Research shows us that we can usually get a realistic “first impression” of someone within the first eight seconds, thanks, mostly, to nonverbal communication, like eye contact, gestures and facial expressions. Why? People tend to use nonverbal communication unconsciously and unintentionally, which makes it more truthful than just the words we speak. It also means that upwards of 90 percent of what is communicated isn’t coming from what we say. It’s coming from how we say it.

That being said, it’s important to note that the way you walk, talk, dress and act can mark you as someone who needs to be well-regarded … or as someone who looks like easy prey. Here’s a closer look at how to use and recognize some nonverbal communication.


Paralinguistics includes the manner in which we say words, such as tone, pitch, volume, speed, accent and even speech errors. Think about how much we can learn about a person or a situation when someone is speaking too quickly or perhaps stuttering nervously, or when a person’s voice starts getting higher or squeakier. All of those things can trigger an alert that something is wrong or someone is intending to do harm. We can use those cues from others to take precautions or get out of harm’s way.

Facial Expressions

We can also notice and use facial expressions for communication and situational awareness. Humans have 80 facial muscles with which we can create more than 7,000 facial expressions. And if we are alert and observant, we might be able to detect emotion or intent just by watching someone’s face. There are some basic facial expressions (based on the seven basic emotions) that just about anyone in any part of the globe can recognize. And I know that if I detect negative expressions like anger, fear, contempt or disgust, I am usually ready to head the other way.


It’s also important to watch someone’s eyes. Occulesics (eye behavior) is the study of communication through eye contact, gaze, movement, blinking, etc. I’m sure you’ve heard that the eyes are the windows to the soul. There’s a lot of truth to that. People “tell” us a lot of important information through those windows!

For example, you can tell what someone might be interested in by what her eyes are fixed on. You can sense if someone is distracted if his eyes are glancing at something or someone other than you. Sometimes you can even determine that a person is lying because the eyes are shifty or looking in odd directions. Looking straight ahead or with eyes that are defocused/unmoving is also considered a sign of dishonesty. There is a lot of research on eye behavior, but the bottom line is that if you use good situational awareness, you may catch the meaning behind the eye movement or the eye contact … or the lack thereof.


Other nonverbal cues may include physical appearance and artifacts (grooming, wardrobe, dirt, cigarettes, tattoos, etc.). What someone is wearing or carrying or how the person wears his hair or does her makeup can offer information about that individual. Think about how one might peg a leather-wearing, tattooed, bearded guy to be a motorcycle rider. Consider what image a person in medical scrubs may bring to mind. Like it or not, we associate certain objects, clothing or styles with certain habits, jobs or even personality traits. And in many cases, we’re exactly right. So, if someone is dressed the part of a “bad guy,” then don’t automatically put it past him. You can be cautious without being prejudiced.


Kinesics (the study of body movement, gestures and posture) can also offer information about people. Imagine that you see someone hunched over in the corner table of a fast-food restaurant. Is the guy tired? Annoyed? Drunk? Now imagine that this same person moves his right hand toward his right hip and reaches in his pocket for something. Is it a wallet? Pack of gum? Revolver? If you are paying attention and putting together all the nonverbal cues, you may be able to make a pretty good assumption and, thus, act accordingly. If you are not aware of your surroundings, this person could easily catch you off guard.


It’s also important to consider proxemics, which is the study of how we perceive and use space. Think of it as the study of your own personal bubble. Most of the time, we don’t want just anyone to be inside our bubbles. We usually prefer to keep people at what we feel are comfortable or safe distances. In fact, there are four types of distances people typically keep: intimate (0 to 18 inches), personal (18 inches to 4 feet), social (4 to 10 feet) and public (over 10 feet).

  • Intimate space is reserved for close friends or family members. No stranger should ever be invited to or welcome in your intimate space (unless you’re crammed in an elevator and have no choice).
  • Personal space refers most closely to that invisible bubble we imagine we have around ourselves. It’s the distance we prefer to keep in most average, everyday situations.
  • If we speak to or interact with others — strangers or otherwise — we use social space, which keeps others away from us, physically (and pads that personal bubble!).
  • And, finally, public space encompasses everything and everyone else around us (or it addresses public speaking or group presentations).

So, why is this study of space important? Since we know, thanks to the Tueller Drill, that a person with malicious intent could cover a distance of 21 feet in about 1.5 seconds, it’s imperative that we think about proxemics. We need to focus on the people in the spaces around us, verify whether or not they pose a danger to us and determine if we could get away quickly and effectively if we needed to.