culture-to-culture and person-to-person. Comfort in interaction distance mostly relates to the distance between looking directly at each other and is a wonderful attribute to exploit as a writer.

Imagine the possibilities.

Most people do not have the same feeling about physical closeness if they fail to make eye contact.  Here’s a fun activity. The next time you’re in an elevator, sidle over into the proximal space of another rider and watch for a reaction. In a small or crowded space, people usually choose to avoid eye contact in order to remain distant.

Our postures, gestures and expressions are rife with hidden communication. Learning how to translate these behaviors into our writing can be a challenge. Long before we draw near enough to speak to a stranger, their appearance can announce their gender, age, economic class, and perhaps even intentions.

Don’t forget visuals can lie.

We begin to recognize cultural clues at an early age. The vocabulary of dress that we learn includes not only items of clothing but also hair styles, jewelry, makeup, and other body decoration such as tattoos. Usually the style of dress communicates a message depending on the age, gender, and physical appearance of the individual. A teenage girl in a summer dress is recognized with a different set of parameters than a middle-aged man in business attire.

Creating diversity in physical appearance can be done through many forms of body adornment other than clothing, including body and hair paint, tattoos, decorative scarring and branding, perfumes, and even physical deformation of the body…but that’s another post.

The human communication process is complex. Much of our face-to-face contact is transmitted through paralanguage, auxiliary techniques that are highly culture bound.

Language is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding – how clear is your character’s ability to communicate? Are you taking advantage of all the possibilities to place your beloveds in danger? Try it…

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  1. #1 by Traci Kenworth on February 23, 2012 - 5:24 am

    Interesting. Communication is everything with the reader.

    • #2 by Leslie on February 23, 2012 - 1:58 pm

      I think it’s tough to find the right balance of dialogue and character mannerisms in fiction. In real life we’re twitchy and active in all sorts of small ways but if you try to include all that in a piece of writing, it feels like every character is on the verge of a manic fit. A few bits sprinkled in here or there give the reader something they can relate to…even if they don’t realize it. Which, is even better.

  2. #3 by Amy Shojai, CABC on February 23, 2012 - 7:50 am

    This is a great post! Just a caution, though–I diligently included postures, gestures, and suchlike in my WIP and the editor came back with a concern that it was a weeeeeee bit overdone. So treat such things as seasoning…a bit of salt enhances the flavor but too much can kill the taste.

    • #4 by Leslie on February 23, 2012 - 2:00 pm

      That can happen…in real life we’re always tweaking something, moving about, jiggling an ankle, wiggling a toe…but if we put ALL of it in a book it sounds like everyone’s about ready to fall on the floor with seizures. It is exactly like seasoning…unlike commas which I tend to sprinkle all sorts of places.

  3. #5 by Natasha Hanova on February 23, 2012 - 11:06 am

    Information packed post. I incorporate a number of these things in my writing, though I think I may be under using proxemics. 🙂

    • #6 by Leslie on February 23, 2012 - 2:02 pm

      A few tweaks here and there can really ground a character in the process of doing something. I love trying to figure out ways to incorporate them but in the heat of writing I often forget and have to go back and think…hmm, what would he be doing while….blah blah blah. It seems like I never learn to do it all at once. Draft #547…

  4. #7 by Marion Spicher on February 23, 2012 - 11:58 am

    Great post and a needed review of the importance of body language in communication. I learned while working that memo’s can be harsh because no cues of intent accompany the written word. Yes, Amy, the right amount of seasoning is important. Thanks Lesann.

    • #8 by Leslie on February 23, 2012 - 2:05 pm

      Auxiliary communication is such an ingrained part of behavior that when it isn’t present, miscommuncation and misunderstandings easily occur. I think it’s one of the reasons so much business correspondance is formalized because it reduces the chances of tender feelings. Even so…it’s easy to sound sharper or harsher than we intend. I like emoticons (smileys) but haven’t gotten around to installing them on wordpress.

  5. #9 by Bridgette Booth on February 24, 2012 - 6:55 pm

    Couldn’t agree more on the nonverbal language, especially in a book. Those cues say so much more than the words – sometimes.

    When I read your comment about sliding up to someone in an elevator, I remembered a time my sister and I were sitting in a empty theater (well, not empty, we were there!) and another pair of folks came in and sat next to us. I mean a hundred other seats and they sat down next to us. We couldn’t help ourselves and started giggling because it was so bizarre.

    • #10 by Leslie on February 26, 2012 - 7:02 pm

      Isn’t that weird?! I’ve had similar things happen in restaurants and stadiums…endless open space and people want to snuggle up close. Must be some innate herding instinct or something. I always get the ones who need to tell me all the gory details of their life…and they’re usually drunk.

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