Nonverbal Communication

Functions of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication—we’ve learned in the preceding discussionOpens in new window—is the sending and receiving of wordless messages using a wide range of human behaviors—people's actions or attributes such as body movementsOpens in new window, eye contactOpens in new window, facial expressionsOpens in new window, appearance, the use of touch and space, and tone of voice that have socially shared significance and stimulate meaning in others.

To arrive at a better understanding of how nonverbal messages affect verbal messages, we designate this entry to address the functions of nonverbal messages by studying them in relationship to verbal message.

Take for example, what do you make of the nonverbal messages that accompany the following verbal messages?

  1. The little boy who hides under his mother as he says, “I’m not afraid of the dog.”
  2. The woman who says, “I love you,” to her spouse while hugging him and smothering him with kisses.
  3. The teacher who asks, “Any questions?” and fails to wait for a response before moving on to the next point.
  4. The child whose eyes are downcast and shoulders are rounded as she says, “I’m sorry for breaking the vase.”
  5. The supervisor who, when asked a question by an employee, leans forward with a hand cupped behind one ear.

Notice that all the five illustrations above contain nonverbal cues that help reveal what a person is feeling. Nonverbal cues are integral to communicationOpens in new window, they may function to:

1.   Contradicts verbal message

A nonverbal cue may contradict the verbal message and cause what is said to be at odds with what is done. For example, a student about to make an oral presentation to the class, despite his trembling hands and perspiring forehead, who says “I’m not nervous”, has his verbal message contradicted by his nonverbal behavior.

The ripple effect of contradictory verbal message is that it leads to a double-message— the verbal message say one thing, the nonverbal cue, another.

2.   Reinforces or emphasises verbal message

A nonverbal message reinforces or accentuates the verbal message when it adds to its meaning. In the same way that underlining or italicising written words emphasises them, saying “Come here now” conveys a more urgent message than “Come here now”.

Pounding your hand on the table while saying, “Listen to me”, conveys a more effective message than the words alone. While your gestureOpens in new window may be redundant, it adds emphasis to your statement and captures the listener’s attention.

3.   Regulate flow of verbal communication

A nonverbal behavior functions to regulatethe flow of verbal interaction. Your eye contactOpens in new window, tone of voice, nodding of the head, slight hand movements, and other nonverbal behaviors tell your partner when to talk, to repeat a statement, to hurry up, or to finish the conversation.

The same applies to group communication. The chairperson at a meeting, for example, uses eye contact or hand gestures instead of words to indicate whose turn it is to speak.

4.   Complements verbal message

A nonverbal message complements the verbal message when it conveys the same meaning. For example, when you receive a visitor with the welcome message, “I’m pleased to meet you”, and accompany the verbal message with a warm smile, an exciting tone of voice and facial expression, you are complementing the verbal message with your nonverbal cues.

5.   Substitute for spoken words

GesturesOpens in new window, facial expressionsOpens in new window, and other nonverbal cues can substitute for or take the place of spoken words. When we fail at our attempts to utter words to express our sorrow at the death of a friend or a relative, an embrace often suffices.

Similarly, when you wave your hand to someone instead of saying “hello”, or give someone a hug instead of saying “thanks for helping me”—your message is clear. Often when actions substitute for words, the nonverbal cues function as symbols of the verbal messages because they are widely understood.

Nonverbal communication is an integral part of the total communication package. Based on interpretations of our nonverbal cues, others may decide if they like us, will listen to our ideas, or want to sustain or terminate our relationship.

The ability to understand the characteristics of nonverbal communication enhances your understanding of other people’s meaning and helps to eliminate communication barriersOpens in new window. Up next is Characteristics of Nonverbal CommunicationOpens in new window.