By Robert Kicklighter
Regardless of personal beliefs as to the beginning of humanity, it is apparent that communication is an important part of relationship building. Early man used every skill available to communicate to his partner. Of these skills, nonverbal communication was vital to the survival of man. Body language expert Joe Navarro (2011) has written, “This has been part of our biological heritage for so long that we still primarily communicate nonverbally, not verbally, and why we need emotional icons in our written communication.”
Nonverbal communication consists of physiological changes (flushed face), gestures (pointing hand), noises (grunting), and facial and body reactions (Navarro). Many of these expressions can be used to send a clear message to the receiver. Our body language sends messages of fear, concern, anger, or happiness, among others.
Our Perception Today
In today’s world, law enforcement officers are under scrutiny and have their actions monitored or recorded daily. In fact, the division between law enforcement and the community has, in my opinion, reached an all-time high over the last 50 years. Now, more than ever, officers must adapt to change public perception.
An example of this division occurred in Savannah, Ga., when an officer from a neighboring community pulled up next to a black female’s vehicle at a traffic light. According to the female, the officer motioned for her to lower her driver’s side window. The officer, technically out of his jurisdiction, began to berate the woman for texting on her cellular phone. Further, he demanded she remove the phone from her lap. The female, a victim’s advocate for a local non-profit, was not texting but just allowing her work phone to charge on her lap, which is not uncommon. The incident, though, created such a negative feeling for the female that she thought, “No wonder people hate you!” (In Georgia, it’s not illegal for an adult to talk on a cellular phone, but texting is illegal across the board.)
Whether right or wrong, could the officer have handled this encounter in a manner that would have had a positive impact on the female and reduced a negative perception espoused by the media? Could the officer have employed better customer service skills to deliver the message, “Distracted driving is dangerous and illegal”? Finally, is there some simple, effective tool that could address this?
In fact, since the dawn of humanity we have been given just such a tool: simple, effective, and nearly universal. This tool builds relationships and brings comfort to many. This tool will calm many situations and cause people to be more open to establishing relationships with officers. What is this tool?
According to Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne (2016), “If you want to get others to join your cause, whether it pertains directly to work tasks or maybe an attempt to sign people up for a charity run, be sure you use your nonverbal communication to inspire and draw others into supporting the effort.” Law enforcement officers can easily accomplish this by ensuring they smile at members of the community during interactions.
In fact, Penn State University study confirmed that a smile would not only make an officer appear more likable and courteous, but they will be perceived by the public to be more competent (Savitz, 2011). Refusing to use the power of the smile because of ego or some other excuse is not just silly, it’s tactically stupid.
Take advantage of a simple, but effective, tool that you were endowed with as human being. Smile at the people encountered during a shift. Wave at other drivers while patrolling neighborhoods and shopping centers. Demonstrate to the public: the current perception of law enforcement is wrong!