Non-verbal Communication

Non-verbal Communication

external image mc_phersons_communication_problem.gifNon-verbal communication can be used to express feelings, words, or even thoughts. According to West & Turner, non-verbal communication is defined as “all behaviors—other than spoken words—that communicate messages and have shared meaning between people”. There are some common courtesies in America when you are speaking with someone face-to-face. When speaking with someone, it is considered very polite if you make citing gestures or show the other person that you are acknowledging what they are saying. Or, it is polite to stand up to 18 in. away if you are close to the person, 4-12 ft. or the social distance, if you are having a professional conversation (West & Turner, 197). A very important theory in non-verbal communication is the Interaction Adaptation Theory. This theory suggests that "individuals simultaneously adapt their communication behavior to the communication behavior of others" (West & Turner, 185). This means that we understand better if we follow what the other is doing. For example, if you are talking to a friend and she cant hear you and you cant hear her, you both speak louder and then that way, you hear and understand just fine. A few ways people communicate non-verbally are through sign language, facial expressions, body language, drawings, and even art! Although people can interpret how you are feeling or maybe what you want to say by non-verbal communication, it often goes hand-in-hand with verbal communication. When the other party does not interpret fully what the intended person is trying to say then there could be a lot of confusion. In this article, Hull describes what interpersonal persuasion is and how it ties into interpersonal communication including non-verbal communication. Hull article . Communication is the key to life and to fully understand about how to communicate efficiently, here is a few things that you might want to know.

Principles of Nonverbal Communication

Before delving into nonverbal communication too deeply it is important to know a few things about nonverbal cues. First, they are ambiguous, many times having multiple meanings. Nonverbal communication is a way to regulate conversation and help conversations flow smoothly. It is often more believable than verbal communication. And lastly, it is important to understand that nonverbal communication may conflict with verbal communication. If these principles are understood, nonverbal communication can become an even more useful communication tool.


West and Turner state that,“compared to verbal messages, nonverbal messages are usually more ambiguous,” (186). These messages can have a variety of different meanings depending on the person, and this can lead to misunderstandings (West & Turner, 186). An example of how nonverbal messages can be hard to translate can be seen with the simple act of smiling. A smile is generally a positive gesture, but if it is within the wrong context, like when your teacher is disciplining you, then it is seen as a negative response, probably disrespectful. So, if a seemingly clear cut nonverbal cue such as a smile can have multiple meanings, imagine the world of possibilities that exist in the world of nonverbal communication. The nonverbal messages that you convey both consciously and unconsciously can be translated differently depending on the person, or the context and situation that they are presented in.


In the article,The Challenge of Nonverbal Research, by Charles M. Galloway, Professor of Education at Ohio State University, the ambiguity is further articulated as he explains the difficulties of researching and conducting studies of nonverbal communication:

Verbal literacy demands an ability to understand and use words, and dictionaries are enormously helpful. But the test of meaning awaits both the precise way a word is used and how it is responded to. Nonverbal cues and body language are similarly dependent on how and where they occur and how they are responded to, but the dependency is greater because there exists no dictionary of behavioral signs and signals for easy reference. The meanings of nonverbal behaviors are learned in ones’ contacts with others, and no assurances can be given that everyone agrees in the definitions. Galloway, 2.

Regulates Conversation

When speaking, nonverbal cues help to manage the flow of conversation. For example, nonverbal cues can aid in what is called turn taking which, is who talks when and to whom (West & Turner, 186). Movements, like leaning forward, avoiding eye contact, or sometimes even hand motions can be used to clue in those involved with the conversation as to how to act and when or when not to respond. These, “regulators allow speakers to enter, exit, or maintain the conversation,” (West & Turner, 186). If these cues were omitted from conversation, even brief encounters with a friend may become awkward and stiff, and quite possibly, conversations with the most familiar people in your life would be highly uncomfortable.

More Believable than Verbal Communication

The phrase, actions speak louder than words, is found to be generally true when looking at nonverbal communication. “When verbal and nonverbal contradict, we tend to believe the nonverbal. For one thing, it is seen as being more difficult to fake. Virtually everything we use to discern if someone else is lying comes from the nonverbal realm,” (The Problem Solving Center). A more positive example of the believability of nonverbal communication can be seen in the song When You Say Nothing at All. The lyrics repeat over and over all the nonverbal cues which are used in the said relationship to convey the magnitude of their love. It is a little sappy, but relevant to the discussion of nonverbal communication.

Conflict with Verbal Communication

When nonverbal messages do not agree with the verbal messages it is called a mixed message (West and Turner, 187). When this happens people have to decide which cues to believe, the verbal or nonverbal. According to West & Turner, children generally rely on the words being spoken because they are not able to understand the meanings behind nonverbal communication. Adults, on the other hand, generally pay more attention to the nonverbal portion of a message. In a situation where there are mixed messages, adults may ignore what is being said altogether and focus completely on the nonverbal cues they are receiving (188). An example of this can be seen with “Arlene” in the following example:

Arlene is attractive and has no problem meeting eligible men – it’s keeping them that’s the problem! Arlene is funny and a good conversationalist, but even though she laughs and smiles constantly, she radiates tension. Arlene’s shoulders and eyebrows are noticeably raised, her voice is shrill and her body stiff to touch. Being around Arlene makes many people feel uncomfortable. Arlene has a lot going for her that is undercut by the discomfort she evokes in others.

More examples of mixed messages like this one can be found at HelpGuide.orga non-profit resource online.

Nonverbal Communication Codes

Nonverbal codes refer to the different components of nonverbal communication. Visual-auditory codes are nonverbal communication that can be seen and heard, contact codes are the touch and space between communicators, and place and time codes are in reference to the environment and situation of interpersonal communication. West and Turner have summarized these codes in the following table:

Nonverbal Category
Kinesics (body movement)

Physical appearance (body size, body artifacts, attractiveness)

Facial communication (eye contact, smiling)

Paralanguage (pitch, rate, volume, speed, silence)
Haptics (touch)

Space (personal space, territoriality)
Place and time
The environment (color, lighting, room design)

Chronemics (time)
(West and Turner, 188)

Cultural Variations in Nonverbal Communication

Studies have shown that nonverbal communication behaviors are directly related to culture. Nonverbal behaviors such as body movement, facial expressions, personal space, and touch are influenced by by a person's culture, gender, and age, (The Journal of Social Psychology 135.n3).

Body Movements are often used in greetings and vary from one culture to another. For example, "most Westerners are accustomed to shaking hands upon meeting, while in Japan individuals bow when they meet." Gesturing is also a common body movement that varies among cultures. "Mexicans, Greeks, and people from many South American countries are dramatic and animated, on the other hand, Asian cultures consider consider such overt body movements rude," (West and Turner, 201).
Facial expressions such as consistent eye contact when speaking to one another is common in the United States. Lack of eye contact may demonstrate distrust. However, in Japan and Jamaica, consistent eye contact communicates disrespect, (West and Turner, 202).
Spatial distances also vary from one culture to another. Collectivist cultures, people who work, play, live, and sleep in close proximity, require less space between one another during an interaction than do Individualistic cultures such as the United states, (West and Turner, 202-203).

A table presented in The Journal of Social Psychology describes accurate distances maintained by people from different cultures. This table represents the distance between torsos (in inches), (The Journal of Social Psychology, 135.n3).


Dutch 13.16
English [15.40]
French [14.73]
Irish [10.34]
Scottish [10.77]
Greek [13.86]
Italian [14.18]

Remland, Martin S., Tricia S. Jones, and Heidi Brinkman. "Interpersonal Distance, Body Orientation, and Touch: Effects of Culture, Gender, and Age." The Journal of Social Psychology 135.n3 (June 1995): pp281(17). (7004 words).

Non-verbal communication is an obvious part of interpersonal communication. It aides in the interpreting of another's words along with the content of the message. Non-verbal communication has not changed very much over time. Many people still use the same types of facial expressions to show their mood or their thoughts. Like smiling when they are happy, crying when they are sad, sticking out their tongue and making a "throw up" face when you see something disgusting. Even though things have not changed much over time, these are the basic instinct facial expressions that are learned wherever the person is brought up. Technology has sort of changed the perspective of non-verbal messages. No one ever thought that you could know what someone was saying through non-verbal communication without looking at them. Well since the age of the internet, there are many words or a lot of lingo online that convey messages without saying anything. People come up with symbols that look like faces or some internet programs actually have the smiley face logos that you can pick from to convey a mood. They have also started to do this on cell phones as text messages. We should study non-verbal communication in the future because there are many cultures and other countries that have different non-verbal communication behaviors that we would not even think of here in the United States. For example, did you know that sticking up the middle finger here in the United states means something bad but sticking up any one of your other fingers in other countries could mean the same thing. If no one studied things like this, people would go into other countries not knowing what people are saying through their actions and could even get in trouble for some actions of their own if they are very offensive. Non-verbal communication is both important and beneficial for conversing with someone in the near future.

West, Richard & Turner, Lynn H. (2006). Understaning Interpersonal Communication: Making Choices in Changing Times. Belmont, CA:
Thomson Learning, Inc.

Increasing Nonverbal Communication Effectiveness
Nonverbal behavior is a type of communication that leaves lots of uncertainty for the receiver. Have you ever been out and thought some one was winking at you, but come to find out they merely had something in their eye? This is a prime example of how difficult it is to identify nonverbal communication with any type of precision. Because of the degree of uncertainty related to non verbal communication, it is essential to utilize the following five skills in order to increase nonverbal communication.

Recall the Nonverbal-Verbal Relationships
In order to best understand nonverbal communication, it is best to pair it with verbal communication. An example of an effective way of blending verbal and nonverbal communication is to frown when you are telling a sad story, or smiling when telling a happy story. This gives the receiver two clues for understanding the overall meaning of the message. If the speaker is conveying a sad story, then it can be confirmed with a frown on the speaker’s face. Another example of well blended verbal and nonverbal communication is screaming when you are mad. This allows the receiver to understand the extreme nature of the message via both the words and the tone of the speaker’s voice


This picture exemplifies the blending of verbal and nonverbal communication. Obviously, this child is upset. This is seen by the facial expressions (the nonverbal component) and the yelling seen by the wide open mouth (the verbal component).

This clip is a great example of how to effectively blend both components of communication. It is very obvious, based on the words Tyra is speaking, the tone of her voice, and her facial expressions that she is very mad. This gave the receiver a straight forward message.

Be Tentative When Interpreting Nonverbal Behavior

It is crucial to remember that nonverbal communication is ambiguous and it is best understood when paired with verbal communication. Another important aspect to consider is the cultural differences present in verbal communication. According to West and Turner, such cultural aspects to consider include body movement, facial expressions, personal space and touch. The norms of all these aspects differ from one cultural group to another. Once the receiver takes all of these aspects into consideration, it is important to be tentative when interpreting the nonverbal behavior. It is best to take in to account the environmental clues, but then to be straight forward in the verbal communication.

This image represents the importance of the skill of being tentative when interpreting nonverbal behavior. Based on environmental clues (the mess of papers that clutters the man’s desk) would make it seem like he was knee deep in work and might not be able to have to time to talk. This is when the straight forward aspect of communication becomes important. It is best to just ask the man if he is busy, because what seems like a pile of work may simply be the man's normal appearance of his desk. He may not be busy at all, but instead only gives off the impression that he is.

Monitor Your Nonverbal Behavior
Being aware of all your aspects of communication is necessary for increasing your communication effectiveness. Take into account how your voice is conveying your message, your body language (standing a little too close or standing a little too far) and your use of conversational silences. All of these aspects are just as important as the words that you are speaking. Self monitoring can be difficult, especially when you are in the middle of a heated argument. Now, more than ever it is important to self monitor because it becomes so easy to misconstrue a nonverbal message. Take for instance a verbal exchange between two friends. As the discussion continues, the two friends continue to get angered, and placing a hand on the arm of the receiver could be taken in many different ways. The speaker may have intended for the gesture to enhance a point, while the receiver could interpret it as precursor to a physical altercation. In essence this is why you must take into account how your behavior can be perceived and how you are perceiving the other speaker's non verbal actions.

Ask Others for their Impression
Sometimes your friends are your best resources. When you are getting ready to go out for the night, or a big date, you always ask your friends how you look. It is the same principle for communication. When considering the effectiveness of your communication, it is best to ask the individuals you communicate with on a daily basis. These people will know your style of communication, and ultimately the strengths and weaknesses of your communication process. In essence, this is why it is important to ask your friends (or others) about the effectiveness of your communication.

Place Nonverbal Communication in Context
This could ultimately be the most important skill in increasing your nonverbal communication effectiveness. There are many nonverbal cues that can be deciphered many different ways, and this is why we must place these cues in context. If during a fight with your significant other, they appeared to be winking, would you decipher that as a wink, or use your better judgment and know that a wink is not conducive in this context? Most people would pick up on this, and use their powers of deduction and come to the conclusion that they must simply have something stuck in their eye because winking during a fight does not fit the context. This brings to light the ultimately important idea that in order to communicate effectively, you must consider the entire communication process and not focus on a single cue or single aspect of communication.


Nonverbal communication is a topic that is of key importance in daily life. Its ambiguity makes nonverbal messages have different meanings to different people. It also enables people to know when their turns take place during a conversation. Basically, nonverbal communication is epitomized by the statement “actions speak louder than words.” People value nonverbal communication more because it is harder to mask than verbal communication, thus making it more credible. However, conflicts can arise between nonverbal and verbal communication in the form of mixed messages, which is the contradiction between a nonverbal and verbal message.

Three nonverbal communication codes exist: visual-auditory (including kinesics, physical appearance, facial appearance and paralanguage), contact (haptics and space), and place and time (the environment and chronemics). These are invariably influenced by culture; as an example, the United States generally does not see a small personal space as does Costa Rica. Another example is eye contact, which is usually held in high regard in the United States, whereas it is not in Cambodia. In essence, this shows the changes in nonverbal communication over time since these practices have evolved throughout the course of history. There will be new nonverbal messages constructed as time goes by, and particularly with the influx of urban lifestyle, this is unfolding before our very eyes.

Technology, most notably the rise of the Internet, is increasingly deeming nonverbal communication not as important as it is in social situations. With chat services, one can simply express their emotions with acronyms such as “lol” or “brb”. Thus, technology’s impact on nonverbal communication is certainly evident. Society, however, has not reached the point of total dependence on technology, so nonverbal communication is still a vital component of the communication process.

This is a topic that should be studied since without it, the process of communication would be virtually impossible and life would thus be drastically different. Imagine how matters would be if professors did not use body language in pointing to visual aids during classroom instruction, or a friend in conveying his/her state of being upset did not cry to you during a conversation. Therefore, nonverbal communication is essential and is undoubtedly just as important as verbal communication itself.

Galloway, Charles M. "The Challenge of Nonverbal Research." Theory Into Practice, Vol.10, No.4 (Oct., 1971): 310-314. Nonverbal Communication: The Hidden Language of Emotional Intelligence. 2001-2007. 23 March 2008 < nonverbal communication.htm>.
The Problem Solving Center. Nonverbal Communication. 2006. 29 March 2008 <>.
West, Richard and Lynn H. Turner. Understanding Interpersonal Communication. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education, 2006.