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Must-know etiquettes in non-verbal communication

Last updated on: June 29, 2011 12:12 IST

Must-know etiquettes in non-verbal communication

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Preeti Shirodkar

Continuing with the series on etiquettes in communication, language expert Preeti Shirodkar tells us about what we need to keep in mind while interacting in formal situations.

Unlike in verbal communication, where it is simpler to follow etiquettes, in non-verbal communication the issue gets more complicated.

This is because there is larger cultural variation in what is acceptable or what the meaning of various non-verbal cues is, though a majority of them may be common across cultures.

Moreover, most individuals are not particularly conscious about their non verbal communication and may thus cause miscommunication or worse still offend another individual/community, without meaning to. 

For example, while walking hand in hand with a person of the same gender is looked upon as an indication of friendship in India, it is seen as indicative of a same sex relationship in most European countries; and while it is common for people of opposite genders to hug/kiss in public in most European countries, it is still frowned upon in India.

It thus becomes all the more essential to be aware of and cautious about one's non verbal communication, both in order to make it effective and to prevent a mismatch between one's words and one's non verbal communication.

Also part of the series:

12 Common etiquettes in written communication

13 must-follow etiquettes in spoken communication

10 basic etiquettes for effective communication


Image: Don't be lost. Learn to read in-between the lines and communicate without necessarily without talking

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Importance of gestures

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Most cultures have varied gestures that are considered (un)acceptable or have different meanings or implications in different cultures. Gestures may be varied in the context of culturally acquired meanings, manner of greeting, gender orientation.

One needs to be sensitive to these cultural variations and needs to be tempered about one's reactions to them. One can prevent miscommunication in this context by either researching the culture beforehand (if one expects long/consistent interaction), observing the 'other' and/or explaining one's behaviour, if it is found awkward, so as to prevent misunderstanding.

One can, moreover, also choose where one is willing to adapt and where one would rather stick to what one is used to, to prevent being either awkward or uncomfortable.

While hugging and kissing on the cheeks is a common form of greeting in the West, even with members of the opposite gender, whom they are meeting for the first time, it may take communities who are not used to it by surprise or may even offend the sensibilities of some.

One can decide whether to adapt to or explain one's stand on this difference, rather than over reacting and causing discomfort.


Image: Be sensitive to the local culture, especially while interacting with a person of the opposite gender

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Proximity

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How close one can stand/sit to another, in formal situation varies across cultures and genders.

Most people find it uncomfortable and get restless if a person of the opposite gender is standing/sitting too close, while interacting.

Similarly standing/sitting too far apart may give the wrong impression.

So too, if one is standing too close to a person, who is sitting, while interacting with him/her, it can create problems both as regards it appearing overbearing and leading to a crick in the neck for the person, who is sitting.


Image: Don't stand too close nor too far

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Hand movements

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Though hand movements enhance verbal communication, excessive or unsynchronised hand movements can be distracting. So too, they can lead to toppling things over, hitting another person etc. leading to embarrassment.


Image: Be aware of the way your hands move. They can cause confusion and embarrassment

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Fidgeting

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Fidgeting is indicative of nervousness and can be easily prevented by keeping one's hand resting alongside one's body, if one is standing and resting them on one's feet, if one is sitting.

Image: Fidgeting is a clear indication of nervousness

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Hand shakes

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Handshakes need to be firm and not too brief nor to long in order to communicate warmth/friendliness. One should also avoid holding the other person's hand too strongly or too long as it can create discomfort in the other person.

Image: A handshake usually makes or breaks the deal. Ensure you get it right.

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Pointing

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Pointing in an obvious way is by itself often considered rude in certain cultures.

It is considered preferable to indicate with the eyes or a slight nod of the head in the desired direction. Moreover, one should also be careful that one uses the index finger rather than any other in pointing.

So too, while making a PowerPoint presentation, it is important to use a pointer (a stick) or a laser indicator, while drawing attention to an important aspect of the PPT; else one can draw attention to whatever one desires by highlighting the point on the PPT itself.


Image: Pointing is often considered rude in various cultures.

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Flicking, turning of the head

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An indicator of attitude, it can be interpreted as being dismissive of or unconcerned about the other and so should be used carefully.

Image: Flicking of the head can be interpreted variously. Be aware of what you intend to convey through it

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Importance of posture

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Standing, on not being offered a seat

Very often, especially during an interview, the communicator deliberately does not offer a seat, attempting to use it to gauge the nervousness of the other person. It is better at such times to remain standing with feet at a comfortable distance to avoid strain


Image: If you are not offered a seat during an interview, it is probably for a reason

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Sitting

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While it is important to ensure that one is sitting comfortably, one should resist spreading out on the chair as it indicates sloppiness.

So to unnecessarily leaning forward can make the other person uncomfortable, while sitting on the edge of the chair can reflect nervousness.

One can cross one's legs, if they remain joined together, especially in the case of women. Moreover one should avoiding shifting too much as it can indicate discomfort.

It is best to keep one's feet together rested firmly on the ground, with the arms resting either on the feet or arm rests and the back resting on the backrest.


Image: Don't sit like you've just got out of bed.

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Carrying oneself

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One should carry oneself in a manner that reflects elegance.

This involves an erect but not stiff posture, complete absence of slouching and walking with steps that are comfortable, so as not to stride nor drag oneself.

Moreover, one should avoid attracting attention to oneself either by dragging one's feet or due to the noise made by one's footwear.


Image: Don't slouch. Really, dont.

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Poise

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To maintain and reflect balance, it is important to keep the feet at a distance that is in line with one's shoulders, so that one can shift one's weight, without moving around too much or causing distraction.


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Crossing of hands

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Among some people and cultures, crossing of hands is considered as defining a closed mind set and unwillingness to consider the other person's point of view.

One should therefore observe the reaction of the other to the crossing of hands and should avoid it, if it is being interpreted as resistance.


Image: Folded hands is considered to reflect a closed mind set
Photographs: Luc Legay from Paris, France/Flickr on Wikimedia Commons
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Importance of eye contact

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Looking without staring:

While one needs to carefully observe another, in order to gather and interpret his/her non verbal communication, making communication more effective, it is important not to stare as that can create a great deal of awkwardness between two people.

This can be achieved by taking in the larger picture rather than constantly focussing on the individual.


Image: Don't stare. It's rude. Really.

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Maintaining eye contact

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One needs to look essentially at the person(s) with whom one is communicating, rather than trying to look up the person from the head to the feet.

So too, one should not let one's attention wander away from the person, as one might miss out on some important cues that may be reflected through the person's gaze.


Image: It is crucial to maintain an eye contact with the person communicating with you

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Covering the audience

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Although it is important to gain one's composure at the beginning of the conversation, by looking at a member(s) of the audience, with whom one is comfortable or who reflect a friendly disposition, it is important to gradually shift one's gaze to cover the entire audience, to prevent alienating them.

Image: Don't lose out on your audience.

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Avoiding eye contact

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Avoiding eye contact is usually believed to be a sign of hiding something or being guilty. However, one may deliberately avoid eye contact to reflect hurt/anger or to hide one's emotion from the other person(s).


Image: Lack of eye contact is a sign of guilt

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Importance of facial expressions

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Expression of emotions

It is important to be aware that the emotions one reflects should be in sync with what one is saying. A variation in the words used and the emotions displayed can serve to confuse the receiver.


Image: Make sure your face conveys exactly what you want to say

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Keeping a neutral face

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At times it is important not to display the emotions one is feeling as it may serve to alarm, alienate or cause anguish to another individual; one should thus be able to keep a neutral face, on such occasions.

Image: A straight face also conveys a lot of things

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Etiquettes in yawning

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It is important to suppress a yawn or at least cover one's mouth while yawning. Else it reflects a complete lack of finesse.

Image: Yawning is rude. Period.

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Importance of dressing

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Suitability, occasion, time, place

Clothes should essentially be worn to suit an occasion/the ambience. Inappropriate dressing as regards its formality can cause discomfort and embarrassment and should therefore be avoided.


Image: Make sure you have dressed appropriately for the occasion

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Decency

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Clothing should be such that it does not make the observer feel awkward. This is as regards the fit, style and colour of the clothes worn.

Image: Dressing inappropriately can lead to much awkwardness

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Comfort

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Even among the type of formal wear available, one needs to choose a type that one is comfortable with. Being uncomfortable in the kind of clothes one is wearing not only affects the overall impression about a person, but can also affect one's confidence and one's ability to communicate effectively.

Image: Even if you're dressed formally, make sure you're comfortable in it

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Body odour

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Though body odour may be natural, it can prove to be very offensive and can be controlled. One needs to be aware of this as it can result in people shying away or can even affect growth in the organisation's hierarchy.

Image: Body odour S-U-C-K-S

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Colour

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Colours can have varied meanings across cultures, religions and groups and it is important to be sensitive to them. For example, while in certain communities brides wear white in others widows wear the same colour, both essentially as reflective of chastity.

Image: While in some cultures brides wear white, in others it is a colour for the widows

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Importance of signs and symbols

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Cultural variance

Certain signs and symbols can have specific cultural reference and one may therefore need to be aware of/study the culture in order to interpret them or avoid misinterpreting them.


Image: Hitler's Cross restaurant ran into a trouble because of its name and the swastika symbol it used

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Ambiguity

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Signs and symbols can be ambiguous and one therefore needs to be especially careful while thus reproducing them as well as interpreting them.

Moreover, the same object can have different symbols for example the old and new manner of symbolising 'rupee'.


Image: Although the rupee has a symbol, it isn't being used everywhere

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Colour

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Certain colours have uniform reference points, while some may vary according to situational contexts. One needs to be conscious about these variations in order to decode the meaning and relevance of the colour effectively.

For example the colour red reflects danger as also passion; while used in a signal it would reflect the former as a lipstick colour it could be used to symbolise the latter.


Image: Make sure you pick the right colour

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Importance of silence

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Silence can be used to achieve various objectives and hence needs to be used with utmost care as it is greatly open to misinterpretation. Moreover, since it can be used towards varied ends, it is important to observe the person's non-verbal cues or read between the lines, so as to arrive at the right meaning of the silence adopted by the communicator/listener.

Falling silent: One may either be too astounded by what one hears or may pause to reflect upon/gather one's thoughts on the topic under consideration. This is referred to as falling silent.

Silence as consent: Silence may be used to reflect agreement, especially if it follows rhetorical questions. For example, if after a long discussion if someone were to say, so I guess we should go ahead, and the other person keeps silent, it could be taken as consent


Image: Silence also conveys a lot

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Silence as disagreement

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Despite rationalising with the other person, if the person fails to understand, one may simply maintain silence to show dissent or as a form of protest. A parent, who cannot convince his/her child about not eating an ice cream during the rains, so as not to catch a cold, may simply keep quiet, in other to reflect resentment.

Silence as indifference

At times a person may get so tired of something, whether in the personal or professional sphere or may find the issue being debated so trivial that a decision working either way wouldn't matter; these are the times that silence may be used to reflect indifference.

Though rudeness, as absence of etiquettes may be ignored, its essence is well reflected in the words of Eric Hoffer - 'Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength.'


Image: Silence can show dissent or can be a form of protest

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