Some people “talk with their hands.” They make hand gestures to demonstrate their point as they speak. Others actually use their hands to speak.

The creation of sign language can be traced back to the 16th century when Spanish monk Pedro Ponce de León first laid the ground work. He used the gestures used at his monastery to communicate with the deaf members of his community. This laid the cornerstones for modern-day sign language.

During the Renaissance, Spanish monks began using sign language to communicate with the impaired of hearing. Native Americans used hand signals to trade and communicate with other tribes. Bendictine monks used their hands to speak during their silent periods throughout the day. 

Northwest once offered an American Sign Language course, but the program was discontinued in 2016 due to a lack of mass interest. However, students still find a way to use their hands to speak.

Senior Lillian Flannery is a mainly self-taught student of sign language. During the Homecoming Variety Show in 2018, Flannery performed the song “For Forever” from the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” with sign language. She will perform another song at the upcoming Homecoming Variety Show.

Flannery performs American Sign Language song

Senior Lillian Flannery signs "take in the view," the lyrics to “For Forever” from the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” during the 2018 Homecoming Variety Show.

“I learned a lot of it over winter break,” Flannery said, her fingers spelling out the title of the song from muscle memory. “I mainly taught myself, with some help from some friends at Job’s Daughters.”

Through Job’s Daughters International, a girls leadership program sponsored by the FreeMasons, Flannery learned the impacts nonverbal communication can have. The organization partners with Hearing Improvement Kids Endowment, which is a nonprofit organization that helps deaf and hard of hearing children get money for hearing aids.

They help raise funds and awareness. Helping HIKE is a Flannery family tradition since her sister was also part of Job’s Daughters.

However, nonverbal communication isn’t limited to only someone’s hands and sign language. The entire body is used to communicate.

In the 1950s, Albert Mehrabian, one of the first to research body language, stated roughly 60% to 65% of communication is nonverbal in a regular conversation. It’s displayed in a smile, a raised middle finger or an inability to look someone in the eye. 

According to Leonard Mlodinow at Psychology Today, the key to reaping the benefits of knowing nonverbal communication starts at an early age.

“One of the major factors in social success, even at an early age, is a child’s sense of nonverbal cues,” Mlodinow said.

There are seven types, or codes, of nonverbal communication: kinesics (gestures), haptics (touch), proxemics (space), physical appearance (presentation), vocalics (pitch), chronemics (timing) and artifacts (objects). 

Kinesics is the most well-known code when discussing nonverbal communication since it is arguably the easiest to identify.

Amy Cuddy gave a TEDtalk in 2012 about the importance of using body language to evoke a self confidence and the art of “power posing.” 

“I'm a social psychologist,” Cuddy said. “I study prejudice, and I teach at a competitive business school, so it was inevitable that I would become interested in power dynamics.”

Cuddy became interested in nonverbal communication when observing her classrooms for participation.

“I became especially interested in nonverbal expressions of power and dominance,” Cuddy said. “What are nonverbal expressions of power and dominance? ... They are about expanding. So you make yourself big, you stretch out, you take up space, you're basically opening up. It's about opening up.”

The idea of “power posing,” or striking a strong, superhero-esque stance, is that if a person gets in this stance for a couple of minutes, they will manipulate their mind into feeling more powerful and increase the chance they will take a risk or open up.

In an experiment done by Cuddy and her associate Dana Carney at the University of Berkley, they found that those who held the power pose for two minutes also increased their testosterone.

“From their baseline when they come in, high-power people experience about a 20% increase, and low-power people experience about a 10% decrease,” Cuddy said.

Body language has played a strong role in human development. Used to display emotions, body language helps convey messages which can be difficult to say in spoken word and add to a performance.

Until 1927, movies were nothing but conveying a message through nonverbal communication. From exaggerated facial expressions to over-the-top gestures, actors like Charlie Chaplin used no words to display comedy, tragedy and a need to tell a story. They also used the nonverbal code of vocalics by adding “soundtracks” to manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way.

However, body language isn’t something learned. 

A 2008 study of Olympic athletes and Paralympic athletes found that even Paralympic athletes who have been blind since birth displayed the same body language when they won an event as their able-bodied counterparts.

Body language has also played a part in the government. FBI agents are trained to study nonverbal cues to figure out if anyone is a threat.

Joe “Spycatcher” Navarro spent more than 20 years at the FBI, studying and refining an ability to read nonverbal cues and body movements. In the book “What Every Body is Saying” by Navarro and Marvin Karlins, he referred to it as “reading people.” He got his start when he moved to the U.S. 

“When I was eight years old, I came to America as an exile from Cuba,” Navarro said in the book. “Unable to speak English at first, I did what thousands of other immigrants coming to this country have done. I quickly learned that to fit in with my new classmates at school, I needed to be aware of — and sensitive to — the ‘other’ language around me, the language of nonverbal. I found that was a language I could translate and understand immediately.”

Using the power of translating the minute physical changes of a suspect, Navarro has put away ice pick murderers and captured spies.

Though most college students won’t use body language to take down an international spy, they do use it to their advantage in everyday conversation. Flannery noted the importance of being able to communicate without words in music.

“I don’t need to use words to indicate what the pitch should be in the song,” Flannery said, holding her palms up like she was serving a platter. “I can instruct someone to be louder or softer, to hold out a note or to cut off without saying a word.”

In a study done by Brock Berry, Jonathan Bodenhamer and James J. O’Brien Jr., they found a strong connection that nonverbal dialogue benefits not just students but also teachers.

“Nonverbal communication is a two-way process that is generated and interpreted by both instructor and student,” Berry said. “The benefits for an instructor to develop a strong sensitivity and ability to interpret student nonverbal communication should be self-evident.”

When teachers hone in on their skills to read body language, they can reach students on a different level. 

In his thesis, Xiaoling Yang from Nanchang Normal University in NanChang, Jiangxi, China, said even just subtle uses of body language can help students learn a different language.

“If a teacher can be just right in using body language in classroom teaching — it’s every look, every smile — every action will have a strong psychological effect on students,” Yang said. “At this time, silence is the best words. Therefore, the body language takes an important place that oral language can’t replace.”

Yang broke it down into four ways body language helps teachers teach English: enhance the educational influence, arouse the atmosphere of the classroom, inspire students’ imaginations and grasp the students’ moods.

Students are not always aware of how they speak with their body since using nonverbal communication has been part of their lives since childhood. However, they are aware of the message they send.

“Using body language is really important as we move through life,” Flannery said. “We can help convey what we want more clearly.”

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