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Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal Communication

People in the workplace can convey a great deal of information without even speaking; this is called nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication can convey just as much as written and verbal communication, and human beings read and react to these nonverbal signals in the workplace.

Body language is nonverbal communication that involves body movement and gestures. The catalogue of these movements, together with attempts at defining their meaning, is called kinesics. Each culture is believed to possess a separate language of kinesics. This branch of study is used in matters of negotiation and interrogation, where reading nonverbal cues is of great importance. According to the 2008 Encyclopedia Britannica, kinesics is a primarily American attempt at movement-classification, designed to

create a vocabulary of gestures, both amusing and potentially practical.

There are hundreds of thousands of possible signs that can be communicated through body movements and gestures. In addition to those movements and gestures, the nonverbal cues given through facial expressions and eye contact, personal space, and touch also influence individual interactions in the workplace. While this body language is generally well understood in each culture, there are major cultural differences in nonverbal communication.


Albert Mehrabian, in his 2007 book Nonverbal Communication, focuses on the five categories of nonverbal communication developed by Ekman and Friesen in 1969 and widely used by sociologists since. These definitions are used to inspect and learn from movements in social interactions. A movement may belong to more than one of these categories.

The first category is emblem. These are movements so common that there are specific words used to designate them, such as the English handshake or smile. Emblems often carry intrinsic meaning and are easy to understand to someone who has experience with them. Gestures, or movements of the head, hands, arms, and legs, can be used to convey specific messages that have linguistic translations. For example, a person might wave his or her hand rather than saying hello, or nod his or her head in agreement, which means yes or okay. These gestures can be very useful in the workplace because they are a quick way to convey thoughts and feelings without needing to speak or write. Additionally, many such gestures are generally widely understood, although they may carry different meanings in other cultures. For instance, although the ok sign that is made through the touch of the thumb and forefinger with the remaining fingers extended is seen as a positive gesture in the United States, in some other cultures, this is seen as a vulgar gesture.

The second category is illustrator movements. Illustrators accompany words in natural manners and are used to add meaning to verbal communication. An illustrator may be a particular nod to emphasize a phrase, or a wave of a hand to show an idea. In addition to the gestures that people use that have a particular meaning, people also use gestures that do not have specific, generally understood meanings. These gestures are the illustrators that add meaning to a verbal message. For instance, when giving a presentation, a person might use hand gestures to emphasize a point. Many people use gestures while speaking to others to accompany their words, and while these body movements may not have a meaning that can be pinpointed, they serve to embellish a person's words.

The third Ekman and Friesen category is affect display, the category most important to Mehrabian. These are actions that are paired with emotions, such as the facial movements that indicate disgust or amusement. These body movements may indicate whether a person is open and receptive, angry, distracted, or a number of other emotions. Many affect displays are commonly interpreted; for instance, individuals who sit in a slumped position and frown are believed to be disinterested or unhappy. Those who sit upright, smile, and have raised eyebrows, are seen as interested and happy. While these affect displays are often appropriately interpreted, they may not be related to the interaction with another person, and thus may be misread. For instance, if a person has a terrible headache, he may squint, look down, and grimace during a conversation, indicating to the speaker that he disagrees with her, even if he is receptive to and in agreement with the speaker.

Regulator movements are the fourth category. These actions are seen in social interaction, and they are especially important in business and sales situations. Regulator actions are made by the listener to help the speaker improve communication. A listener may nod and move in an interested manner, urging the speaker to continue or give looks of confusion, urging the speaker to explain or repeat. Certain regulator movements can also communicate the listener's desire to end the discussion or embark on a new explanation.

The last category is adaptor. Adaptor actions are often unconscious movements made for reasons of comfort or clarity. This includes shifting positions in a chair or scratching an itch. Although these movements have less immediate meaning to the verbal communication, adaptors can still reveal attitudes and feelings that contribute to a mental state. Other examples of adaptors are adjusting one's clothes, biting one's nails, or fidgeting and toying with an object. Adaptors may indicate to others that a person is upset or nervous, and behavior such as this during a job interview or a meeting with a coworker may be interpreted very negatively. A person who engages in such behavior may be seen as preoccupied, anxious, or even as dishonest. As with affect displays, such body language may not convey true feelings; a person who fidgets and bites her nails may be exhibiting such behaviors for innocuous reasons. Thus, while such behaviors are often interpreted correctly as presenting anxiety, they do not necessarily indicate that a person is in any way dishonest.

When listening to others, individuals often convey messages nonverbally. Therefore, care should be taken to avoid the following:

  • Sitting or leaning back is a body movement that may convey disinterest in a speaker's words or disagreement with the speaker. Additionally, resting one's chin on his or her hand may convey boredom. Conversely, leaning forward slightly, raising eyebrows, and making eye contact indicates that one is receptive to the speaker.
  • Crossed arms often connote a defensive posture, which can indicate that a person is unhappy with the speaker, feels threatened by the speaker, or does not want to listen to the speaker.
  • Adaptors, such as fidgeting or playing with objects, may indicate that one is nervous around the speaker or disinterested in the speaker's message.


Although facial expressions and eye contact are not kinesics and therefore technically not body language, they are types of nonverbal communication that can have an effect on business relations. Researchers have found that people can identify with great accuracy seven separate human emotions, even after seeing only facial and eye expressions: sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, contempt, and interest. Therefore, without speaking a word, a facial expression can convey a great deal of information to others. Similarly, eye contact or lack of eye contact can also indicate a person's attitudes and emotions.

Research indicates that people use four different facial management techniques to control our facial expressions. First, people intensify their facial expressions, or exaggerate them, in order to show strong emotion. For example, a saleswoman who just made a major sale might intensify her positive expression by smiling more broadly and raising her eyebrows. Second, people may de-intensify their facial expressions when they control or subdue them. For instance, an employee who just found out that he got a raise might smile less or look less happy after finding out that his coworker did not get a raise. Third, a person neutralizes their expressions when they avoid showing any facial expression. A person might not show any emotion when being reprimanded in the workplace or when attempting to negotiate with another businessperson. Finally, humans mask their facial expressions. This occurs when a person hides his or her true emotions and conveys different emotions. For example, an employee might express enthusiasm to a manager who gives him an undesirable task in order to curry favor with that manager. Or, a customer service representative might express concern and caring in her facial expression, when in actuality she is annoyed by the customer. Each of these facial management techniques makes it possible for people to interact with one another in socially acceptable ways.

Making and maintaining eye contact can have positive outcomes in the workplace. Eye contact can be used to indicate receptiveness to what another person is saying.

Additionally, eye contact may indicate the desire to communicate with a person. Finally, eye contact can be used to express respect for a person by maintaining a longer gaze. Interestingly, refraining from making eye contact, such as looking down or away, may indicate a level of respect for someone of higher status. A lack of eye contact, or an unwillingness to maintain that eye contact may indicate discomfort with a situation, a disinterest in the other person's words, or a dislike of the person. However, the degree to which a person does or does not make eye contact may be dependent on their own level of shyness or extraversion and cannot always be interpreted as a reaction to a particular person or situation.

Certain business positions involve a large amount of nonverbal communication connected to the face and the eyes. Positions where interaction with people is common, such as bank tellers, profit by practicing better nonverbal communication. Marketing and auditing positions also go hand-in-hand with proper facial gestures. In William E. Nolen's article Reading PeopleNonverbal communication in internal auditing (1995), Nolen suggests that smiles and eye contact can be used to relieve tension in normally serious business situations. Jeanne Segal and Jaelline Jaffe, in their 2007 article/resource Nonverbal Communication: The Hidden Language of Emotional Intelligence, suggest using a digital camera or recorder to self-record one's facial movements and improve them, learning proper smiles and stopping stress signals.


Researchers use the term proxemic to describe the way that a person uses space in communication. Individuals have a personal space that is like an invisible bubble surrounding them. This bubble becomes larger or smaller, depending on the person with whom we interact. We are comfortable standing or sitting closer to someone we like and more comfortable with someone we dislike or do not know well standing or sitting at a distance. However, the amount of personal space that a person desires depends on many characteristics, including gender and age.

The personal space that a person prefers also depends on the situation. When interacting with friends, relatives, or conducting casual business, most people prefer a distance of one and a half to four feet. When conducting formal or impersonal business, most individuals prefer a personal space of 4 to 8 feet. Therefore, a person is likely to be more comfortable standing closely to a trusted coworker than to a new customer.

Although there are broad norms for a comfortable personal space, it is not uncommon for a person to feel that his or her personal space has been violated when another person sits or stands too closely. When personal

space is violated, there are several reactions that people might have. First, they may withdraw by backing up or leaving the room. Second, if anticipating the possibility of a personal space violation, a person may avoid having their space violated by such actions as staying away from meetings, crowds, and parties. Third, people may insulate themselves from intrusion of personal space. A manager who puts her desk in her office in such a way that no one can sit near her is insulating. An employee who takes a seat at the end of a table during a meeting might be doing so to prevent others from sitting near him. Finally, a person may fight to keep his personal space by asking the other person to back up or move away.

In a business setting, it may be helpful to recognize the behaviors that others engage in when their personal space is violated. That is, if one notices that others step back from them when speaking, they may sit at more of a distance, or if they seem physically uncomfortable, they may have a larger personal space, which should be respected.


In the workplace, people may use touch to communicate nonverbally. The functional-professional touch is businesslike and impersonal. The touch that a physician uses when conducting a physical examination is a functional-professional touch. However, touch is not a part of most professions, and thus, this type of touch is not used often in business settings. The social-polite touch, such as a handshake, is much more common. This type of touch is used to recognize other individuals. It is an expected touch in many business settings. Finally, the friendship-warmth touch shows that one values another as a person. A pat on the back or a hug is a friendship-warmth touch. In most workplaces, the social-polite touch is the only necessary touch, and most managers and employees are encouraged to avoid using touch (particularly the friendship-warmth touch) in the workplace. While many people see a hand on a shoulder or a pat on the back as a useful touch to convey encouragement or concern for another's well-being, sexual harassment fears have made many avoid all types of touch beyond handshakes.


Often considered part of nonverbal communication, paralanguage involves the sounds and pitch of speech during social interaction. Paralanguage affects many business functions, such as meetings, conference calls, and personal evaluations. Constantly speaking in a shrill voice, for instance, is more likely to provoke irritation and annoyance no matter what is said. Pauses in speech, or sounds such as ah and um, according to Segal and Jaffe, should be monitored and reduced to avoid causing boredom and lapses in attention.


An important aspect of nonverbal communication is the environment which the subject has control over. Most workers have a workspace that they can change, add items of their own, or organize to their liking. Many managers can decorate their offices and move furniture such as desks and chairs in whatever ways they want. In the 2008 article Non-verbal Communication by, the office environment is seen as divided into personal and nonpersonal sections. Managers can control communication by controlling the surroundings in which they conduct interviews, meetings, and so forth. This in turn changes the comfort levels of people in the environments.


In addition to using the environment, suggests that silence can be an integral part of many social interactions. The silence between phrases, the silence when waiting for questions, and the silence before responding are all examples of how silence can affect communication. Many people interpret silences as signs of emotional states. Does a silence show hesitance, thoughtfulness, or ignorance? This depends on the situation and the speakers. Silence should be considered in all business communication.


Across the United States, most body language is consistently understood. However, in other nations and cultures, what is considered to be appropriate body language in one place, may be seen as highly inappropriate in others. As noted above, the American sign for ok may be seen as vulgar in other nations. Similarly, other types of gestures and body movements may convey unwanted negative meanings. Therefore, care should be taken before using gestures in other countries or with business partners from other parts of the world. Body movements can also be misinterpreted based on culture. Although most people in the world understand the movement of the head up and down to mean yes or I agree, this is not the case in all countries.

Norms and expectations regarding facial expressions and eye contact also differ across cultures. Because different cultures have different norms for respect, eye contact that is seen as relationship-building and respectful in the United States may be seen as challenging and disrespectful in other cultures.

Personal space and touch are used differently in different nations. Americans tend to prefer larger amounts of personal space than do some Latin Americans, Italians, and Middle-Easterners. Germans, Chinese, and Japanese prefer larger amounts of personal space, similar to what Americans prefer. Thus, when conducting business with people from other cultures, it is important to understand and respect their personal space needs. Americans who do

business with those who prefer less personal space may have to fight the urge to step back and therefore avoid insulting a business partner.

However, many instances of nonverbal communication are considered to be nearly universal. Paul Ekman, in his 2007 book Emotions Revealed, discusses an experiment he helped conduct, in which a series of nine Pidgin speakers (who had limited experience in other languages) made a series of facial gestures. These gestures were in time with a story, the main character of which they were to mirror using nonverbal communication to describe emotion. These gestures, filmed, were then shown to American college students, who tried to define the emotions correctly. Overwhelmingly, the college students were able to perceive the emotions of the Pidgin speakers without flaw. Some of the emotions Ekman found to be easily understood included anger, enjoyment, sadness, and disgust. This study suggests that certain basic nonverbal communications are shared by most cultures throughout the world.


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Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal Communication


By virtue of a series of discoveries and conceptual departures in the social sciences, our understanding of the process of human communication has been expanded to include nonverbal communication. In the words of Ashley Montagu and Floyd Matson in The Human Connection (1979): It is not merely a hidden dimension or a silent language that has been uncovered by the new wave of scientific explorers; it is more like a neglected universe of discourse and intercourse. We are becoming aware that the verbal domain is only the tip of the iceberg of communicative experiencethat there is more, much more, to human dialog than meets the ear (p. xiii). This entry discusses key ideas from the vast research literature on nonverbal communication (NVC).

Nonverbal behavior (NVB) is usually divided into several categories. One category is paralanguage, which refers to the content-free vocalizations and pauses associated with speech. Research conducted by Starkey Duncan and Donald Fiske (1979) shows how paralinguistic behaviors serve as regulators of social interaction. Another category is facial expressions. Paul Ekmans research has shown how expressions indicate primary emotions (for example, see his 1992 article). A third category is kinesics or body language. The research reported by Ray Birdwhistell in Kinesics and Context (1970) is an example of the value of detailed recording of gestures and bodily movements. A fourth category is visual behavior, which includes gazing. Michael Argyles research, reported in Bodily Communication (1975) and elsewhere, has elucidated the meaning of and social functions served by various patterns of eye contact between people. The study of spatial behavior or proxemics is another aspect of NVB research. Edward Halls categories of interpersonal distance influenced the study of communication and culture (see The Hidden Dimension, 1966). Georg Simmels writing about spatial relations throws light on how space can reflect a groups social standing as being dominant or marginal in a society (see Allen, 2000). The synergistic effects of these categories are illustrated by Albert Mehrabians multiple-channel research summarized in his 1972 book Nonverbal Communication.

Each of the nonverbal channels is understood in terms of both interpretationreferred to as decoding and communication, known as encoding. These functions are related: The interpretive function leads observers to infer the communicators intentions; the communicative function is used to influence the observers attribution of intentions. The knowledge generated by research provides a tool for agents of influence such as advertising executives and politicians. Certain NVBs have been shown to provide a window into emotions and intentions: For example, in her 2006 article, Christine Harris shows the NVBs and muscle activations that indicate the feeling of embarrassment (in successioneyes down, smile control, head away, gaze shifts, face touch); and, in their 1982 book on Nonverbal Communication, Daniel Druckman, Richard Rozelle, and James Baxter show that deceivers displayed more frequent leg movements, less time looking at the interviewer, and more fidgeting with objects than honest and evasive role-players in their experiments. These are some of the cues that can be used to diagnose psychological states and lying (referred to as decoding); they are also the cues that can be used to disguise ones feelings or intentions (referred to as encoding).

It would seem then that the research findings provide useful information for managing impressions. However, the research also suggests that the process may be more difficult than it seems. In a 1985 chapter, Bella DePaulo and her colleagues review evidence on the impact of controlling NVBs in order to perpetrate a lie. Pointing to a phenomenon referred to as leakage, these findings show that when certain nonverbal channels, such as facial expressions, are orchestrated to hide an intention, other channels, subject to less conscious control, can be revealing. Words and facial expressions have been found to be easier to control than body movements and such paralinguistic behaviors as tone of voice. These researchers also show that highly motivated liars may be easier to catch than their less motivated counterparts: When the stakes for pulling off a lie are high, more-difficult-to-control nonverbal channels are more revealing than verbal clues; less motivated liars are more likely to give themselves away with words. Thus, both context and channel are important for diagnosis. Likewise, they are important for the communicators attempts to create certain impressions.

Another issue is the extent to which the findings are universal. Culture has been shown to influence expressions: Based on a review of the research, Randall Gordon and his colleagues concluded that the events that elicit emotions vary from culture to culture, but the particular facial muscle movements triggered when a given emotion is elicited may be relatively universal (2006, p. 85). Cultural influences are referred to as display rules. These rules serve to control expressions that would be inappropriate in certain settings. Numerous studies have found differences among cultures in each of the NVB channels: Many of these studies focus on preferences for spacing or interaction distances; some show differences between cultures in gazing behavior, while others examine paralinguistic behaviors. (See, for example, Michael Argyles 1986 article on display rules dealing with intimacy.) However, while the cross-cultural comparisons are informative, the studies provide limited insight into the situations that arouse such feelings as guilt, shame, or stress within cultures. Cultural interpretations of situationsfor example, as social transgressionsare central to the idea of display rules and have implications for the way we diagnose leaked NVBs.

Professional cultures also influence expressions and their interpretation. For example, when considering the field of international politics, four questions can be asked: What is the state of the leaders health? To what extent do the statements made by national representatives reflect actual policies? How committed are representatives to the positions put forward? How secure is the representatives political status? Clues about what to look for are provided by NVC studies. A furrowed brow and raised eyelids together with change in vocal tone and heightened pitch suggest pain; deviations from baseline NVBs may indicate deception; an increase in the amount of NVBs expressed in several channels may signal strong commitment; and spatial behavior may provide clues to political status. These indicators direct attention to relationships between nonverbal channels, abrupt changes in expressions, and the intensity of nonverbal displays. They provide a structure for focusing attention on relevant detailsthat is, they suggest where to focus attention and what to look at. But they can also be misleading. Professional politicians are adept at masking intentions and feelings, particularly in the channels that are easier to control (facial expressions, spatial behavior). For this reason, knowledge about professional socialization and norms provides a broadened appreciation for the meaning of communication. (For more on NVC in the context of international politics, see the 2006 chapter by Gordon and his coauthors.)

SEE ALSO Communication


Allen, John. 2000. On Georg Simmel: Proxemics, Distances, and Movement. In Thinking Space, ed. Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift, 5470. London: Routledge.

Argyle, Michael. 1975. Bodily Communication. New York: International Universities Press.

Argyle, Michael. 1986. Rules for Social Relationships in Four Cultures. Australian Journal of Psychology 38 (3): 309318.

Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1970. Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

DePaulo, Bella M., J. I. Stone, and G. D. Lassiter. 1985. Deceiving and Detecting Deceit. In The Self and Social Life, ed. Barry R. Schlenker, 323370. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Druckman, Daniel, Richard M. Rozelle, and James C. Baxter. 1982. Nonverbal Communication: Survey, Theory, and Research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Duncan, Starkey, and Donald W. Fiske. 1979. Dynamic Patterning in Conversation. American Scientist 67 (January-February): 9098.

Ekman, Paul. 1992. Facial Expression of Emotions: New Findings, New Questions. Psychological Science 3 (1): 3438.

Gordon, Randall, Daniel Druckman, Richard M. Rozelle, and James C. Baxter. 2006. Non-Verbal Behaviour as Communication: Approaches, Issues, and Research. In Handbook of Communication Skills, ed. Owen Hargie, 73119. London: Routledge.

Hall, Edward T. 1966. The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday.

Harris, Christine R. 2006. Embarrassment: A Form of Social Pain. American Scientist 94 (6): 524533.

Mehrabian, Albert. 1972. Nonverbal Communication. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.

Montagu, Ashley, and Floyd Matson. 1979. The Human Connection. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Daniel Druckman

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Nonverbal Communication


The question of nonverbal communication involves two distinct areas of epistemology whose theoretical and clinical characteristics have, as of 2005, yet to be articulated: a developmental and linguistic field and a psychoanalytic field. In terms of developmental issues, Frédéric François notes that the body has been largely overlooked by theoreticians of meaning, language, and communication. Understanding facts often begins with an understanding of the final state of their onto-genesis and it is only afterwards that we can retroactively investigate the roots, foundations, and precursors of the object of study. According to François, "It may be the descriptions of the final state that enable us to begin with well-formed utterances, with syntax, and then go on to examine their semantics, whatever it is those utterances may want to say and, ultimately, of the pragmatics, of the reasons for saying, of what it is that urges us to speak and what we are doing when we speak. And although it is true that linguistics has followed this sequence in its development, it is just as true that the child follows the opposite sequence." In other words, it is the result of a natural process in the history of understanding that structural linguistics has developed (Ferdinand de Saussure) before what is currently known as subjectal or dynamic linguistics, which makes greater use of preverbal levels of communication.

Today it is obvious that work on the development of language in children essentially involves an investigation of its corporeal roots, whether these are found in the work of pragmatists (John Austin, Jerome Bruner), cognitivists (C. Trevarthen), or those interested in suprasegmental elements of the speech chain (Ivan Fonagy). All of them attach great importance to deepening our understanding of the preverbal communication that precedes the development of verbal communication, but which accompanies it, shadowlike, throughout life.

For neurophysiology, verbal communication, often referred to as encoded or digital communication, serves an analytical function and is primarily supported by the major hemisphere (involving the integration of the "twofold articulation" of language into phonemes and monemes described by André Martinet), while preverbal communication, known as suprasegmental or analogical, is said to serve a more global and holistic function, and is principally supported by the minor hemisphere (integration of behavioral communication and the music of language: prosody, rate of speech, rhythm, timbre, intensity, and so on, all of which are elements that constitute the nonverbal component of verbal speech).

In terms of psychoanalysis, the history of research on nonverbal communication is superimposed on the history of the concept of counter-transference to the extent that the latter is essentially grounded in a more or less archaic level of emotional communication. From this point of view so-called preverbal communication refers as much to bodily communication, mimicry and behavior, as it does to the unencoded element of language.

It was primarily Melanie Klein who exposed this field of study by her introduction of the concept of projective identification. The importance that the post-Kleinian movement accorded to the process of counter-transference is well known. For rather than being considered an obstacle to therapy, counter-transference was treated as a fundamental tool for working with the patient, regardless of his or her age. Wilfred Bion, through concepts like the "mother's capacity for reverie" and the "alpha function," did much to improve our understanding of these primitive levels of communication, which come into play in group dynamics and in the minds of psychotic subjects. Bion's model was then used for investigating the development of the mental life of the infant.

Julia Kristeva studied the suprasegmental elements of the language of depressive patients. Guy Rosolato, through his concept of "metaphoric-metonymic oscillation," tried to take into account the modalities of the transition between representations of things and representations of words, or, ultimately, between unconscious systems and preconscious-conscious systems, modalities that would clarify the different levels, analog and digital, of communication. Gradually, and in parallel with this work, affect began to assume the function of "representance" (André Green), which acts directly as a medium for nonverbal communication.

At present it is in the investigation of analytic therapies for very young children or patients presenting archaic pathologies that the work of developmental psychologists (Daniel N. Stern) and psychoanalysts finds common ground. Nonetheless, research on non-verbal communication has become a central part of therapy for all patients, even adult and neurotic patients.

Bernard Golse

See also: Alpha function; Amae, concept of; Counter-identification; Empathy; Identification; Infans; Infantile psychosis; Infant observation (direct); Maternal reverie, capacity for; Primary object; Projective identification; Telepathy.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1967). A Theory of Thinking. In Second Thoughts. London: Heinemann. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43, (1962), 4-5.)

Fonagy, Ivan. (1983). La Vive Voix: Essais de psycho-phonétique. Paris: Payot.

Green, André. (1973). Le Discours vivant. La conception psychanalytique de l'affect. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Klein, Melanie. (1946). Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 27, 99-110. (Reprinted 1975. In The Writings of Melanie Klein, III, 1946-1963, pp. 1-24). London: Hogarth Press.

Kristeva, Julia. (1989). Black sun: Depression and melancholia (Leon S. Roudiez, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1987)

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Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communicationsuch as facial expressions, gestures, posture, and tone of voiceis an important component of most human communications, including, of course, business communications. Most people use nonverbal signals when communicating. Even the blind use nonverbal communications to aid in both sending and receiving messages since nonverbal techniques includes such things as tone of voice and physical proximity. Understanding nonverbal communication techniques can help a small business owner to get a message across or successfully interpret a message received from another person. On the other hand, nonverbal communication can also send signals that interfere with the effective presentation or reception of messages. "Sometimes nonverbal messages contradict the verbal; often they express true feelings more accurately than the spoken or written language," Herta A. Murphy and Herbert W. Hildebrandt noted in their book Effective Business Communications. In fact, studies have shown that between 60 and 90 percent of a message's effect may come from nonverbal clues. Therefore, it is important for small business owners and managers to be aware of the nonverbal messages they send and to develop the skill of reading the nonverbal messages contained in the behavior of others. There are three main elements of nonverbal communication: appearance, body language, and sounds.


In oral forms of communication, the appearance of both the speaker and the surroundings are vital to the successful conveyance of a message. "Whether you are speaking to one person face to face or to a group in a meeting, personal appearance and the appearance of the surroundings convey nonverbal stimuli that affect attitudeseven emotionstoward the spoken words," according to Murphy and Hildebrandt. For example, a speaker's clothing, hairstyle, use of cosmetics, neatness, and stature may cause a listener to form impressions about her occupation, socioeconomic level, competence, etc. Similarly, such details of the surroundings as room size, furnishings, decorations, lighting, and windows can affect a listener's attitudes toward the speaker and the message being presented. The importance of nonverbal clues in surroundings can be seen in the desire of business managers to have a corner office with a view rather than a cubicle in a crowded work area.

Body Language

Body language, and particularly facial expressions, can provide important information that may not be contained in the verbal portion of the communication. Facial expressions are especially helpful as they may show hidden emotions that contradict verbal statements. For example, an employee may deny having knowledge of a problem, but also have a fearful expression and glance around guiltily. Other forms of body language that may provide communication clues include posture and gestures. For example, a manager who puts his feet up on the desk may convey an impression of status and confidence, while an employee who leans forward to listen may convey interest. Gestures can add emphasis and improve understanding when used sparingly, but the continual use of gestures can distract listeners and convey nervousness.


Finally, the tone, rate, and volume of a speaker's voice can convey different meanings, as can sounds like laughing, throat clearing, or humming. It is also important to note that perfume or other odors contribute to a listener's impressions, as does physical contact between the speaker and the listener. Silence, or the lack of sound, is a form of nonverbal communication as well. Silence can communicate a lack of understanding or even hard feelings in a face-to-face discussion.


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Strugatch, Warren. "More Than Words Can Say." LI Business News. 26 May 2000.

                               Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                                updated by Magee, ECDI

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"Nonverbal Communication." Encyclopedia of Small Business. . 21 Aug. 2017 <>.

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non-verbal communication

non-verbal communication Forms of communication which do not rely on the spoken or written word. Facial gestures and hand signals can often give messages to another person without a word being said. In some cultures, for example, the reverse ‘V’ sign often speaks louder than words. Most such forms of communication, including rude gestures, are culturally specific in their meanings. See also BODY LANGUAGE.

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"non-verbal communication." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 21 Aug. 2017 <>.

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communication, non-verbal

communication, non-verbal See NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION.

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