Nonverbal Communication

Breaking Down Nonverbal Communication

Interpersonal communication is generally described as having both a verbal and a nonverbal component. Whereas verbal communication denotes the words we use in communication, nonverbal communication denotes the communication that is produced by some human attributes—eye contact, body language, facial expression, or vocal cues, for example—other than words.

What then is Nonverbal Communication?

Nonverbal communication defined in its broader sense, includes both paralingualOpens in new window aspects and nonverbal modes of behaviour such as facial expressionsOpens in new window, gestureOpens in new window, and postureOpens in new window.

More narrowly defined, nonverbal communication includes only the nonverbal forms; the acoustic paralingual mode is excluded. Thus, nonverbal communication is the sending and receiving of nonverbal messages and whole-body movements such as eye contactOpens in new window, gesture, facial expressions, appearance, the use of touch and space, and tone of voice that have socially shared significance and stimulate meaning in others.

Nonverbal refers to all stimuli (other than meaningful words) generated by the persons in a communicative encounter. These nonverbal messages may be intentional or unintentional. All cultures have their own system for interpreting body movementsOpens in new window, so there is bound to be difference across cultures.

Nonverbal communication also has an effect even when the communicators are not in each other’s presence. In a telephone conversation, for example, some of the meaning of a message is carried by the speaker’s tone of voice.

Nonverbal communication is often named under several technical terms. They include:

  1. Proxemics which deals with the use of space in communication. Space is divided into four categories: intimate, personal, social, and public. There are many factors that define the use of space: age, gender, cultural and ethical backgrounds, personality, physical characteristics, attitudes, emotions of people, interpersonal dynamics.
  2. OculesicsOpens in new window which is concerned with eye contact and behaviour.
  3. Haptics which involves the use of touch.
  4. Vocalic which is concerned with the tonal quality of the voice.
  5. KinesicsOpens in new window which has to do with body movements.
  6. Objectics which study the use of objects in communication.

Nonverbal behaviours speak volumes; the look in one’s eyes, the wrinkles on one’s forehead, the curve of the lips and the movements of the head and hands are reflections of one’s mood, thoughts, and feelings.

Important Hint! 

Nonverbal communication should not be studied apart from verbal communication. Nonverbal communication primarily conveys relational information (emotions and feelings), whereas verbal communication conveys content information. Thus, nonverbal and verbal communications work together to convey the total meaning of a message.

Functions of Nonverbal Communication

To arrive at a better understanding of how nonverbal messages affect verbal messages, we learn about 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.

As we see, 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 behaviour. 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 behaviour functions to regulate the flow of verbal interaction. Your eye contactOpens in new window, tone of voice, nodding of the head, slight hand movements, and other nonverbal behaviour 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, discussed hereOpens in new window.