The clerk used a word I won't repeat here.
I was buying a pair of jeans, and I will admit it was a chaotic day in the store. I had a credit card I've used way to often, and the magnetic strip is a bit worn. There was a long line, and it was around the time when most people take a lunch. Also, it was rainy and cold in May. That will make anyone cranky.
The clerk was initially annoyed at how things were not working out with my card. She had all of the body language clues. Her head dropped in frustration. She rolled her eyes. But there's only one thing I remember from that day in the store, and it was the word she said.
For years, we're heard so much about body language and emotional intelligence (EQ), our ability to pick up on nonverbal hints in conversation and read social cues during meetings. I've read countless articles on the topic and written a few myself. It's important to understand how EQ plays a role in business, but let's not get too carried away. Often, one word or phrase can reveal more about a conversation, meeting, business conflict, or encounter than any nonverbal cue. It's also possible that we focus so much on nonverbal communication that we forget to listen to the words people are saying--or even forget to communicate verbally ourselves.
Here's another example of how this works. In meetings, I'm often trying to pick up verbal cues from colleagues. I volunteer at a college on occasion and attend meetings to talk about their projects. My radar goes up when someone rolls their eyes at something I've said or shrugs in frustration. I don't worry too much about these signs, but I know body language cues are important. However, words are even more important. If I rely too much on body language, I might hesitate to ask that person about their opinion and rely too much on the nonverbal cue to form an opinion. If we discuss it, we can at least come to a mutual understanding.
Back to my store example. A nonverbal cue can also be a cop-out similar to the way people use sarcasm to slip in a critical remark in hopes that no one will notice or make a joke meant to make a point. If the clerk had only raised her hands in aggravation, it would have sent a partial message. When she swore, it suddenly escalated to something much more offensive. I didn't get angry. I just said things were not working out and left without buying the product. I said I'd come back with a different card, and eventually I did. Having her swear in front of my kids was not going to work, though.
If verbal and nonverbal communication are weapons, the nonverbal cues are like a knife and the verbal cues are more like hand grenades. They can do a lot more damage. In a positive way, words can offer much more encouragement to an employee than a pat on the back or a high five. Both are important. Yet, words always trump our perceptions about emotional intelligence. Always.
That's because, with words, you can get much more specific. People will remember a kind word more than a smile. (Test yourself on this and see if you can remember more smiles than words when it comes to the encouragement you've received in life.) You will also remember a harsh word more than a harsh look. We are wired to use our primary forms of communication (speaking and listening), always enhanced by the secondary but never replaced. We have two ears and a mouth for a reason. We can pick up on cues, and that's helpful, but it's also easy to rely only on cues.
What does this mean in practical terms? How do should you respond? It means we should speak up more. It means that clerk should have explained why she was so annoyed. It's why I decided to respond verbally and not just roll my eyes back at her and get frustrated. Words are a way to directly confront a situation, to resolve a problem, or put out a fire. Body language? It's only helpful up until you speak.