By Doni Joszef
Entering a full restaurant on an empty stomach is never a pleasant experience. Desperately waiting for an available table, you gradually begin to wonder if people are stretching out their meals for the sole purpose of watching you squirm. Aggravated eyes incessantly scan the bustling room for unwinding meals, while your body says what your lips only wish they could declare. Something to the effect of “Move it, people!”
But your lips don’t need to say it. Because your hips say it. Your eyes say it. Your whole body says it.
• • •
Your daughter-in-law greets you with a forced smile. To which you respond with a forced grin.
“It’s so nice to see you.”
“It’s so nice to have you.”
It’s so nice to sound so nice.
But is it? Everything looks right, but nothing feels right. The outer motions clash with the inner emotions. Your words and gestures say one thing, but your visceral sensations say something a tad less becoming.
• • •
I paint these portraits because they illustrate the power of nonverbal communication. As humans, we are constantly exchanging messages.
We send e‑mails, we leave voicemails, we say “Hi, how are you?” and we reply “Good, how are you?”—whether we’re good or not, and whether we care or not.
But we also communicate on a less conscious level.
Neuroscientists describe these two tracks as “high road” and “low road.”
The high road is conscious, cognitive, and voluntary. The low road is subconscious, emotional, and involuntary.
The high road is what we verbally say. The low road is what we viscerally feel.
The high road finds expression in words. The low road finds expression in nonverbal gestures, such as eye movements and body language.
When the two roads match, we come across as genuine and sincere. When the two roads conflict, we come across as dissonant and fabricated—because that’s exactly what we are.
When we enter a full restaurant on an empty stomach, we may hold our tongues and keep our cool (high-road stuff), but we nonetheless express impatience and restlessness in less overt ways (low-road stuff). We flash dirty looks at people who overstay their welcome. We pace the place with a sour face. We make our feelings known, without even knowing it.
I tend to think of nonverbal communication—the low road—as a musical baseline. Most people don’t notice the bass, but everyone feels it. The low road may not be visible, but it is acutely palpable. Our feelings are felt by others no matter how hard we try to mask them with high-road platitudes.
Freud put it well when he wrote, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear is surely convinced that no mortal can keep a secret. If our lips are silent, we speak through our fingertips; betrayal oozes out of every pore.”
• • •
“It’s so nice to see you.” “It’s so nice to have you.” It’s so nice to sound so nice. But is it?
Doni Joszef, winner of the 2014 Cedarhurst “Best in Mental Health” award, works in private practice with individuals, couples, and families. Trained as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, he is completing his Ph.D. in media psychology. Doni presents innovative workshops at schools and organizations on a variety of psychosocial topics. For more information, visit DoniJoszef.com or e‑mail DJoszef@Gmail.com.