One of the reasons we continue to be so gung ho about video calling is because studies in the field of communication have demonstrated the importance of nonverbal communication in interpersonal communications, many of which are expressed through the visual channel. For instance, one thing you can’t express very well over audio is a smile–and let’s not underestimate the importance of a smile. I first became interested in the smile during my Ph.D. where I did a primary psychology experiment on smile perception at different video qualities (Chen 2003).
Many studies have found that warmth is more effectively communicated nonverbally (Sundaram & Webster 2000) and that smiling is especially effective in conveying personal warmth (Baye 1972). If you’re a waitress, Tidd and Lockard (1978) found that flashing a big toothy grin got you bigger tips than a wimpy smile, and if you’re a newscaster, Mullen et al. (1986) found that your smiles can influence political candidate choices. More recently, in a bargaining game experiment, Scharlemann et al. (2001) discovered that people trusted photographs of smiling people more than non-smilers.
On the flip side, smiling at the wrong place in a joke or giving a too posed smile can give the impression that you’re lying or insincere (Ekman & Friesen 1982). Brown and Moore (2002) also found that people contributed more money to the same cause if the cartoon icon had a symmetrical (more trustworthy) smile versus a lopsided (faked) smile.
Perhaps more interesting is Brown et al’s (2003) investigation which found that people can tell how kind/helpful or “altruistic” a person is simply by their nonverbal behavior or, more specifically, their facial expressions. In one experiment, they had 20 people introduce themselves on video and 30 people evaluate how “altruistic” each person was. Each presenter’s facial expressions were then coded for 7 nonverbal signs, of which 4 were considered the most reliable because they were “spontaneous” and thus harder to fake. These included 3 different features of smiling and also brow furrowing. They examined and confirmed that altruistic people tended to have:
- more smiles showing crows feet (indicating the smiles were more heartfelt),
- smiles lasting shorter lengths of time (fleeting smiles are more genuine), and
- more symmetrical smiles (lopsided smiles with a droopy left-side are less genuine because the right brain controls both your emotions as well as the muscles on the left side of the body).
We actually see this phenomenon in action quite often in our everyday lives, such as when students seem to know which teacher they can get homework extensions from or when a street person knows exactly who they can bum for 50 cents.
Smiles are an important way for us to establish rapport and good customer relations. They also help us to evaluate other people’s character so we can make better decisions. However, we can only make use of our smiles if we can see each other. This is where video calling comes in and makes possible what used to be impossible for people in diverse locations.
As a final practical tip, make sure you use a webcam with auto focus (I personally prefer the Logitech 720p HD models), and that you are lighted from the front. (See John’s posts on lighting here and here.) This allows the webcam to produce the best quality video and lets your smile go a lot further. After all, a smile can speak a thousand words 🙂
1. Brown, W.M., Palameta, B. & Moore, C. 2003. Are their nonverbal cues to commitment? An exploratory study using the zero-acquaintance video presentation paradigm. Evolutionary Psychology (1), pp. 42-69.
2. Chen, M. 2003. Conveying conversational cues through video. Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford.
3. Ekman,P. & Friesen, W.V. 1982. Felt, false, and miserable smiles. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 6(3), pp. 238-252.
4. Sundaram, D.S. & Webster, C. 2000. The role of nonverbal communication in service encounters. Journal of Services Marketing 14(5), pp. 378-391.