Nonverbal communication is all aspects of communication other than words themselves. It includes not only gestures and body language but also how we utter words: inflection, pauses, tone, volume, and accent. These nonverbal features affect the meaning of our words. Nonverbal communication also includes features of environments that affect interaction, personal objects such as jewelry and clothes, physical appearance, and facial expressions. Scholars estimate that nonverbal behavior accounts for 65% to 93% of the total meaning of communication. To understand verbal and nonverbal dimensions of communication, we identify both similarities and differences between them.
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN VERBAL AND NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
1. Nonverbal communication is symbolic: Like verbal communication, nonverbal communication is symbolic. To represent different moods, we shrug our shoulders, lower our eyes, and move away from or toward others. We smile to symbolize pleasure in seeing a friend, frown to show anger or irritation, and widen our eyes to indicate surprise. Because nonverbal communication is symbolic, like verbal communication it is arbitrary, ambiguous, and abstract. Thus, we cannot be sure what a wink or hand movement means. Similarly, we can’t guarantee that others will perceive the meanings we intend to communicate with our nonverbal actions.
2. Nonverbal communication is rule guided: Within particular societies we share general understanding of what specific nonverbal behaviors are appropriate in various situations and what they mean. For example, in United States and many other countries, handshakes are the conventional method of beginning and ending business meetings. Smiles generally are understood to express friendliness, and scowls generally are perceived as indicating displeasure of some type. We follow rules (often unconsciously) to create different interaction climates. For a formal speech, a room might be set up
with a podium that is at a distance from listeners’ chairs. The chairs would be arranged in neat rows. To symbolize a less formal speaking occasion, a podium might be omitted, chairs might be arranged in a circle, and the person speaking might be seated.
3. Nonverbal communication may be intentional or unintentional: Both verbal and nonverbal communication may be deliberately controlled or unintentional. For example, you may carefully select clothes to create a professional impression when you are going to a job interview. You may also deliberately control your verbal language in the interview to present yourself as assertive, articulate, and respectful. We exert conscious control over most of our nonverbal communication.
4. Nonverbal communication reflects culture: Like verbal communication, nonverbal communication is shaped by cultural ideas, values, customs, and history. Just as we learn the language of a culture, we also learn it nonverbal codes. For example, in the United States most people use knives, forks and spoons to eat. In Korea, Japan, China, Nepal, and other Asian countries, chopsticks often are the primary eating utensil.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN VERBAL AND NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
1. Nonverbal communication is believed to be more believable than verbal: One major difference is that most people perceive nonverbal communication as more trustworthy than verbal communication, especially when verbal and nonverbal messages are inconsistent. If someone glares and says, “I’m glad to see you;” you are likely to believe the nonverbal message, which communicates a lack of pleasure in seeing you.
2. Nonverbal communication is multichanneled: Nonverbal communication often occurs simultaneously in two or more channels, whereas verbal communication tends to take place in a single channel. Nonverbal communication may be see, felt, heard, smelled, and tasted, and we may receive nonverbal communication through several of these channels at the same time.
3. Nonverbal communication is continuous: Finally, nonverbal communication is more continuous than verbal communication. Verbal symbols start and stop. We say something or write something and then we stop talking or writing. However, it is difficult , if not impossible, to stop nonverbal communication.
PRINCIPLES OF NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
1. Nonverbal Communication May Supplement Or Replace Verbal Communication
Communication researchers have identified five ways in which nonverbal behaviors interact with verbal communication. First, nonverbal behaviors may repeat verbal messages. For example, you might say, “yes” while nodding your head. Second, nonverbal behaviors may highlight verbal communication. For example, you
can emphasize particular words by speaking more loudly. Third, we use nonverbal behavior to complement or add to words. When you see a friend, you might say, “I’m glad to see you” and underline the verbal message with a warm embrace. Fourth, nonverbal behaviors may contradict verbal messages, as when someone says, “Nothing’s wrong” in a hostile tone of voice. Finally, we sometimes substitute nonverbal behavior for verbal ones. For instance, you might roll your eyes to indicate that you disapprove of something.
2. Nonverbal Communication May Regulate Interaction
More than verbal cues, nonverbal behavior regulate the flow of communication between people. In conversations, we generally know when someone else is through speaking and when it is our turn to talk. Seldom do explicit verbal cues tell us when to speak and when to keep silent.
3. Nonverbal Communication Often Establishes Relationship-Level Meanings
The content level of meaning is the literal message. The relationship level of meaning defines communicators’ identities and relationship between them. Nonverbal communication often acts as a “relationship language” that expresses the overall feeling of relationships. Three dimensions of relationship-level meanings are conveyed primarily through nonverbal communication; responsiveness, likeness, and power.
TYPES OF NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
In this section we describe nine types of nonverbal communication:
1. KINESICS refers to body position and body motions, including those of face. Someone who stands erectly and walks confidently announces self-assurance, whereas someone who slouches and shuffles seems to be saying, “I’m not very sure of myself.” One of the most important aspects of kinesics concerns how we position ourselves relative to others and what our positions say about our feelings toward them.
2. HAPTICS, the sense of touch, is the first of our five senses to develop, and many communication scholars believe touching and being touched are essential to a healthy life. Research on dysfunctional families reveals that mothers touch babies less often and less affectionately than mothers in healthy families. Touching also communicates power and status. People with high status touch others and invade others’ space more than people with less status. As adults, women tend to engage in touch to show liking and intimacy, whereas men are more likely than women to use touch to assert power and
3. PHYSICAL APPEARANCE: Western culture places a high value on physical appearance. For this reason, in face-to-face interactions, most of us notice how others look, and we often form initial evaluations of others based on their appearance, over which they have limited control. This excessive emphasis on physical appearance in the West probably explains the astounding growth in cosmetic surgery.
4. ARTIFACTS are personal objects we use to announce our identities and heritage and to personalize our environment. We craft our image by how we dress and what objects we carry and use. Nurses and physicians wear white and often drape stethoscope around their necks, professors travel with briefcases, whereas students more often tote backpacks.
5. ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS are elements of settings that affect how we feel and act. For instance, we respond to architecture, colors, room design, temperature, sounds, smells, and lighting. Rooms with comfortable chairs invite relaxation, whereas rooms with stiff chairs induce formality.
6. PROXEMICS refers to space and how we use it. Every culture has norms that prescribe how people should use space, how close people should be to one another, and how much space different people are entitled to have. Space also announces status, with greater space being assumed by those with higher status.
7. CHRONEMICS refer to how we perceive and use time to define identities and interaction. Within Western culture there is a norm that important people with high status can keep others waiting. Conversely, people with low status are expected to be punctual. It is standard practice to have to wait, sometimes a good while, to see a physician, even if you have an appointment. This carries the message that the physician’s time is more valuable than yours. Similarly, the duration of time we spend with
various people reflect our interpersonal priorities.
8. PARALANGUAGE is communication that is vocal but does not use words. It includes sounds, such as murmurs and gasps, and vocal qualities, such as volume, pitch, and inflection. Paralanguage also includes accents, pronunciation, and the complexity of sentences. Whispering, for instance, signals secrecy and intimacy, whereas shouting conveys anger. A sarcastic tone communicates scorn or dislike more emphatically than words.
9. SILENCE is a final type of nonverbal behavior, which can communicate powerful messages. “I’m not speaking to you” actually speaks volumes. We use silence to communicate different meanings. For instance, it can symbolize contentment when intimates are so comfortable, they don’t need to talk. Silence can also communicate awkwardness, as you know if you’ve ever had trouble keeping conversation going on a first meeting.