Body language … in words

The psychological guru Albert Mehrabian has argued that three elements count when determining whether we like someone who communicates with us: the words our interlocutor uses account for 7% of our response, their tone of voice 38%, and their body language 55%.

For any form of written or textual communication, that creates a problem: inevitably, body language will not come into it. After all, you can’t see pupils dilate on paper.

It is well known, for example, that it is hard, if not impossible, to detect emotions in emails – and this can lead to all kinds of problems whereby communicants misinterpret, or over-interpret, each other. It can harm relationships and even damage businesses.

In principle, this “absence of presence” represents a barrier to effective communication, because it eliminates the most valuable information in any face-to-face conversation. Facial expressions, body posture, gestures and vocal pitch are the hidden secrets of all interpersonal communication – perhaps as important as the prose itself.

But is it possible to replicate body language on paper?

At Nib Content, we are exploring this conundrum. We have developed a theory and believe the answer, as ever, resides in the choice of language.

For any form of communication to convey emotions effectively and meaningfully, Mehrabian suggests that the three elements – words, tone of voice and body language – must be congruent. In other words, they must work in tandem.

The absence of a physical presence means that the other elements of this linguistic troika need to make up for what is missing in the equation. This can only be achieved by inviting a spirit into the conversation. We must create virtual body language through our choice of words.

In fact, we do this all the time without noticing it. A textual personality is clearly a function of how we move it across the paper. Observe this sentence by Raymond Carver in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:

I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving,
not even when the room went dark.

What is remarkable about this example is that Carver’s protagonists are not moving – yet there is no absence of presence, and their body language is explicit.

In order to achieve this, there are obvious prerequisites: someone must be present in the text; their motion, or even lack of it, must be the focus of attention; and this must be described with an ethereal delicacy.

It is a similar task to that faced by copywriters when trying to articulate the correct tone of voice, anthropomorphising a brand, breathing life into a mere notion.

But that voice communicates with far greater effect if you give it a body.