Squirrel Spotting: Non-Verbal Cues Say So Much

ColumnistsAug 29, 2023

Squirrel Spotting: Non-Verbal Cues Say So Much

Peter Smith mines the psychology of disgust for insight on the messages we communicate through body language.

National Jeweler columnist Peter Smith
Peter Smith is an industry consultant, speaker, sales trainer, and author. He can be reached via email at
Psychologist Paul Rozin noted that a single cockroach can wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a lone cherry will have no effect at all in making a bowl of cockroaches more appealing.  
Rozin should know; he is an expert on disgust. Yep, you read that correctly. He is an esteemed professor at the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches honors courses and post-graduate seminars on the psychology of disgust.  

I feel like I’d have a distinct advantage as a student in one of Rozin’s classes. All I would need is boiling cabbage or any dish served with the eyes of the unwittingly sacrificed still intact. Aced!  
He, of course, was speaking to our tendency to default to the negative even when there is ample evidence of positives to be found.  
In the case of the single cockroach, we could of course extract the offending insect and wash the bowl of cherries, but would we? Or would we dump the whole offensive mess into the garbage?  
Rozin’s work suggests the latter is more likely, as the negative is what stands out about the experience.  
Business has more in common with the professor’s proverbial bowl of cherries than we might think.  
You strive to provide outstanding customer experiences and believe you always do so, and yet it takes one very small hiccup to have a customer decide to dump the whole mess in the bin.  
If you are lucky, the offended customer will share their unsatisfying experience and give you the opportunity to rectify the situation.  
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. The customer sometimes leaves your business resolving to go quietly (or not, as is often the case) into that dark night and find another business to frequent thereafter.  
 Related stories will be right here … 
My wife and I recently enjoyed the rare luxury of a breakfast out. When we checked in with the hostess at the restaurant she greeted us with good energy, and the right words.  
The problem was, she didn’t look at us when she greeted us, or when she asked the obvious, “Are you guys joining us for breakfast?”  
I mean, jeez, how did she even know? We could have been two plumbers showing up to fix a burst pipe, or exterminators looking for cockroaches in the cherries. 
Despite her eye-contact-avoiding behavior she was otherwise friendly, not always a given in service businesses or retail stores.  
The breakfast itself was imperfectly fine, but what lingered afterwards was the strange behavior of the host.  
I wondered what she would have said if I had pointed out the disconnect between what she thought she was communicating and what she really was communicating. 
“We need to have our verbals and non-verbals align for authentic communication.” 
In Albert Mehrabian’s research, he concluded that communication is 7 percent words, 38 percent tone of voice, and 55 percent non-verbal.  
The host had done a fine job on the words and even tone of voice.  
What she missed, however, was the 55 percent, the non-verbal. Her lack of eye contact suggested indifference on her part, and a lack of training on the part of the hotel and restaurant.  
Getting the non-verbals right is more than intent, it is a function of awareness and repetition. We need to have our verbals and non-verbals align for authentic communication.  
That includes the following. 
Eye contact. As basic as it seems, we must ensure that we are making eye contact with our customers. That means holding your contact for about four seconds, or at least until the end of a thought or expression. 
Open Body Language. Open your body to the customer when greeting them. It’s not a good idea to be reaching for something or other in a case or drawer or looking sideways as you work on paperwork or some other task. 
Distracted Listening. Distracted listening is a real danger to a shared experience. If you are talking to a customer and you look away it sends a signal of indifference to your customer. Be completely present and apologize if you need to break your attention for a moment.   
Smile. Offer a sincere smile, not one designed for the red carpet, where it often comes across as a chore. If you enjoy people, smiling when you meet one ought to be a pleasant experience. If it too often feels forced, you might just be the cockroach in the bowl of cherries.  
Active Hands. Use your hands when you are communicating. Don’t hide them, put them in your pockets, or keep them screened below the showcase. Active hands, with palms visible as often as possible, has a powerful impact on connecting two strangers in a way that feels very safe.  
I hope these few tips help you improve your sales performance and avoid unwittingly signaling to your customers that you’d rather be doing something else. 
Always glad to hear from you if you have feedback. You can reach me at or on LinkedIn

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