Nonverbal Messages of Mobile Phone Related Behaviors [March 21 2017]

I like observing people around me. Today while having my lunch in a spacious canteen I saw people using their cell phones at their tables, as usual.

Very few of them were talking over the phone. Most of them seemed to be texting, chatting or browsing.

It did not matter if they were sitting alone or with others. They used their phones.

I decided to review some articles written about smart phone usage and nonverbal communication. Here is what I found.


My experience during my lunch and the picture above are well described by the following sentence I found at "We just don't speak anymore. But we're "talking" more than ever."


It really looks like that our cell phones have become a vital part of our anatomy. I am translating it to myself like this: "My phone belongs to my body. As if it was a special limb of my body. It is where I am. All the time. Every time. If it is not with me, I feel anxiety and distress of separation. Could I simply not use it for just 24 hours? Well, ..."

Just as my body has its own language, my phone behavior has its own langues too. Some body language features are more appropriate and constructive in a certain context than others. By the same token, some cell phone behaviors tend to send more constructive and appropriate nonverbal messages than others in a given context. In this post I am not writing about the health and mental health related questions of our smart phone habits. I only want to provide you with some descriptive, observable insights about the covert messages of our mobile phone related behaviors. Let us start with the example below. What does this behavior tell you (assuming that you are sitting with her at the same table)?


Let me remind you of something. It is hard to analyze and interpret any nonverbal signs accurately without having enough information about the context (e.g. who the person is with, the relationship between them, what happened before what we can see right now, local culture, internal states of the person, climate etc.). So assuming that you are sitting with this person and you seek her attention but what you get is what we see in the picture then we might say it is a distancing language. It says "I want to get rid of you." "Get off me." "Leave me alone." In TA we refer to this as the I AM OK - YOU ARE NOT OK Life Position.

To read more about the Life Positions, click here.

Let us take the same behavior with a different context. In this scenario you asked her to find the nearest ATM machine belonging to your preferred bank because you would need some cash. Have a look at the picture again and interpret it now. Getting the difference?

Coming back to my canteen example, I think there is nothing wrong about sending some messages or checking some websites during or after lunch. I do it too. But how about when being not alone? Do you use your phone while having lunch with others? Do you check your phone for text messages or emails during business meetings, lectures, trainings or mentoring/coaching sessions?


I know, it is context and situation specific. You can get important information from the nonverbal communication of others in the environment elicited by your own nonverbal behavior (such as a handshake with a particular person, sitting in a specific position or using your phone while in the meeting). I call this as "evocative nonverbal human cue". If you have a look at the example above, we can see that the behavior from the man on the left is not really welcomed in this context. The nonverbal message of the two men is: WE ARE OK - YOU ARE NOT OK. "You are not OK if you keep on doing this." (The same nonverbal message could be detected on others when you are shaking hands with someone /e.g. an unpopular guy/ or sitting at a specific location /e.g. the boss' chair/ as I mentioned earlier).

But it is not just about business meetings where mobile behavior can be observed and analyzed. Look at this:


According to a Huffington Post article nearly 20 percent of young adult smartphone owners in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 34 use their smartphones during sex.


They refer to a 2013 study that shows 12 percent of people reported that they feel that their smartphone gets in the way of their relationship.

There must be a need behind this high volume of smart phone usage. What is it? Accordig to we seek companionship and acceptance.

In TA we call it STROKE HUNGER or "Recognize me" hunger. To read more about HUNGERS, click here.

The relationships we build are critical to our individual happiness and well-being. On Maslow's pyramid the "love and belonging" is on the third floor, superseded only by basic physiological survival and general safety. And how do we fulfil the "love and belonging" need (or stroke hunger)? Usually by sharing events, thoughts, feelings and ideas with one another. By opening ourselves up to others, we build the trust and common ground required for deep, reciprocal relationships (Intimacy). And if you want to be honest enough, you must realize that our smart phones hold the potential to help us achieve all of these, at least to an extent or for a while.


But what happens when we are socializing online while we are socializing face to face at the same time? What interferences can occur while doing so? Why do we do it at all? A simple answer can be that texting or swiping pages on your device is so silent and may seem not significant to you. "It is just six more clicks and I am done with this task" "It is just a quick check and sending a brief answer to her and a quick one to him and maybe ...". But while you are doing so, you are sending nonverbal signals to the ones around you. First, you lose one of the most important nonverbal cues, the eye-contact. The inability to use proper nonverbal cues can lead to poor social outcomes.

Check this situation:


The man above might experience the I AM NOT OK - YOU ARE OK life position (a.k.a. One Down Position) in this situation.

If the phone user is applying more powerful nonverbal signals, he or she can be perceived as a Persecutor for us, where we can be only in the Victim (powerless, hopeless, helpless etc.) role - if we are willing to accept the invitation to it. Watch this:


These typical Critical Parent nonverbal messages invite the Confirmed Child ego state in the other person. It does not necessarily mean that the response will come from there. It might come from different ego states, for example the Rebellious Child, expressing impulsive anger, frustration and dissatisfaction. The example below demonstrates this behavioral pattern:


What are the possible nonverbal messages of looking at your smart phone when you are with others? You may look busy with being part of another social context. This might be seen as rejecting the physically present persons. It may convey the message that your other communicating partner is more important to you than the ones present are. If you regularly check your phone when with others it can also be seen that you want your company to wait for you. "He is keeping me up. He is wasting my time" is the message for them ("He is Persecuting me"). Any of these interpretations can happen if you do not notify the people around you about your mobile phone behavior. Once you clarify what and why you are doing, it can significantly be changed. You can reach the I AM OK - YOU ARE OK life position with them by following this path.


Ignoring people around us does not really make us popular when exercising different types of mobile phone behaviors. Does this look familiar to you?


Sadly, people stepping into this trap (like the laughing woman above) can not even be aware of the fact that they are Persecuting others with their own behavior. Just check the "Horseshoe mouth" on the man's face sitting by the window, expressing a mixture of frustration, anger and sadness, with leaning away from her with his upper body, expressing distancing signals. The lady is probably deep diving in her joyous emotional world (negative Free Child ego state) without having the senses to detect the consequences of her behavior on others around her ( her evocative nonverbal cues). She just cannot see them. Here is another example:


This time the man is "blind" to his partner's nonverbal messages. It is easy to see how she is turning away from him expressing distancing language, crossing her arms expressing defence and showing anger and disgust on her face, looking away (which is another distancing signal). A text book example of the nonverbal signs of the Persecutor - Victim relation.

What do we need here? How can we fix the situation? Many times giving feedback to the Persecutor will solve the problem on the spot (provided that the person is willing to change their behavior). Below is another typical challenge where feedback usually works (thanks to the social pressure present in the situation).


Going back to the business world and the meetings, my suggestion is that you should not use your phone until you close the session. Or if something cannot be put off, say "Excuse me", leave the room, communicate, finally return. But do not keep repeating this behavior pattern because you will make a clown of yourself. Now let us see some research.

According to a 2013 research conducted by the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, referred by Forbes, mobile phone related behaviors during meeting can have the following nonverbal messages: Lack of respect (you are seen that what you are looking at the phone is more important to you than the current topic or the people around you), Lack of attention (you are perceived as someone who is not able to stay focused), Lack of listening (you seen you are not showing attention and thinking), Lack of power (it seems you don't have the potency to control your tasks and you respond your emails and messages like a Pavlovian dog to the bell ringing. These are just perceptions but their consequences can be huge.

On the other hand it also turned out that millennials are three times more likely than those over age 40 to think that checking text messages and emails during informal meetings is OK.


Finally I will give you a 10 item test to check your nonverbal skills on the mobile phone related behaviors. It is not scientific. Take it as a game. Prepare a pencil and a piece of paper. First read the 10 situation descriptions. Then watch the 10 scenes. Match the descriptions with the scenes. Finally check your answers. You can find the key at the bottom of this page. (At some scenes more solutions can be possibe.)

1 - Experiencing extreme fear of death.

2 - Micro expression of joy elicited by a sent photo of a lover.

3 - Fear of being caught and found guilty.

4 - Receiving a funny picture of loved ones sent for a birthday from thousands of miles away.

5 - Example of a positive Free Child behavior.

6 - Text message says a close family member has just died.

7 - Experiencing and expressing mild contempt due to being left alone in the conversation again.

8 - Stuck in virtual sadness and ignoring someone stepping into physical intimate proximal zone.

9 - Learning from a chat what the real name of a person is, who is also in the room.

10 - Elicited disgust by checking sister's phone which says she has been involved in a serious crime.





















If you have any questions, comments or stories, share them with me via email. We can publish them here.


Check your answers now:

KEY TO THE TEST: 1-I, 2-E, 3-G, 4-F, 5-D, 6-J, 7-C, 8-B, 9-A, 10-H


by Bali Polyanki

(c) All Rights Reserved 2017