Nonverbal Communication

views updated May 18 2018


Nonverbal communication has been referred to as "body language" in popular culture ever since the publication of Julius Fast's book of the same name in 1970. However, researchers Mark Knapp and Judith Hall (1997, p. 5) have defined nonverbal communication as follows: "Nonverbal communication refers to communication effected by means other than words." This definition does not exclude many forms of communication, but it implies that nonverbal communication is more than body language. However, determination of the exact boundaries of the field is a point of contention among scholars.

Nonverbal communication is an area of study that straddles many disciplines—sociology, psychology, anthropology, communication, and even art and criminal justice. Each of these fields tends to focus on a slightly different aspect of nonverbal communication. For example, psychology might focus on the nonverbal expression of emotions; anthropology might focus on the use of interpersonal space in different cultures; and communication might focus on the content of the message. However, there is more overlap among these fields than divergence.

The History

It appears that all cultures have written or oral traditions expressing the importance of nonverbal communication to understanding human beings. Over thousands of years, Chinese culture has developed a set of rules about how to judge the character and personality of an individual by observing the size, shape, and relative positions of the nose, eyes, eyebrows, chin, cheeks, and forehead. Someone with wide-set eyes would be a "broadminded" person, while someone with a high forehead would be a "smart" person. Although there does not seem to be much scientific evidence that facial characteristics predict personality, modern people still believe this to be valid.

Ancient Greek culture has also relied on non-verbal communication to understand people. The playwright Theophrastus created a list of "31 types of men" that he made available to other playwrights to assist them in the creation of characters for their plays. Theophrastus relied on insights gleaned from nonverbal communication to describe these personalities; the penurious man does not wear his sandals until noon, and the sanguine man has slumped shoulders. Humans still rely on nonverbal insights like these to judge the personalities and emotions of other people.

In India, the sacred Hindu texts called the Veda, written around 1000 B. C. E., described a liar as someone who, when questioned, rubs his big toe along the ground, looks down, does not make eye contact, and so forth. Late-twentieth-century research based on North Americans shows that people still concur with the Veda on this description of a liar.

Research into African history has shown that one of the characteristics of an effective tribal chief was his ability to move his subjects with the power of his speeches, made particularly potent by the heavy use of nonverbal communication. This legacy is apparent in the traditions of the African-American church in America. These same principles of strong body language and voice tone accompanying speeches has now been adopted in various forms by the rest of American society and politics because of its ability to persuade above and beyond well-crafted words.

The Function of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication serves a number of functions. It can define communication by providing the backdrop for communication—a quiet, dimly lit room suggests to people that the communication that occurs within that environment should also be quiet and hushed (as in a religious venue). Brightly lit rooms, with active colors such as yellow and orange, communicate active, upbeat activities. Nonverbal communication can also be connected to the behavior or dress of others in the room. If others are moving calmly, crying, and wearing formal clothes, that sends a nonverbal message that is quite distinct from a room full of people moving with a bounce in their step, laughing, and wearing Hawaiian-print shirts.

Nonverbal communication can also regulate verbal communication. Much of people's conversations are regulated by nonverbal cues so subtle that the average person does not notice them. People nod and smile at particular moments during a face-to-face conversation. This signals the talker that the listener understands and that the talker should continue talking. When the talker is finished, he or she will drop his or her voice tone and loudness to let the listener know. If the talker wishes to continue talking, he or she will fill the pauses that occur with a louder voice, with many "umms, ahhs," and so on. People have learned these rules so well that they adhere to them almost unconsciously. The use of these subtle clues accounts for why people can have conversations without constantly talking over each other, or having to utter the word "over"—like the astronauts—to let the other person know when one is finished speaking. This rule can be tested by violating it. If a person tries to remain motionless while engaged in a conversation with a friend, that person will find this is not only hard to do, but it will cause the friend great consternation.

Finally, nonverbal communication can be the message itself. A frown indicates unhappiness. A wave of the hand signifies "good-bye." A quiver in the voice signifies distress. Raising the index finger to the lips signifies "shhh," or "be quiet," yet raising the index finger into the air in a thrusting manner may mean "we're number one." No words are needed to send these messages. Note that most of these meanings are culturally determined (which is discussed below in detail).

The Relationship Between Verbal and Nonverbal Communication

Paul Ekman proposed that there are six ways in which verbal and nonverbal communication relate. He suggested that nonverbal communication can substitute for verbal communication, as well as repeat, contradict, complement, accent, and regulate verbal communication.

What Ekman meant by substitution is that nonverbal communication can be substituted for verbal communication. If asked whether another helping of mother's wonderful pasta is wanted, a person can shake his or her head up and down to signify "yes," rather than attempting to utter the word "yes" through a mouthful of spaghetti.

Nonverbal communication can also repeat verbal communication. People can simultaneously speak the word "no" and shake their heads side to side. Repeating and substitution seem like the same idea, but substitute means someone does not speak the word or phrase represented by the non-verbal gesture, whereas repeat means he or she does speak the word or phrase.

Sometimes these simultaneous verbal and non-verbal signals will contradict each other. Someone might utter the phrase "this will be fun" and yet display a facial expression of disgust as they speak those words. This is sarcasm; the words seem positive, yet the facial expression is negative.

Nonverbal communication can also complement verbal communication. Someone might say the phrase "I've had a tough day" with their shoulders slumped and their feet dragging. Note that slumped shoulders and dragging feet can express a number of things (e.g., sadness, fatigue, injury, daydreaming), but in conjunction with the verbal message "I've had a tough day," they enrich and focus the message.

Sometimes nonverbal communication will simply accent a particular part of a spoken verbal communication. Someone might say, "It is important to punctuate your speech with nonverbal gestures," while rhythmically moving one hand up and down on each syllable in the word "punctuate." In this situation, the moving hand gestures for the word "punctuate" will accent that word, thereby letting the listener know that this concept is important.

Finally, Ekman proposes that nonverbal communication can regulate verbal communication. As discussed above, there are various unspoken rules that regulate conversations. Listeners provide backchannel communication (e.g., nodding, smiling subtly, saying "uh huh") at particular points during the conversations to let their partners know that they understand and that the partners can continue to speak.

The Structures and Properties of Nonverbal Communication

Judee Burgoon and other scholars have suggested that nonverbal messages conform to many of the same properties as verbal communication— properties such as structured rules, intentionality, awareness, covert and overtness, control, and private/publicness—but in slightly different ways.

In order to communication meaning, nonverbal messages must be rule bound, similar to speech. The sentence "Floats otter the on sea the" does not make much sense because it does not conform to certain rules applying to word order. "The otter floats on the sea" does follow those rules, and thus makes sense. Nonverbal communication has similar properties, and when the rules are violated, they change the meanings. In North America, there are rules that guide how close people stand next to each other when talking—usually between eighteen inches and four feet. When one person stands too close to another when talking, the other feels compelled to move away to reestablish what they feel is a comfortable distance. The violation of this rule causes one person to feel that the other person is too pushy or aggressive, and the other person to feel that the other is too unfriendly or standoffish.

People assume that the vast majority of spoken communication is intentional; they choose the words they speak. Likewise, most nonverbal communication is intentional. People deliberately wave to others or give an insulting finger gesture. However, scholars such as Peter Andersen and Joseph Capella have argued that it appears that a greater proportion of nonverbal communication is unintentional. For example, some people may intend to communicate calmness and maturity about the death of their cat, and yet they often unintentionally communicate sadness through their voice tone and facial expression.

Similarly, people are also less aware of their non-verbal communication compared to their verbal communication. Except for unusual circumstances, people can hear all that they speak. People are usually aware of their nonverbal communication (e.g., the clothes they wear, the gestures they use, and the expressions they show), but not always. For example, when lying, a person may feel afraid and yet feel they were able to hide that fear. As scholar Bella DePaulo has shown, despite their beliefs, liars are often unaware that in fact they are expressing clear signs of fear in their face, posture, or speech.

Verbal communication is more overt, and non-verbal behavior is more covert. People are formally trained in their verbal behavior in the schools. Nonverbal communication is less obvious, as in subtle facial expressions and barely perceptible changes in voice tone, and people are not typically formally trained in their nonverbal communication. Children are not often given lessons on how close to stand to others when talking or how to express anger in a facial expression.

Nonverbal communication is also less controllable than verbal communication. Verbal communication is easy to suppress, or to express, and people choose the words they use. Although much of nonverbal communication follows the same pattern (e.g., people choose to display a hand gesture), nonverbal communication is much more likely to have an unbidden quality to it. This is the smile that creeps onto one's face when one knows he or she should not be laughing.

Finally, verbal communication is more public than nonverbal communication. Speaking typically requires an audible or visible message that is available for others to hear or see, not just the intended target of the communication. Once public, this communication is also fodder for public discussion. In contrast, nonverbal communication tends to be more fodder for private conversation. When political candidates speak, people publicly discuss and debate their policies, and not their shoes or their gestures. This trend is changing, with more focus being placed on how the candidate delivers a message, rather than on the message itself.

The Origins of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication comes from both culture and biology. Most nonverbal communication is learned the same way as language, one word or gesture at a time. Words have different meanings in different languages or cultures, and likewise, gestures can have different meanings in different cultures. In North America, a raised index and middle finger typically means "peace" or "victory," regardless of whether the palm is turned inward or outward. In Australia or the United Kingdom, this same gesture with the palm turned outward means "victory," but with the palm turned inward, it is an insult ("screw you"). People learn how to cross their legs, fold their arms, how much to gesture with their hands when speaking, how much to express with their faces, how close to stand to others, and so on.

However, what distinguishes nonverbal communication from verbal communication is that some nonverbal communication is not learned; it is innate. Charles Darwin argued that the facial expressions people display for certain emotions, such as anger, disgust, distress (sadness), fear, happiness, and surprise (some scholars argue for contempt, embarrassment, and/or interest as well), are part of human evolutionary heritage. These emotions have helped humans (and other animals) to survive, and thus they get passed from one generation to the next. A person who has a fear emotional response to danger will be more likely to escape that danger and thus will survive and reproduce. A person without that response will not survive and thus will not pass his or her genes on to the next generation.

What Darwin and others, including Carrol Izard and Ekman, have argued is that these emotions cause people or animals to act in some way(e.g., to strike when angry, or to flee when afraid). This behavioral intention must be communicated to others in the group. The facial expression thus becomes a visual signal of this intention, which allows others to avoid this person and his or her anger—which prevents a fight. This communication permits all social animals to maintain harmony and cooperation. Even animals without a spoken language will communicate their emotional intentions (e.g., tail wag, raised fur, attentive > ears), but they communicate with their bodies and not so much with their faces. Other animals interpret these signals accurately without receiving any formal training.

Darwin, Ekman, and Izard argue that these facial expressions are as much a part of an emotional response as an increased heart rate or sweating, and they cite five sources of evidence that supports their views. First, scholars such as Irene Eibl-Eibesfeldt have shown that children who are born blind will smile when happy or make a distressed face when sad—similar to children who are born with sight—even though they cannot see how this expression was made. Second, human's biologically closest animal relatives, the chimpanzees, also seem to show facial expressions that are similar to those of humans. Third, when Ekman and his colleagues asked people to pose those facial expressions of emotion described above, and then showed photos of these expressions to people of other cultures, the people in other cultures were not only able to recognize the expressions but agreed strongly which expression was anger, which was disgust, and so on. Likewise, all cultures spontaneously pose these expressions in the same way (i.e., all people show anger with a furrowed eyebrow and tight lips, and happiness with a smile, and so on). Ekman's research included cultures in Papua New Guinea that at the time had no books, no electricity, and almost no contact with Western culture, so they could not have learned the expressions from movies, television, or outsiders. Izard points out that as one travels in Europe, the nonverbal gestures for particular words or concepts change drastically as one goes from village to village—yet the facial expressions for these emotions does not. Fourth, Ekman and his colleagues have shown that by posing and holding these facial expressions of emotion, one will experience the emotion shown in the facial expression. Finally, evidence suggests that there are centers in the human brain that respond specifically to the facial expression of fear, and possibly other facial expressions of emotion, thus arguing for the hard-wired perception of these expressions.

However, Ekman and Izard have argued that these facial expressions are not simple reflexes. People can learn to control these expressions, depending on the rules of a person's particular culture or subculture. Boys in North America learn not to cry when distressed, whereas girls typically do not learn that rule. In Japan, people learn not to show anger or disgust to high-status people or in public situations, whereas North Americans do not learn such a rule. Research has shown that both Japanese and Americans, when alone, will show facial expressions of disgust when viewing a gory film. However, when in the presence of a high-status person, the Japanese will smile during the gory film, whereas Americans still show an expression of disgust. Ekman found with closer inspection that the Japanese were still showing expressions of disgust, but they were trying to mask them with the smile. Ekman has called these cultural rules that dictate how and when people should show these facial expressions of emotion "display rules."

Sources of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is part of the behaviors of people, as well as the results of their behavior. One source of messages is the environment. Different houses send different messages about their occupants. This is accomplished through the use of color, lighting, heat, fabric textures, photos, and so on. Restaurants will capitalize on the messages sent by these environmental factors to influence the behaviors and impressions of diners. Fast-food restaurants use active, bright colors such as orange, yellow, and red in a well-lit environment with hard plastic seating. These messages subtly urge diners to eat more food more quickly and not to lounge around afterward. In this way, the fast-food restaurants get a quick turnover in order to maximize profits. In contrast, elegant restaurants use dimmer lighting, softer and darker colors, and more comfortable chairs to communicate a more intimate impression, subtly urging diners to feel comfortable and stay around for dessert and coffee, and so on. This will cause diners to spend more money per visit, as well as ensure increase business through positive word of mouth. Thus, the nonverbal messages sent by the environment can help guide the behaviors that occur within that environment.

Another source of nonverbal messages is one's physical characteristics and appearance. Physical characteristics are the static physical appearance or smell of a person. This includes one's height and weight, skin color, hair, eyebrows, cheeks, chin, proportion of eye, nose, and chin size, as well as odors. William Sheldon believed that different body types were predictive of personality: endomorphs (heavier, obese, rounder, softer looking) were sociable and pleasant, mesomorphs (angular, muscular, harder looking) were leaders and strong-willed, and ectomorphs (thin, frail, brittle looking) were withdrawn, smart, and nervous. The media capitalizes on this association by casting actors and actresses accordingly; notice how the leading man is almost always a dynamic mesomorph, the comedy relief is almost always the sociable endomorph, and the smart person is almost always the nerdy ectomorph. Although these beliefs persist, there is no strong evidence that body types predict personality.

Moreover, people have historically made the same judgments of personality based on facial appearance. The ancient Chinese were not the only ones to do this; in the late 1800s, Europeans led by Caesar Lombroso felt they could characterize criminal personalities based on the heaviness of one's eyebrows and jaw. As with the body research, there has been no evidence that one can accurately identify criminals by their facial appearance. Research by Diane Berry and Leslie MacArthur in the 1980s found that adult humans with more babyish looking faces—defined by a higher forehead, proportionally larger eyes, and smaller nose—are seen as more naíve, honest, and less likely to be picked as a leader. Research by Paul Secord in the 1950s showed that although people have reliably assigned personalities to particular faces, their assignments were not accurate. This perhaps best sums up the findings in this area.

Odors also send messages, both at a conscious and unconscious level. At a conscious level, perfumes and aftershaves and lack of body odor send messages about hygiene in North America, but such messages are not so clear in other cultures. Humans subconsciously send pheromones, substances that, when placed under the nose of a woman, make her judge a man as more attractive. Infants can also recognize the smell of their mothers and will show strong preferences for items that carry that smell. Many adults will also note how they are comforted by the smell of loved ones.

Physical appearance clues also include what are called artifactual clues, such as jewelry, clothes, glasses, and so on. People wearing glasses are seen as being smarter. Jewelry sends messages about one's socioeconomic or marital status. North Americans signal their married status by wearing a solid gold band on their left-hand "ring" finger, whereas Europeans often wear this signal on the right-hand ring finger. Clothing also sends messages about income, group membership, and even respect for others. People who wear jeans to a formal occasion send a message about what they feel about that occasion, although, as in the previous instances, this message can be inaccurate.

An important source of nonverbal messages involves proxemics, or the study of the use of space during interactions. Edward Hall noted that human beings seem to have a series of four concentric zones that surround them, like a portable territory, in which they allow others to enter depending on the occasion and the degree of familiarity between the people involved. Hall called the zone that ranges from touching the body to 18 inches (45 cm) away the "intimate zone," an area that typically only lovers, children, and other intimates can enter. The next zone outward, ranging from 18 inches (45 cm) to 4 feet(1.22 m), was called the "casual-personal zone," the distance at which most casual conversations take place. The next zone, ranging from 4 feet(1.22 m) to 12 feet (3.67 m), was called the "social-consultative zone," the distance at which most formal conversations, as in business meetings with strangers, take place. The final zone, 12 feet (3.67 m) and beyond, was called the "public zone," where public speeches and other events take place. Note that these distances are typical for North Americans; other cultures may have the same series of concentric territories, but the distances may be different. In some Mediterranean countries, strangers will routinely talk to each other while standing less than 1 foot (30 cm) apart. To a North American, this will violate his or her intimate zone, and the North American will feel extremely uncomfortable and will take steps to reestablish a more comfortable distance by backing away. Of course, the Mediterranean person will feel uncomfortable talking to someone so far away and will move closer. This is another example of how cultural differences in nonverbal communication can cause misunderstanding and discomfort by both individuals. Note that neither distance is "right"; they are just different. Of course, other variables besides culture can affect the distance at which people communicate. These variables include how personal or negative the topic is, the age of the individuals (people stand closer to children and the elderly), and so on.

Humans also use nonverbal signals to mark their territories or possessions. Putting down one's books on a desk in a classroom, or placing one's jacket over a chair, will typically mark that desk or chair as temporarily belonging to that person— that is, part of his or her territory.

People send many types of nonverbal messages with their bodies. Ray Birdwhistell referred to the field of inquiry dedicated to the study of body messages as "kinesics." Kinesics includes body postures, such as angle of lean or tightness, and it also includes gestures, touching behavior, facial expressions, eye behavior, and even paralanguage(e.g., voice tones).

Body postures can certainly communicate many things. A person in a job interview who sits slumped in his or her chair will not look attentive and will be judged as uninterested in the job. Another way posture communicates is through the appearance of immediacy; a person who leans toward another, makes eye contact, and modulates his or her voice (i.e., does not speak in a monotone) is seen as very immediate. Research evidence suggests that people who behave in a more immediate fashion are seen as more credible, and teachers who are more immediate are better liked and children seem to learn more from them.

There are many nonverbal gestures that people exhibit to communicate. In the 1940s, David Efron suggested that one type of gesture—called an emblem—takes the place of a word. The "thumbs up" sign means "okay" or "good" in North America. People can say the word or show the gesture. Holding one's nose means something stinks. There are about one hundred emblems in North America. Efron showed that these emblems are learned. He observed that the emblems used by Jewish and Sicilian immigrants were different, and yet the emblems used by their American-born children were identical.

Desmond Morris proposed that these emblems come about through a variety of ways, and he identified mimic, schematic, symbolic, technical, coded, hybrid, relic, and interactive emblems. For example, Morris suggested some emblems mimic in a schematic fashion the object for which the emblem stands; holding both hands to one's head and extending index fingers to resemble the horns of a cow is the emblem for a cow. Others are symbolic, as in crossing the fingers for good luck; the crossed fingers represent a crucifix or "sign of the cross," which early Christians believed would ward off evil or bad luck. Relic emblems derive from ancient practices, such as the Greek "moutza" emblem. This emblem involves throwing a hand up toward another to signify contempt or disdain; it evolved from the ancient practice of citizens throwing garbage onto criminals as they were marched through the streets. The emblem thus mimics the action of throwing garbage onto someone. Morris believes that some emblems represent universal human social experience, such as the emblem for the word "no," being a side-to-side headshake. He suggests that this derived from the side-to-side head action that an infant exhibits to reject his or her mother's breast when not hungry. All people throughout the world experience this, and that is why virtually all cultures use the horizontal headshake to indicate "no."

A second type of gesture is an illustrator. Illustrators do not take the place of words, but they help facilitate speech by being intimately tied to the content and flow of speech. Thus, when people move their hands as they speak, they are illustrating. Sometimes these illustrators are used to help find a word; sometimes they are used to keep the rhythm of the speech; sometimes they paint pictures of what the speaker is referring to; and sometimes they show motion. Illustrators are not confined to the hands; people can illustrate with their eyebrows by raising them as they emphasize an important point.

A third type of gesture is a manipulator, or adaptor (the words are used interchangeably). Manipulators occur when a person manipulates an object or other part of his or her body. Thus, touching one's nose, rubbing one's chin or ear, twirling one's hair, playing with one's glasses, chewing on a pencil, and biting one's lips are all examples of manipulators. There is some evidence that manipulators increase when people are nervous.

Touching behavior is another form of rule-bound nonverbal message. In North America, heterosexual males tend not to touch other males. If they do touch, it is typically on the upper arm, in a strong fashion. Heterosexual females touch each other more and in other body spots besides the upper arm. However, in the context of a sporting event, male teammates will pat each other on the rear end—a touch that would not be socially sanctioned in any other time or place. Of course, a pinch or a punch is a form of touch that sends a very different message than a gentle caress.

Facial expressions provide some of the more obvious forms of nonverbal communication. In addition to the six to nine universal facial expressions discussed above, humans have learned expressions as well. A wink may mean different things in different cultures. One raised eyebrow may be an illustrator. People can even pose expressions to communicate that they are thinking (eyebrows pulled down, lower lip pushed up), or are exasperated (raising the eyebrows slightly, and puffing cheeks and then blowing out the air), and so on.

People send nonverbal messages though eye behaviors. Eye behaviors typically involve staring or gazing, but they also include pupil dilation (where the pupil increases in size). When heterosexual couples are attracted to each other, they gaze into each other's eyes longer, and their pupils dilate. Researchers note that women with dilated pupils are seen as more attractive. When people are going to fight, they glare at each other. There are also great cultural differences in eye contact— members of some cultures gaze longer at strangers than do members of other cultures. When speaking, members of some cultures show their respect for other people by looking them in the eye; members of other cultures show their respect by not looking other people in the eye.

Finally, nonverbal messages are sent in the paralanguage of others. Paralanguage includes voice tone, pitch, pauses, and so on. This is has led to the adage "it is not what you say, but how you say it." People can say a positive statement and, using their voice tone, make it sound sarcastic, thereby producing two very different meanings from the very same sentence.


Everyday decisions are made based on people's readings of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication affects interpersonal encounters ranging from police interviews to first dates, doctor visits, job interviews, and advertising. For the most part, people are good at interpreting these nonverbal communications, although some people are better at it than others, despite the fact that the nonverbal message that is sent often does not equal the message that is received, and vice versa. In addition to relying on nonverbal communication to clarify communication and make day-today interactions flow more smoothly, people also use it as an indicator of the true essence of a person. As Chinese philosopher Confucius stressed thousands of years ago, one can better understand others by looking into their eyes, rather than listening to their words.

See also:Animal Communication; Intercultural Communication, Adaptation and; Interpersonal Communication; Interpersonal Communication, Conversation and; Interpersonal Communication, Listening and; Language Acquisition; Language and Communication; Language Structure; Models of Communication; Symbols.


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Mark G. Frank

Nonverbal Communication

views updated May 17 2018

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.


Beall, Anne E. Body Language Speaks. Communication World, March/April 2004, 1820.

Nonverbal Communication. Managing a Small Business, 2008. Available from:

Ekman, Paul. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Face and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life Macmillan, 2007.

.Encyclopedia Britannica. Nonverbal Communication. Britannica Online Updated 2008.

Knapp, M, L., and J.A. Hall. Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. 5th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Wadsworth, 2002.

Konnellan, Thomas K. Great Expectations, Great Results. HRMagazine, June 2003, 155158.

Mehrabian, Albert. Nonverbal Communication. Transaction Publishers, 2007.

Nolen, William E. Reading People: Nonverbal Communication in Internal Auditing. Internal Auditor, April, 1995.

Ribbens, Geoff, and Richard Thompson. Understanding Body Language. Barron's Educational Series, 2001.

Segall, Jeanne, and Jaelline Jaffe. ed. Pat Davies. Nonverbal Communication: The Hidden Language of Emotional Intelligence. 2007. Available from:

Nonverbal Communication

views updated Jun 27 2018

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.


Irwin, David. Effective Business Communications. Thorogood Publishing, 2001.

Mintzberg, Henry. Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, May 2004.

Murphy, Herta A., and Herbert W. Hildebrandt. Effective Business Communications. Seventh Edition. McGraw-Hill, 1997.

"The Silent Factor." Denver Business Journal. 18 August 2000.

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

                               Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                                updated by Magee, ECDI

Nonverbal Communication

views updated Jun 08 2018

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

Nonverbal Communication

views updated Jun 08 2018


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)

non-verbal communication

views updated May 09 2018

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.

communication, non-verbal

views updated May 18 2018

communication, non-verbal See NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION.