The Origins of Body Language in Communication

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On this page, I want to give a little background to body language in communication. After all, if we’re gonna study it – let’s see where it came from and why.

The Origins of Body Language

What are the roots of body language? Is it something we learn or are born with?

It’s hard to answer that question due to 2 main reasons:

  1.  Body language is something that evolves to answer human social needs. Scientists and anthropologists still study which gestures developed and to what propose. Many of them can be studied from prime apes that use gesticulations to communicate with each other.
  2. Body language in communication can be divided into several groups. Some gestures and reactions are inborn, and they are universal around the world. Others are learned by observation, and some are refined with age and use.

So the answer is: “It depends”. For example, nobody taught you how to scowl in anger – you’re born ‘programmed’ in your brain to respond that way when angry.

On the other hand, you probably did hear and learn that standing in a straight posture and smiling projects a positive image.

Just look at this nonverbal communication tree I made:

The roots are the origins: our culture, personal habits, education, and inborn qualities.

The top is the result – how we behave: our gestures, facial expressions, posture, and so on.

many people with different facial expression

Is Body Language a Remnant from the Past?

Another important question is “If we have words to serve us, do we still need body language? Can we communicate without it?”

First of all, the use of speech is still relatively new to human communication (there are many speculations about the exact date, but we speak about hundreds of thousands of years “new” when exactly is still much debated)

Prior to that time most of our communication was similar to those of other animals – understanding and sending non-verbal cues.

As the saying goes – “old habits die hard” so body language still plays an integral part in our communication, whether we like it or not.

You can notice an example of this behavior when speaking on the phone – although the other person never sees you, you still wave your hands and make facial expressions while talking.

While today this may seem primitive, in the days before we knew how to speak – grunting and waving was often enough to get the point through. Sure, we couldn’t create “Hamlet” but it was good enough to say “Let’s go hunt that boar.” There is no true communication in face-to-face encounters without body language. The verbal and the nonverbal communication complement each other.

Think of the role of body language in communication as the ‘flavor’ that comes on top of the main idea; you can say “I’m OK” in a hundred different ways using different voices and facial expressions – each time the attitude varies and affects the message.

The Study of Body Language

The practical study of non-verbal communication probably began with actors. Especially During the 19th century, when silent movies were first introduced. Actors learned how to display feelings, attitudes, and status by mimicking the body language of the character they played – not a small feat at all.

I think the most amazing thing about it is the fact that it’s so easy to understand them and connect to the character even though they lack voice and words… a sounding proof to the power and relevancy of our body language.

But who was the first to study it and its origins?

No other than Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, himself. He was the first man to study the body language of humans and animals in his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” in 1872.

By careful observation, he noticed that humans, like animals, share some inborn behaviors that are common to all of us. These non-verbal cues reveal internal emotions or are used to help communicate with others.

In this book established the science of body language – many studies and observations made today are founded upon his studies.

But the major study of non-verbal communication truly began, quite oddly (considering the time it exists), only in the 60’s of the last century. Since then it has become a subject in many areas such as anthropology, social science, psychiatry, and even business.

A side note: The study of body language in communication is called Kinesics. It aims to categorize and understand how different gestures developed and their meaning in communication. I’ll elaborate on that in a different post.

The Bottom Line

I hope that I managed to answer the big questions you may have about body language and communication in general.

Tough my main aim in this site is to provide practical advice and help understand different gestures, facial expressions, and postures; it’s still useful to know a little background and history on the subject.

Now if you’re done with the background and ready to jump into the heart of it let’s, read on ‘What is non-verbal Communication?”

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Stefan Speaks AI
Stefan Speaks AI
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