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Neil Payne



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Interpreting social signals in the workplace


Most people agree that communication is key to a happy and productive working environment. However, when that communication is non-verbal are we able to deal with and interpret the messages correctly?

In this article I want to touch upon how we communicate at work and what role ‘social signals’ play in our daily conversations with colleagues, mangers or subordinates.

The graph below illustrates how most of us communicate. If anything this should demonstrate just how important non-verbal communication actually is. It’s not what we say that matters; it’s how we say it. And that how can manifest in many ways.


Signals influencing the way we understand other people and how we communicate include our tone of voice, non-verbal communication such as body language, posture and eye contact as well as many others.

All these aspects impact on interpersonal relationships, in private life and also at the workplace. Why is this important? Because it affects the way we see others and how they see us.

What does this mean for the workplace?

Since the largest part of our communication depends on non-verbal features, and hence implicit, there is much room for potential misunderstandings. This can be more apparent in the workplace as people work with “strangers”, under pressure, according to deadlines and within a certain company culture –  there is often no time to think about ‘how we say things’ because the job simply needs to be done.

In short, if people within a workplace are misreading social signals, this can lead to mistrust, poor relationships, lack of clear and open communication, fear and plenty of other unwanted consequences.

What is key is to give people insight into how they use social signals – both in terms of emitting them as well as interpreting them. Alignment is key.

Cultural aspects

When you are working in a culturally diverse workplace effective communication can be challenging at times. As hard it is to ‘read’ someone’s non-verbal communication signals from your own culture, this challenge is even harder when communicating across cultures.

People from different cultures have very diverse ways of expressing their opinions and emotions and these communication habits often result in misunderstandings and conflict. To deal with this, you need develop higher levels of awareness: by reflecting your own way you communicate, but also cultural differences and how your counterpart communicates in his or her culture.

Some practical tips for the workplace:

  • Be aware of your own body language and non-verbal signals you send when speaking to other people
  • You can train yourself in ‘interpreting’ social signals by developing your skills of emotional intelligence
  • Try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective and be empathetic
  • If you feel like someone did not communicate in a positive way, focus on the message and what has been said instead of how it came across
  • Do not take offence when people do not communicate according to your personal expectations
  • If it is an on-going issue, try to speak to people individually and tell them how you feel about their way of communicating with you
  • As a team, you could establish a ground for good communication in the workplace and generate a list of ‘ground rules’ for your office communication

2 Responses

  1. Autistic colleagues

    i wonder to what extent picking up on visual emotional cues varies in each culture. Surely emotional expression varies from each culture, and some cultures would be more inclined to conceal emotions for the sake of dignity, while others speak their minds more freely. Also, if you've ever worked with an autistic colleague you should know that they are less inclined to make eye contact, and do not easily perceive emotional intent of other people by subtle visual cues. That means you need to be absolutely frank about your feelings if you need them to understand them. 

    There's some handy info about cultural differences on this page

  2. Non-Verbal Language

    Thank you for the blog about non-verbal language.  


    I would like to mention that the figures from from Mehrabian, who has not been credited.  However, the "7%-38%-55% rule" has been overly interpreted in such a way, that some people claim that in any communication situation, the meaning of a message was being transported mostly by non-verbal cues, not by the meaning of words. This generalization from the initially very specific conditions in his experiments is the common mistake made with regard to Mehrabian's rule. On his website, Mehrabian clearly states:

    "Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking. Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like–dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages – these are the original sources of my findings."[2]

    Of course non-verbal language is important and needs to be in a context. I addition sharing our "feelings" with another person may be helpful but it rather depends upon the other person and where they are a feelings, thinking or behaviour first person.  The types of personality we have in us will also be important and working with these different personality types will pay dividends. 

    I agree that is is important to see the situation from another perspective and  the other points you mention are helpful.


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Neil Payne


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