Nonverbal communication

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Nonverbal communication (NVC) is usually understood as the process of communication through sending and receiving wordless messages. Such messages can be communicated through gesture; body language or posture; facial expression and eye contact; object communication such as clothing, hairstyles or even architecture; symbols and infographics. Speech may also contain nonverbal elements known as paralanguage, including voice quality, emotion and speaking style, as well as prosodic features such as rhythm, intonation and stress. Likewise, written texts have nonverbal elements such as handwriting style, spatial arrangement of words, or the use of emoticons.

However, much of the study of nonverbal communication has focussed on face-to-face interaction, where it can classified into three principle areas: environmental conditions where communication takes place, the physical characteristics of the communicators, and behaviors of communicators during interaction.[1]

Verbal vs oral communication

Scholars in this field usually use a strict sense of the term "verbal", meaning "of or concerned with words," and do not use "verbal communication" as a synonym for oral or spoken communication. Thus, vocal sounds which are not considered to be words, such as a grunt, or singing a wordless note, are nonverbal. Sign languages and writing are generally understood as forms of verbal communication, as both make use of words — although like speech, both may contain paralinguistic elements and often occur alongside nonverbal messages. Nonverbal communication can occur through any sensory channelsight, sound, smell, touch or taste. NVC is important as:

"When we speak (or listen), our attention is focused on words rather than body language. But our judgement includes both. An audience is simultaneously processing both verbal and nonverbal cues. Body movements are not usually positive or negative in and of themselves; rather, the situation and the message will determine the appraisal." (Givens, 2000, p. 4)


The first scientific study of nonverbal communication was Charles Darwin's book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). He argued that all mammals show emotion reliably in their faces. Studies now range across a number of fields, including linguistics, semiotics and social psychology.


While much nonverbal communication is based on arbitrary symbols which differ from culture to culture, a large proportion is also to some extent iconic and may be universally understood. Paul Ekman's influential 1960s studies of facial expression determined that expressions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise are universal.

Clothing and bodily characteristics

Uniforms have both a functional and a communicative purpose. This man's clothes identify him as male and a police officer; his badges and shoulder sleeve insignia give information about his job and rank.

Elements such as physique, height, weight, hair, skin color, gender, odors, and clothing send nonverbal messages during interaction. For example, research into height has generally found that taller people are perceived as being more impressive. Melamed & Bozionelos (1992) studied a sample of managers in the UK and found that height was a key factor affecting who was promoted. Often people will try to make themselves taller - for example, standing on a platform - when they want to make more of an impact with their speaking.

Physical environment

Environmental factors such as furniture, architectural style, interior decorating, lighting conditions, colors, temperature, noise, and music affect the behavior of communicators during interaction.[2] Environmental conditions can alter the choices of words or actions that communicators use to accomplish their communicative objective.


Proxemics is the study of how people use and perceive the physical space around them. The space between the sender and the receiver of a message influences the way the message is interpreted.

The perception and use of space varies significantly across cultures[3] and different settings within cultures. Space in nonverbal communication may be divided into four main categories: intimate, social, personal, and public space.[citation needed] The distance between communicators will also depend on sex, status, and social role.

Proxemics was first developed by Edward T. Hall during the 1950s and 60s. Hall's studies were inspired by earlier studies of how animals demonstrate territoriality. The term territoriality is still used in the study of proxemics to explain human behaviour regarding personal space.[4] Hargie & Dickson (2004, p. 69) identify 4 such territories:

1) Primary territory: this refers to an area that is associated with someone who has exclusive use of it. For example, a house that others cannot enter without the owner’s permission.

2) Secondary territory: unlike the previous type, there is no “right” to occupancy, but people may still feel some degree of ownership of a particular space. For example, someone may sit in the same seat on train every day and feel aggrieved if someone else sits there.

3) Public territory: this refers to an area that is available to all, but only for a set period, such as a parking space or a seat in a library. Although people have only a limited claim over that space, they often exceed that claim. For example, it was found that people take longer to leave a parking space when someone is waiting to take that space.

4) Interaction territory: this is space created by others when they are interacting. For example, when a group is talking to each other on a footpath, others will walk around the group rather than disturb it.


Chronemics is the study of the use of time in nonverbal communication. The way we perceive time, structure our time and react to time is a powerful communication tool, and helps set the stage for communication. Time perceptions include punctuality and willingness to wait, the speed of speech and how long people are willing to listen. The timing and frequency of an action as well as the tempo and rhythm of communications within an interaction contributes to the interpretation of nonverbal messages. Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey (1988) identified 2 dominant time patterns:

  • Monochronic time schedule (M-time): Time is seen as being very important and it is characterised by a linear pattern where the emphasis is on the use of time schedules and appointments. Time is viewed as something that can be controlled or wasted by individuals, and people tend to do one thing at a time. The M-pattern is typically found in North America and Northern Europe.
  • Polychronic time schedule (P-time): Personal involvement is more important than schedules where the emphasis lies on personal relationships rather than keeping appointments on time. This is the usual pattern that is typically found in Latin America and the Middle East.

Movement and body position


Information about the relationship and affect of these two skaters is communicated by their body posture, eye gaze and physical contact.

Kinesics is the study of body movements, facial expressions, and gestures. It was developed by anthropologist Ray L. Birdwhistell in the 1950s.[5] Kinesic behaviors include mutual gaze, smiling, facial warmth or pleasantness, childlike behaviors, direct body orientation, and the like.[6] Birdwhistell proposed the term kineme to describe a minimal unit of visual expression, in analogy to a phoneme which is a minimal unit of sound.[5]


Posture can be used to determine a participant’s degree of attention or involvement, the difference in status between communicators, and the level of fondness a person has for the other communicator.[7] Studies investigating the impact of posture on interpersonal relationships suggest that mirror-image congruent postures, where one person’s left side is parallel to the other’s right side, leads to favorable perception of communicators and positive speech; a person who displays a forward lean or a decrease in a backwards lean also signify positive sentiment during communication.[8] Posture is understood through such indicators as direction of lean, body orientation, arm position, and body openness.


A wink is a type of gesture.

A gesture is a non-vocal bodily movement intended to express meaning. They may be articulated with the hands, arms or body, and also include movements of the head, face and eyes, such as winking, nodding, or rolling one's eyes. The boundary between language and gesture, or verbal and nonverbal communication, can be hard to identify.

According to Ottenheimer (2007), psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen suggested that gestures could be categorised into five types: emblems, illustrators, affect displays, regulators, and adaptors.

  • Emblems are gestures with direct verbal translations, such as a goodbye wave;
  • illustrators are gestures that depict what is said verbally, such as turning an imaginary steering wheel while talking about driving;
  • an affect display is a gesture that conveys emotions, like a smile;
  • regulators are gestures that control interaction;
  • and finally, an adaptor is a gesture that facilitates the release of bodily tension, such as quickly moving one's leg.[9]

Gestures can be also be categorised as either speech-independent or speech-related. Speech-independent gestures are dependent upon culturally accepted interpretation and have a direct verbal translation.[10] A wave hello or a peace sign are examples of speech-independent gestures. Speech related gestures are used in parallel with verbal speech; this form of nonverbal communication is used to emphasize the message that is being communicated. Speech related gestures are intended to provide supplemental information a verbal message such as pointing to an object of discussion.


A high five is an example of communicative touch.

Haptics is the study of touching as nonverbal communication. Touches that can be defined as communication include handshakes, holding hands, kissing (cheek, lips, hand), back slapping, high fives, a pat on the shoulder, and brushing an arm. Touching of oneself during communication may include licking, picking, holding, and scratching.[11] These behaviours are referred to as "adaptor" and may send messages that reveal the intentions or feelings of a communicator. The meaning conveyed from touch is highly dependent upon the context of the situation, the relationship between communicators, and the manner of touch.[12]

Eye gaze

The study of the role of eyes in nonverbal communication is sometimes referred to as "oculesics". Eye contact can indicate interest, attention, and involvement.[13] Gaze is comprised of the actions of looking while talking, looking while listening, amount of gaze, and frequency of glances, patterns of fixation, pupil dilation, and blink rate.[14]


Paralanguage (sometimes called vocalics) is the study of nonverbal cues of the voice. Various acoustic properties of speech such as tone, pitch and accent, collectively known as prosody, can all give off nonverbal cues. Paralanguage may change the meaning of words.

The linguist George L. Trager developed a classification system which consists of the voice set, voice qualities, and vocalization.[15]

  • The voice set is the context in which the speaker is speaking. This can include the situation, gender, mood, age and a person's culture.
  • The voice qualities are volume, pitch, tempo, rhythm, articulation, resonance, nasality, and accent. They give each individual a unique "voice print".
  • Vocalization consists of three subsections: characterizers, qualifiers and segregates. Characterizers are emotions expressed while speaking, such as laughing, crying, and yawning. A voice qualifier is the style of delivering a message - for example, yelling "Hey stop that!", as opposed to whispering "Hey stop that". Vocal segregates such as "uh-huh" notify the speaker that the listener is listening.

Functions of nonverbal communication

Argyle (1988) concluded there are five primary functions of nonverbal bodily behavior in human communication:[16]

  • Express emotions
  • Express interpersonal attitudes
  • To accompany speech in managing the cues of interaction between speakers and listeners
  • Self-presentation of one’s personality
  • Rituals (greetings)

Interaction of verbal and nonverbal communication

When communicating, nonverbal messages can interact with verbal messages in five ways: repeating, conflicting, complementing, substituting, and accenting/moderating.


"Repeating" consists of using gestures to strengthen a verbal message, such as pointing to the object of discussion.[17]


Verbal and nonverbal messages within the same interaction can sometimes send opposing or conflicting messages. A person verbally expressing a statement of truth while simultaneously fidgeting or avoiding eye contact may convey a mixed message to the receiver in the interaction. Conflicting messages may occur for a variety of reasons often stemming from feelings of uncertainty, ambivalence, or frustration.[18] When mixed messages occur, nonverbal communication becomes the primary tool people use to attain additional information to clarify the situation; great attention is placed on bodily movements and positioning when people perceive mixed messages during interactions.


Accurate interpretation of messages is made easier when nonverbal and verbal communication complement each other. Nonverbal cues can be used to elaborate on verbal messages to reinforce the information sent when trying to achieve communicative goals; messages have been shown to be remembered better when nonverbal signals affirm the verbal exchange.[19]


Nonverbal behavior is sometimes used as the sole channel for communication of a message. People learn to identify facial expressions, body movements, and body positioning as corresponding with specific feelings and intentions. Nonverbal signals can be used without verbal communication to convey messages; when nonverbal behavior does not effectively communicate a message, verbal methods are used to enhance understanding.[20]


Nonverbal signals are used to alter the interpretation of verbal messages. Touch, voice pitch, and gestures are some of the tools people use to accent or amplify the message that is sent; nonverbal behavior can also be used to moderate or tone down aspects of verbal messages as well.[21] For example, a person who is verbally expressing anger may accent the verbal message by shaking a fist.


  1. Knapp & Hall, 2002, p.7
  2. Knapp & Hall, 2002, p.7
  3. Segerstrale & Molnar, 1997, p.235
  4. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p.8
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ottenheimer, 2007, p. 129
  6. Floyd and Guerrero, 2006, p. 112
  7. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p.9
  8. Bull, 1987, pp. 17-25
  9. Ottenheimer, 2007, p. 130
  10. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p. 9
  11. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p. 9
  12. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p.10
  13. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p.10
  14. Argyle, 1988, pp. 153-155
  15. Floyd and Guerrero, 2006
  16. Argyle, 1988, p.5
  17. Knapp & Hall, 207, p.12
  18. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p.13
  19. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p.14
  20. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p.16
  21. Knapp & Hall, 2007, p.17


  • Argyle, Michael. (1988). Bodily Communication (2nd ed.) Madison: International Universities Press. ISBN 0-416-38140-5
  • Bull, Peter E. (1987). Posture and Gesture (Vol. 16). Oxford: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-031332-9
  • Knapp, Mark L., & Hall, Judith A. (2007) Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. (5th ed.) Wadsworth: Thomas Learning. ISBN 0-15-506372-3
  • Segerstrale, Ullica., & Molnar, Peter (Eds.). (1997). Nonverbal Communication: Where Nature Meets Culture. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-2179-1
  • Burgoon, J. K., Buller, D. B., & Woodall, W. G. (1996), Nonverbal communication: The unspoken dialogue (2nd ed.), New York: McGraw-Hill
  • Guerrero, L. K., DeVito, J. A., Hecht, M. L. (Eds.) (1999). The nonverbal communication reader. (2nd ed.), Lone Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press. [1]
  • Floyd, K., Guerrero, L. K. (2006), Nonverbal communication in close relationships, Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
  • Ottenheimer, H.J. (2007), The anthropology of language: an introduction to linguistic anthropology, Kansas State: Thomson Wadsworth
  • Gudykunst, W.B. & Ting-Toomey, S. (1988) Culture and Interpersonal Communication. California: Sage Publications Inc.
  • Melamed, J. & Bozionelos, N. (1992) Managerial promotion and height. Psychological Reports, 71 pp. 587-593.
  • Hargie, O. & Dickson, D. (2004) Skilled Interpersonal Communication: Research, Theory and Practice. Hove: Routledge
  • Givens, D.B. (2000) Body speak: what are you saying? Successful Meetings (October) 51.

See also

External links

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