Nonverbal Communication

What Is Nonverbal Communication?

Interpersonal communication is generally described as having both a verbal and a nonverbal component.

Whereas verbal communicationOpens in new window denotes the words we use in communication, nonverbal communication is usually understood as the process of communication through sending and receiving wordless (mostly visual) messages between people. Such visual messages can be communicated through gestures Opens in new window and touch Opens in new window, by body languageOpens in new window, posture,Opens in new window or by facial expression Opens in new window and eye contact Opens in new window.

By definition, Nonverbal communication is the sending and receiving of nonverbal messages and whole-body movements such as eye contactOpens in new window, gesture,Opens in new window facial expressions,Opens in new window appearance,Opens in new window the use of touch and space,Opens in new window and tone of voiceOpens in new window 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 messages could also be communicated through exponential material—meaning objects or artifacts (such as clothing, hairstyles, or architecture). Thus, you communicate to other people without saying a word by how you dress, your hairstyle, your tattoos, etc.

Complexities of Nonverbal Communication

Speech contains nonverbal elements known as paralanguageOpens in new window which includes voice quality,Opens in new window rate,Opens in new window pitch,Opens in new window volume,Opens in new window speaking style, as well as prosodic features such as rhythm, intonation, and stress. Paralanguage or nonverbal elements (as listed above) of communication are mainly used to modify meaning and convey emotion.

Paralanguage Opens in new window may be expressed consciously or unconsciously. Body language is really the term that is used more often, but paralanguage is the cover term sometimes used for body language. Likewise, written texts have nonverbal elements such as handwriting style, spatial arrangements of words, or the physical layout of a page.

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 behaviors 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.

To arrive at a better understanding of how nonverbal messages affect verbal messages, we need to examine the functions of nonverbal messages by studying them in relationship to verbal message. This is treated in another entry hereOpens in new window.