Nonverbal communication is the process of communicating without using words. It involves body language, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, and tone of voice.
Nonverbal communication is a powerful tool to express emotions, beliefs, opinions, and ideas without needing to utter a word. It can be employed in any setting – from daily life all the way up to professional contexts.
For example, in a professional context, nonverbal communication can be used to show respect and interest. Eye contact, posture, and facial expressions are all indicators of how someone feels and their attitude.
In daily life, nonverbal communication can be used to express agreement, disagreement, or reaction. For example, a smile or a nod can show that someone is interested or happy with what is being said.
Definition of Nonverbal Communication
Nonverbal communication is the process of communicating without words, using body language, facial expressions, gestures, and other nonverbal cues to convey emotions and feelings (Jiang, 2021).
According to Matsumoto and colleagues (2013), nonverbal communication is:
“…the transfer and exchange of messages in any and all modalities that do not involve words” (p. 4).
Nonverbal communication is a powerful tool for expressing emotions and conveying messages without words.
Manusov (2016) states that the “nonverbal communication system comprises facial expressions, body movements, vocalic or paralinguistic cues, personal and environmental space, objects, time, physical appearance, and smell/odor” (p. 1).
For example, a person might smile to show happiness or cross their arms to signify disagreement. Nonverbal communication incorporates multiple cues that help convey messages effectively without using words.
In simple words, nonverbal communication is an exchange of emotions and thoughts without the need for words. It’s a way to convey meaning through gestures and expressions instead of speaking.
Related Article: Best Toys for Nonverbal Autism
Nonverbal Communication Examples
- Smiling: Smiling can express happiness, joy, and approval. If a person is smiling, it can indicate that they are happy or agree with something.
- Making eye contact: Eye contact is used to show interest in a conversation. It is also a sign of respect and can show agreement or understanding. Conversely, if someone is avoiding eye contact, it may indicate confusion or disagreement. (Note cultural differences: e.g. in Aboriginal Australian culture, eye contact can be a sign of defiance).
- Finger pointing: Finger pointing is often used to draw attention to something or give directions. It can also be used aggressively, such as when someone is angry or frustrated.
- Gestures: Gestures are movements of the hands and arms that can convey various meanings. For example, a thumbs-up gesture is often used to indicate approval or agreement. If a person is rubbing their chin, they can think deeply or consider a situation.
- Sign language: Sign language is an incredible form of communication that utilizes hand gestures and body movements to convey particular messages. It’s a powerful tool for connecting with those who are deaf or hard of hearing, granting them full participation in meaningful conversations they may have otherwise been unable to partake in.
- Posture: Posture can convey various messages, such as interest in a conversation or being open to an idea. It can also be used to show dominance or confidence. So, if a person is leaning in or standing tall, it can be interpreted as them being interested or assertive.
- Appropriate touch: Appropriate touch can be used to show support or affection, such as a hug or pat on the back. If used in the wrong context, however, it can be seen as intrusive or threatening. For example, if somebody is avoiding or pulling away, it’s a sign that they do not want to be touched.
- Facial expressions: Facial expressions can convey various emotions, such as happiness, sadness, or anger. They can also be used to show agreement or disagreement with something. So, if a person is frowning, they may not agree with what is being said.
- Environmental design: Through the environment, one can communicate a distinct message. For instance, by decorating with costly furniture and accessories that exude luxury and sophistication in the home or office, an individual conveys their success to those who visit them.
- Silence: Silence also can be used to show disapproval or disagreement with something. So, if someone is silent after a statement, it may be interpreted as them not agreeing with what has been said.
List of Additional Examples
- Written communication
- Tone of voice
- Head movements
- Hand movements
- Body language
- Eye gaze
- Biting lip
- Closing eyes
- Raising eyebrows
- Crossed arms
- Foot tapping
- Hand gestures
- Pupil dilation
- Lip pressing
- Tilting head
- Covering mouth
- Tension in the body
- Opening eyes wide
- Gesturing with hands
- Nervous movements
- Tilting head
- Steepling fingers
- Nail biting
- Covering face
- Shaking head
- Drumming fingers
- Rolling eyes
- Jerking movements
Nonverbal Communication vs. Verbal Communication
While nonverbal communication is used to express thoughts without using words, verbal communication is used to speak and exchange ideas using audible language (Key, 1980).
Nonverbal communication is instantaneous and powerful, conveying far more information than words alone. Utilizing gestures and facial expressions allows people to express various emotions quickly and effectively without speaking.
Alternatively, verbal communication is much more versatile since it allows for conveying complex ideas through speech.
Moreover, interpreting spoken words is simpler than nonverbal cues, and any misunderstandings can be quickly resolved using language (Key, 1980).
Nonverbal communication is universal since it does not require the use of a language. However, it is often challenging to interpret accurately because the meaning of gestures and expressions can vary from culture to culture.
Verbal communication is easier to understand in most cases, as it relies on language that is familiar to both parties. However, misunderstandings can arise due to accents and regional variations in language (Catania, 1986).
See also: Visual Communication Examples
Origins of Nonverbal Communication
In 1872, Charles Darwin revolutionized the science of nonverbal communication and behavior with his renowned publication, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin, 2018).
This influential book inspired a new wave of research on how humans interact without words. By studying the behavior of animals and humans, he developed a theory that explained why people communicate nonverbally (Darwin, 2018).
Darwin (2018) theorized that human emotions evolved from the same primitive responses found in animals. He argued that facial expressions, postures, and gestures were all used for communication before language was developed.
In the 1960s, an array of psychologists and researchers took a keen interest in nonverbal communication, with Michael Argyle and Janet Dean among them.
Specifically, they focused their research on exploring the link between eye contact and conversational distance. Their findings revolutionized the study of nonverbal communication and opened the door to further research and understanding (Argyle & Dean, 1965).
Types of Nonverbal Communication
In 1994 Judee Burgoon identified seven subcategories of nonverbal communication: kinesics or body language, paralanguage, proxemics, clothing and appearance, chronemics, artifacts, and haptics (Burgoon et al., 2016).
Here is a brief overview of each type:
- Kinesics or body language – posture, body movements, and gestures.
- Paralanguage – vocal cues such as tone, pitch, and volume.
- Proxemics – the physical distance between people when speaking.
- Clothing and appearance – personal style, hairstyle, grooming, and jewelry.
- Chronemics – punctuality or waiting time.
- Artifacts – objects, and possessions used to represent a person, such as jewelry and tattoos.
- Haptics – physical contact between two people.
According to Burgoon, to communicate effectively, one must be able to decode and interpret the nonverbal signals of others as well as produce appropriate nonverbal responses (Burgoon et al., 2016).
So, by understanding both verbal and nonverbal communication, people can create a more meaningful and productive dialogue with their peers.
Nonverbal miscommunication is when two people send and receive conflicting information due to their misunderstanding of nonverbal cues.
For example, if a speaker uses a lot of hand gestures to emphasize their points, but the listener fails to understand the meaning of their hand motions, this could lead to a breakdown in communication (Matsumoto et al., 2013).
Various factors, such as cultural differences, personal habits, and body language, can cause nonverbal miscommunication.
In some cultures, eye contact is considered a sign of respect, while in others, it can be perceived as threatening. Similarly, hand gestures and body language can also have different meanings in various cultures (Manusov, 2016).
Personal habits, such as mannerisms and speech patterns, can cause miscommunication if the listener cannot interpret them. Also, body language, such as crossed arms or slumped shoulders, can send mixed, easily misunderstood signals.
Overall, it is important to be aware of the different signals people may send out to understand each other better.
Importance of Nonverbal Communication
Nonverbal communication is an important part of everyday life. It can influence how people perceive one another and help to build relationships through shared understanding.
Here are some of the key benefits of nonverbal communication:
- Establishes rapport and trust – Nonverbal actions, such as eye contact and a warm smile, can make others feel welcome and build a sense of trust.
- Promotes understanding – Nonverbal cues can help people better understand what another person is saying.
- Enhances verbal communication – Body language and facial expressions can add context to words and help people better understand one another.
- Encourages collaboration – Nonverbal communication can facilitate team building and help people work together more effectively.
The importance of nonverbal communication is further highlighted by the growing interest in neuroscience and its implications for communication.
As more research is conducted, it will become clearer how nonverbal cues can be used to build relationships and create meaningful connections.
By being aware of the subtle signals one sends out through body language, facial expressions, and vocal cues, people can communicate more effectively and create a deeper understanding with their peers.
Nonverbal communication is a key component of effective communication and building relationships. It can be used to express one’s feelings, emotions, and attitudes more effectively than verbal communication.
One can better decode the messages being sent and received by understanding the different types of nonverbal cues, such as body language, facial expressions, tone, pitch, artifacts, and touch.
Nonverbal miscommunication can also arise due to cultural differences or personal habits, so it is important to be aware of any potential misunderstandings.
Through nonverbal communication, people can better express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas, leading to more meaningful dialogue and collaboration.
Argyle, M., & Dean, J. (1965). Eye-contact, distance and affiliation. Sociometry, 28(3), 289. https://doi.org/10.2307/2786027
Burgoon, J. K., Guerrero, L. K., & Floyd, K. (2016). Nonverbal communication. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Catania, A. C. (1986). On the difference between verbal and nonverbal behavior. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 4(1), 2–9. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03392809
Darwin, C. (2018). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. Dover Publications, Inc. (Original work published 1872)
Jiang, X. (2021). Types of nonverbal communication. Intechopen.
Key, M. R. (1980). The relationship of verbal and nonverbal communication. Mouton.
Manusov, V. (2016). Nonverbal communication. The International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118766804.wbiect096
Matsumoto, D. R., Frank, M. G., & Hwang, H. S. (2013). Nonverbal communication: Science and applications. Sage.