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Almost 50 years ago, a Scottish academic named David Abercrombie1 told the world that while we speak with our vocal organs, we converse with our entire bodies.
The study of what we now refer to as paralanguage soon made its way out of peer-reviewed journals and into the mainstream world of motivational speakers and self-help coaches.
What is paralanguage? And is it true that our bodies give away our secrets even though we have thoroughly researched and prepared our presentations?
Linguistic scholars in the last half century have concluded that communication goes far beyond the words we speak and into the realm of inferred messages and vocal qualifiers.
In this post, we go over the definition of paralanguage, according to scholars, and look at how you can apply this knowledge to deliver more effective and convincing presentations. You can take a look at the infographic summary of this post below, created with Visme, or skip ahead to read a more detailed explanation of each section:
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We are often advised that when it comes to getting our messages across to others, it is not so much “what” we say, as “how” we say it. Paralanguage is the study of the “how,” to put it simply.
It is a kind of meta-communication, a code that translates the words we are saying into what we really mean.
We speak paralanguage when we gasp, sigh, clear our throats, change our tone, whisper or shout, emphasize certain words, wave our hands, frown or smile, laugh or cry, string vocal identifiers like un-huh and ah-hah between our words, or speak faster or slower.
Each of these actions tells our listeners something. They impact others emotionally.
Consider being at a funeral where someone is delivering the eulogy, for example. If their tone is even and their words calmly delivered, we listen at one level. But if they say the same words, but their voice breaks with emotion, our empathy rises.
If someone apologizes, but they spit out the words in a defiant tone, we do not believe they are sincerely sorry. If they speak lower and slower, and there is a hint of tearfulness in their words, we believe that they are indeed sorry.
To witness a good example of how the meaning of words change with paralanguage, take a look at this scene from the movie "Bridesmaids" when the actress is told she must vacate the first class quarters of an airplane:
Going back to Abercrombie’s insightful paper called “Paralanguage” published in April 1968 in the International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, he clarifies that paralanguage refers to non-linguistic elements in any conversation.
He wrote that these phenomena occur beside spoken language and interact with it. When that happens, it creates a total system of communication.
In 1981, Albert Mehrabian2 presented his 7%-38%-55% rules of communication, which made the term “body language” popular and is, in essence, another way to describe paralanguage.
Mehrabian suggested that when people speak to us, we absorb a mere seven percent of what they are saying through the words they use.
We derive 55 percent of the meaning from their body gestures and posture and physical clues, and 38 percent from the tone and inflections of the words they present.
In more recent times, motivational speaker Michael Hoffman has picked up on that message and illustrates its meaning effectively with a video he posted on YouTube called “Your Face Is Screaming”:
It is increasingly clear that we cannot trust our bodies to speak as one with our words. They will betray us, with breathless gasps, with hurried words that depict our nervousness, with incredulous expressions even while we nod agreement.
Scholar Tim Wharton3 from the University of Brighton, writing in “The Routledge Handbook of Pragmatics,” suggests that our paralinguistic acts can betray us even when we are intentionally trying to cover them up.
At the same time, however, they can help us communicate by inference, something that other animals like honeybees and frogs cannot do. He says that only humans have the ability to provoke certain behaviors by inference, a form of paralanguage.
As an example of how that works, think about sitting around your kitchen table as a child when a parent was serving slices of pie.
“Who wants some?” asks the parent.
You picked up your plate and held it forward and the pie was placed on it, wordlessly, because your gesture communicated your intent.
For a good example of how paralanguage communicates messages entirely different from words spoken, look at this brief segment from the movie “Mean Girls.” Note the pauses in the speeches, the pronunciation emphasis, the pitch, volume and tone, the sarcasm and the emphasis. You can view it here:
If we accept the power of paralanguage, how can we use it to our advantage in our own communication adventures? How can we make our presentations and conversations more convincing?
You can use it first to help yourself assess more accurately the true meaning behind others' words when they converse with you.
It is not surprising that the very first linguist to study paralinguistics was George L. Trager in the 1950s when he was working at the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of State.
Imagine how useful it would be for law enforcement officers and government intelligence representatives to be keen students of paralanguage so they could better determine the veracity of the messages they receive.
In our everyday communications, most of us use paralanguage as a kind of shortcut to delivering certain messages. We use our arms and hands to say good-bye, we encourage people to come closer by beckoning with our finger, we hold our hands up, palms forward, to tell people to back off, and we shrug to indicate we don’t know the answer.
In speeches, by altering our tone and using gestures, we can highlight what we are saying and emphasize what we want our audiences to remember.
Donald Trump often uses paralanguage to reinforce his messages. The BBC actually had an analyst explain in words the augmented meaning of his paralanguage.
You can listen to his analysis in this video:
In our own presentations, we can heighten our communication with our audience by using paralanguage intentionally and appropriately. We can alter the tone and speed of our words, change our facial expressions to underline our remarks, and whisper or speak loudly to emphasize our message. In that way, we can draw our audience closer and help them more completely understand what we are saying.
The one thing that paralanguage does not do effectively is cross cultural barriers. Gestures that may mean one thing in Western cultures, for example, may mean something completely different in the Far East or Middle Eastern cultures.
American linguist John J. Gumperz tackled the issue of paralanguage and cultural identify in his 1982 BBC film, “Multiracial Brain Talk.” He points out that paralanguage does not cross language and cultural barriers.
As an example, spitting on a person is considered a sign of disrespect and insult in the North American and European culture. But in the culture of Maasai in Kenya, it is considered a blessing.
If you make presentations, you need to be aware of the impact of your paralanguage. It’s a good idea to practice your remarks in front of a mirror, discerning your natural gestures and facial expressions and determining if they are augmenting your message, or detracting from it.
Tell a joke and see how you look. Do you make it sound funnier with your paralanguage, or are you detracting from the humor with a serious expression?
Record yourself giving a 10 minute presentation and listen to the various tones in your voice. Are you speaking too fast and sending the impression that you are nervous? Are you speaking too slowly and indicating that you are uncertain?
Do you deliver your remarks in a monotone voice, or does the volume of your voice rise and fall for emphasis? Are your hand gestures natural and appropriate, or are they overly expansive?
Go over key sentences and see if your delivery is stronger if you emphasize certain words.
Watch great actors and see how effectively they use paralanguage to draw you into their situation and make you care about what is happening to them.
Look at the great compilation of examples put together by Nadrah Halid in this video:
Which of these paralanguage mistakes have you been making in your presentations? Let me know in the comments section below!