Why Your Non-Verbal Communication Isn’t As Good As You Think It Is

My friend Ramesh is naturally gregarious and something of a clown. He went to his first munch a couple of years ago and tried to be on his best behaviour, introducing himself to others and joining the conversations in the smaller groups. When I asked him afterwards how it had gone, he said it was disappointing and he hadn’t connected with anyone. “They all seem to know each other and they’re not interested in meeting new people”.

He tried again, and it wasn’t long before he did break the ice. Next time I spoke to him, he had a different story to tell.

“Actually, they’re very nice. I was talking to a girl outside and she told me that I came across as unapproachable last time. She said she thought I was a snob and not very friendly, and it was only when she got to know me a little that she realised I wasn’t.”

That didn’t really gel with the Ramesh that I knew, so I asked him why they got that impression. It turned out that he had read that you shouldn’t come on too strong if you’re new to a munch, in case you’re seen as a predator, so he had been trying to play it cool. He didn’t want to be seen as intense or forceful, so he’d tried not to appear too interested in the activities or too forward in conversation.

By trying not to look like a creep, he’d come across as a bit creepy.


Ramesh’s problem isn’t unique. Researchers believe that most of the time we think we are coming across in one way, when actually we are communicating something totally different. A common study is to ask a person to list traits that describe them, and then ask friends to list the person’s traits. The correlation is between 0.20 (very weak) and 0.50 (moderate). There’s a big gap between how we see ourselves and how other people see us.

The belief that what we feel, desire and intend is clear, even though we haven’t actually done much to communicate it, is what psychologists call the illusion of transparency. It then colours our actual communication, because if we think we are transparent then we don’t work as hard at being clear and forthcoming about what we’re thinking or how we’re feeling.

We’re not nearly as good at communicating non-verbally as we think we are. As Ramesh discovered, “I’m not being pushy” looks a lot like “I’m not interested in getting to know you”. Frustration, concern, confusion, disappointment and nervousness feel very different to us, but they probably look much the same to an outside observer without more information.

So, quite often, when we run into communication problems and get upset because “I made my intentions clear” or “he knows what I mean”, we probably didn’t, and he probably doesn’t.


We might not be communicating well because of the illusion of transparency, but that’s complicated even further by the fact that the perceiver is basically a lazy thinker (or what psychologists like to call a cognitive miser).

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow about the two ways that the mind processes information, and calls these cognitive processes System 1 and System 2.

System 1 uses shortcuts (heuristics) to come to conclusions about another person’s facial expressions, body language and intentions. There are many shortcuts the mind can use, but a main one is the primacy effect, which is basically that we weight first impressions heavily. The information we get about someone when we first meet them strongly determines how we see them from then on.

It’s a fast way of processing information, but of course it’s biased and flawed.

Our early impressions of people are influenced by many things, including cognitive biases such as the halo/horns effect, which is that when we meet someone, and the first impression of him is very positive, then we tend to ignore the negative characteristics in the person and concentrate only on the positive characteristics. We start seeing the person in the halo of the positive first impression. If our first impression about a person is negative, we tend to ignore his positive characteristics and concentrate only on the negative ones. We tend to see the person in the light of the negative first impression and hence there is higher probability that we will not like the person.

We use System 1 thinking all the time, because it’s automatic and effortless. It’s seductively easy and by nature we’re lazy thinkers who are happy to take shortcuts and save our efforts for something that requires more conscious processing. We’re always trading off speed for accuracy.

That conscious, rational, deliberate processing of information is System 2 thinking. It demands energy, so we need to be motivated to engage in System 2 thinking, but it can alter perceptions made with System 1 thinking if there’s some motivation to do so.

We engage in System 2 thinking when we’re doing challenging things in our life, like studying algebra or trying to navigate a new city with a map, but when it comes to social perception, often it’s only when we realise our impression of something is out of step with reality. For example, if you were a teacher and you got a good essay from a student you thought was mediocre, you might put that down to a fluke. If you got a couple of good essays from the student, it would probably occur to you that you had underestimated the student and you should revise your impression of them.

Luckily, in my friend Ramesh’s case, because he hadn’t made a strong impression on the munch group and he’s naturally charming and fun, he was able to correct the bad impression he’d made before it settled into being the impression of him that people would keep.


Heidi Grant Halvorson, in her book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, reminds us that everyone has an agenda when they interact with another person. Perception is clouded by the perceiver’s own experiences, emotions and biases, and the agenda is usually trying to determine one of three pieces of information about the perceived:
• Is this person trustworthy?
• Is this person useful to me?
• Does this person threaten my self-esteem?

The last one is a little more complex than the other two, but it’s an important one to understand if you are entering a new community and want to be accepted and liked.

There’s a solid body of research that says that we all need to maintain a positive sense of ourselves, and if that is threatened, such as if we meet someone we think is better at our job than we are, we will judge that person more harshly.

Even attractiveness may not be sending the signals you hope it is. A workplace study found that attractive job applicants were judged as less qualified by interviewers of the same sex as they were by interviewers of the opposite sex. When the researchers dug deeper, they discovered that same sex interviewers felt a threat to their self-esteem, but opposite sex interviewers didn’t.

We don’t mean to judge people that way, and many of us try not to, but it’s worth being aware that it may be playing into other people’s perceptions of you. If, for example, you are a Dominant or submissive in a group of people who don’t know you very well yet, it may be best to be humble about your prowess and skills until people have got to know you better.


Problems of perception, such as the illusion of transparency, are obviously going to be a problem in negotiation. A 2003 study called The Illusion of Transparency in Negotiations found that:

Undergraduate students who were instructed to conceal their preferences thought that they had “tipped their hand” more than they actually had (Studies One and Three). Likewise, business students experienced in negotiation who were attempting to communicate information about some of their preferences overestimated how successfully they had done so (Study Three).

They conclude:

In other words, knowing that one’s own “thought bubbles” are invisible to others can lead to more successful negotiations.

What both the study and Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book conclude is that to improve negotiation, it’s going to be better for you to be a good sender of signals than to hope that the perceiver is going to be a good receiver of signals. They may not go into System 2 thinking and they have any number of other cognitive biases influencing their thinking. You can’t control what is going on in another person’s mind, but you can control how you come across.

It makes sense, and studies have shown that if you make yourself easier to understand it can actually lead to “greater personal and interpersonal well-being”.


You’re not transparent and people can’t read your mind. They also may not make the effort it understand you, even if you want them to. They’re lazy, and they have a bunch of personal stuff going on in their head that can warp their impression of you or what you are saying. If you want to communicate better, you need to make an effort to make yourself easier to understand. If you do, it actually leads to a happier life.


• Big Think – Kahneman’s Mind-Clarifying Strangers: System 1 and System 2
• Axial Forum – The Psychology of Negotiation: Common Tricks Your Brain Plays On You
• Stephen M. Garcia – Power and the Illusion of Transparency
• Harvard Negotiation Law Review – Power and Trust in Negotiation
• Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality (Vol17, 2014) – Introducing a New Framework for Negotiating BDSM Participation
• Jay Wiseman – Negotiation and Negotiation Forms
• Wikipedia – Cognitive Bias
• io9 – The 12 Cognitive Biases That Keep You From Being Rational

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