Emotional Intelligence: Exploring Nonverbal Behavior And Facial Expression
in Emotional Contagion

Emotional Intelligence: Exploring Nonverbal Behavior And Facial Expression
in Emotional Contagion

Interpersonal relationship skills are essential to good relationships in all aspects of life, from intimate to casual, to working, to family. Even the creation and maintenance of computer-mediated relationships require communication skills. Every part of human life includes exchanges of messages between people who must try to maintain a harmonious existence. Interpersonal communication, defined as mutual message transactions in a variety of relationships involving interlaced environments, where exchanges of messages, influenced by external physiological and psychological noise, work to satisfy a range of needs; these message transactions involve verbal and nonverbal forms of communication. (Adler & Proctor II, 2014) Interpersonal communication is integral in the formation of interpersonal relationships, which fulfill the human need of belonging and companionship, found to exist in all human cultures, as well as needs such as identity and self-esteem creation, attainment of pleasure, escape, and social control. (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Adler & Proctor II, 2014) The purpose and needs in interpersonal relationships is dependent on the type and depth of relationship. The cultivation of good skills in interpersonal communication lead to higher levels of emotional intelligence, which is a “crucial component of social development and contributes to the quality of interpersonal relationships” (Nicola, et al., 2001) benefiting a person socially, psychologically and physiologically. Emotional intelligence can be defined as the “ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions and be sensitive to others’ feelings […] and is positively linked with self-esteem, life satisfaction and self-acceptance, as well as with healthy conflict management and relationships”, which are “unquestionably vital to […] success”. (Adler & Proctor II, 2014) Proficiency in emotional intelligence is also linked with academic, economic and job related achievement, as it aides in fostering healthy learning and work-related environments, which are influenced by good interpersonal relationships and good communication skills. (Martin & Dowson, 2009; Carmeli, Brueller, & Dutton, 2008; Prati, Douglas, Ferris, Ammeter, & Buckley, 2003) Among the characteristics of people with high levels of interpersonal communication skills is the ability to adequately decode nonverbal messages through perception-checking and owning of emotions, interpret nonverbal cues in a variety of contexts, and understand the effect of perceptions of nonverbal communication on emotional contagion. These skills in nonverbal communication can improve the communication climate and increase the quality of given relationships through cognitive complexity, while creating various contexts to understanding communication issues. (Adler & Proctor II, 2014)

According to Adler and Proctor II (2014), some social scientists attribute between 65-95% of emotional impact from a communicated message to nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues are both intentional and unintentional and include a variety of qualities including facial movements, physical proximity, appearance, gestures, eye contact, verbal pitch and tone, and emotional expressions such as laughter and sighing. (Adler & Proctor II, 2014) While nonverbal cues can reveal more than the verbal message, Adler and Proctor II (2014) caution that due to the highly ambiguous nature of even the “most common nonverbal behavior” it is important to keep in mind that each cue can “have so many possible meanings that it’s impossible to be certain which interpretation is correct”. Additionally, interpretation and perceptions of nonverbal cues are highly subject to personal bias of the observer and their own emotions. (Doherty, 1997) An important skill of emotional intelligence is encoding (sending) and decoding (receiving) nonverbal cues using the processes of perception checking. The influences and the impact that perceptions of facial expressions have in nonverbal communication, the potential roles of facial expressions and nonverbal behavior in emotional contagion, and possible resolution of these issues through perception checking are important in the development of emotional intelligence. Further, exploring the function of perception checking and emotional intelligence should prove to elevate the communication climate in the enrichment and maintenance of interpersonal relationships.

Members of interpersonal relationships who come from high-context cultures or backgrounds often interpret and more highly value facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, over verbal messages. For those from high-context cultures or backgrounds, nonverbal cues are often highly prized as a key source of meanings in messages. (Adler & Proctor II, 2014) When one member of an interpersonal relationship comes from a high-context background, and the other member does not, dysfunctional communications arise. The primary problem is in the ambiguous nature of nonverbal cues, and the different perceived value placed on nonverbal cues between partners. When considering levels of low emotional intelligence, such as poor skills in perception checking, encoding, and decoding, as well as inclinations towards egocentrism, considerable conflict within the relationship arises, and can have a negative impact on emotional experiences and stability of the relationship.

Low levels of emotional intelligence can present a danger when errors in decoding facial expressions occur. This can lead to outcomes of perceived “negative” emotional contagion - that is a transference of a false negative mood or emotion from one person to another, though the false perception of facial expressions, “causing the viewer to mimic elements of that expression and, consequently, to experience the [false] associated feeling state” (Doherty, 1997). This can interfere in the healthy processes of transactional communication and over time can lead to a negative self-perpetuating spiral of false emotions, causing a breakdown in the message process and an erosion of the interpersonal relationship.

Some studies suggest that emotional contagion is unintentional, automatic, unconscious, and spontaneous in nature. Those with higher levels of emotional intelligence are more susceptible to emotional contagion in both distant and close interpersonal relationships due to their propensity to pay close attention to others, an ability of accurately interpreting facial expressions, and a collectivist view of relations, among other qualities of emotional responsibility and higher levels of empathy. (Doherty, 1997) However, it is interesting to note that emotional intelligence does not always equate with altruistic motivations subjective well-being or mindfulness, as Doherty alludes. (Schutte & Malouff, 2011) Some researchers indicate that there could be manipulative abilities in those with high levels of emotional intelligence. In Strategic Use of Emotional Intelligence in Organizational Settings: Exploring the Dark Side, M. Kilduff et al (2010) posited that in organizational settings, the emotionally intelligent individual has the ability to execute four tactics; strategic targeting, concealment and expression emotions at will, agitation through “sensegiving and misattribution”, and “strategic control of emotion-laden information”. Using these tactics, the manipulative emotionally intelligent person can use their skills in order to advance in the workplace by inciting emotional contagion while protecting themselves thorough various “self-regulating processes”. (Kilduff, Chiaburu, & Menges, 2010) This is an indication that, while emotional contagion appears uncontrollable, those with high levels of emotional intelligence have the ability to initiate and control it both externally and internally in interpersonal relationships.

As illustrated, emotion contagion does not exist in close personal relationships alone. In distant relationships, such as those with co-workers, business partners, and/or casual friends some research indicates a correlation with the influence of facial expressions and the level of emotional contagion in terms of leadership success (Dasborough, Ashkanasy, Tee, & Tse, 2009). It is important to recognize that social contagion borne out of competent interpretations of nonverbal cues through high levels of emotional intelligence can be constructive in all environments, including work and educational institutions, (Chang, Sy, & Jin, 2012; Moore & Mamiseishvili, 2012) due to the high correlation with empathy and effective communication. Additionally, a study done by Kimura & Daibo (2008) on emotional contagion across a variety of interpersonal relationships, from acquaintances to friends, indicates that while emotional contagion occurred regardless of relationship type, there are many factors involved in contagion across different emotions (love, happiness, sadness, anger), and there are further degrees of variations in factors social statuses, cultures and relationship intensities. Despite the subjectivity of emotional contagion, it is important to note that it exists and occurs in all types of interpersonal relationships.

In close personal relationships, through increased emotional intelligence, decoding nonverbal messages of facial expressions becomes easier as the couple moves through the various stages of the relationship. Perception checking and owning of emotions becomes particularly important in the development of various stages of relational maintenance. Additionally, there are a number of challenges in reading nonverbal cues, which is “dangerous to assume […] can be read with much accuracy”. (Adler & Proctor II, 2014) Prevention of inaccurate interpretations, for both verbal and nonverbal communication, occurs through the process of reappraisal. During reappraisal, the receiver of the message must “step back” to asses, or reassess, the communication, while identifying and owning their own feelings, in order to alter the “emotional impact”. (Adler & Proctor II, 2014) This, one of many skills in emotional intelligence, thereby works to prevent potential negative conflict spirals in the climate of communication. In addition, preventing inadequate perceptions prevents transference of incorrect or false emotions and decreases the potential for negative emotional contagion in the relationship.

To prevent inadequate perceptions in facial expression and nonverbal behavior encoding and decoding, which degrades the quality of a relationship and the messages in communication, there must be an increase of the level of emotional intelligence. According to Nicola, et al. (2001) emotional intelligence is both a trait and a skill which can be increased through “intensive training” via perception checking and the development of emotional reasonability. Perception checking involves acknowledgment of the observed [nonverbal] behavior, the creation of various potential explanations for said behavior, and a “request for clarification about how to interpret the behavior”. (Adler & Proctor II, 2014) Additionally, recognizing and taking responsibility for one’s emotions and thoughts, an essential part of emotional intelligence, deters potential communication quagmires. (Nicola, et al., 2001) Among other management strategies to avoid situations that involve negative emotional contagion are self-regulation strategies such as response modulation, characterized by reaction adjustment and feedback through paraphrasing, as well as cognitive changes, which involves “selective perception [checking] of the situation”. (Rempala, 2013)

In nonverbal communication, emotional intelligence is key whether in a low-context or high-context cultures. The ability to decode nonverbal cues along with verbal messages in the process of communication is just as important as the ability to encode (deliver) them, despite the ambiguous nature. The function of emotional intelligence and perception checking requires an openness to sincere inquiry into behaviors and the ability to admit that you need clarification. When a communicator is able to approach each communication event in a responsible manner, they can manage the levels of both positive and negative emotional contagion. These abilities emotional intelligence elevate the positive communication climate in interpersonal relationships, as well as add to higher levels of success in learning and employment. Emotional intelligence “can [potentially] heighten empathy, self-monitoring, social skills, cooperation, relationship ties, and marital satisfaction” when developed or enhanced. (Nicola, et al., 2001) Additionally, there is increased satisfaction with life, increased social well-being, and healthy interpersonal relationships linked to people with higher levels of emotional intelligence. Interpersonal relationships are at the center of all societies and cultures, and the ability to create, maintain, and nourish them fulfills a very basic social need of humans worldwide.


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