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To appear in Issues in Language & Linguistic: Perspectives from Nigeria vol 3, June 2016

Meaning and nonverbal communication in films


Thompson O. Ewata (Ph.D.)
General Studies Unit
Federal University of Technology
Akure, Ondo State
thompsonewata@gmail.com
08164042881; 080223408243
Abstract
In the human interaction, nonverbal communication tends to carry the extra meaning, whether
used alone or concurrently, with verbal communication, to complement or reinforce the
primary meaning. It is natural that humans, irrespective of age, gender, creed, status, role,
culture, or mode to show acceptance, rejection, satisfaction, deception, surprise, nervousness,
control, etc. when conveying meaning, (un)intentionally. The ability to deploy the nonverbal
cues gives a communicator an edge over their interlocutor(s) and enhances or weakens
human relationship. This study is concerned with the use of nonverbal communication, in
films. Using two purposively selected sampled scenes from two films Saworoide (Kilani,
1999), a local production that satirises the Nigerian socio-political scene and White men cant
jump (Shelton, 1992), an American sports comedy), as data, this study analysed the roles of
nonverbal communication, in conveying intercultural meaning. The study proves nonverbal
communication as meta-communicative in the portrayal of the actions and voices in
communicating with different audiences and cultures. It also establishes that actors use
multimodal nonverbal communication cues of tone, gesture, facial expression, etc.,
concurrently to convey meaning to other characters and their audiences. However, the study
also discovers that nonverbal cues can be counterproductive if not handled properly.
Keywords: films, human communication, nonverbal, verbal, Saworoide, White men cant
jump

Introduction
The beginning of human relationship must have started nonverbally for want of the words
to express their thoughts clearly; inability to use the code of expression, due to the
inappropriateness of expressing their thoughts verbally to their interlocutors, or as an aid
and/or intensifier of the verbal communication of the interlocutors, whether
(un)intentionally. The meaning intended in nonverbal communication is effected by means
other than words (Knapp & Hall, 2010, p. 5). Nonverbal communication is a multi-layered,
multimodal, multidimensional, analogic process (Gudykunst, Ting-Toomey & Chua, 1988,
p. 118), that basically transmits message(s) imagistically (McNeill, 1992) in order for the
interlocutors to relate to and control themselves, others, and their environments (Hickson &
Stacks, n.d.). The nonverbal messages so transmitted in turn showcase the internal state of
the interlocutors (Krauss, Chen & Chawla, 1996, p. 389) fear, confidence, compassion,
indifference etc. and their attitudinal disposition (Mehrabian, 1971) and may be of help in
learning about the personality and emotion of interlocutors (Ekman & Keltner, 1997).
Nonverbal communication is not formally taught, but it is learnt, intuitively (Jain &
Choudhary, 2011). It accounts for over 70% of the information transmitted during human
interactions as against verbal communication the takes about 30% (Birdwhistell, 1961, cited
in Zhan, 2012). We may assert that as humans, our ability to use and decode the nonverbal
cues forms part of our strategic competence as communicators (Zhan, 2012).
Nonverbal communication may be said to be a universal property of humans, though, with
slight variations in some cultures specific cues (gestural, facial etc.) (Ekman & Keltner, 1997;
Krauss, Chen & Chawla, 1996; Mariska & Harrawood, 2013; Shuter, 1977). There is no
culture or people in the world that does not use one form of nonverbal communication or the
other. This is evident in the way people of different languages and cultures interact. When
humans interact with others that they do not share the same linguistic codes with, it is the
2

nonverbal communication they rely on to make them get along. We beckoned to indicate
come closer or go away or point (in some cultures with our hand, others lips, in some lips,
heads etc. to show direction), the hand may also be used in communication by speakers to
indicate size, shape, direction, and distance, lend emphasis to particular words, and highlight
essential phrases (Iverson, & Goldin-Meadow, 1997). We wave goodbye to loved ones and
acquaintances. We bare our teeth in anger and wrinkle our noses in disgust or when we come
across unpleasant smell. To further prove that it is a property of human, it has been noticed
that children use gestures before they do language (Iverson, & Goldin-Meadow). These
nonverbal cues may be said to be present in virtually all human cultures.
Nonverbal communication is however different from verbal communication in that verbal
communication is cultural based while nonverbal is biological. Evidence from one culture to
another has shown that wave of the hand to mean goodbye is the same from one culture to
another but this act cannot be so established with verbal communication (Schwartz, 2011, p.
183). It is sent and received through visual, vocal, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, chronemics,
and artifactual behaviours (Guerrero & Floyd, 2006, p. 2). The signs may not occur along
but may happen in any combination (Moyo, 2013). It predated verbal communication
(Calero, 2005, p. 1) as evidence from children shows that they learn or use the nonverbal
signs before the learn to use their verbal signs. Also, it may not be totally separated from
verbal communication because it reinforces or complements verbal communication.
Nonverbal communication carries more credibility and is more instinctual and involuntary
while verbal communication is voluntary and non-instinctive (Schwartz, p. 183 - 4) to
convey emotions; indicate turn switch; convey ideas (Knapp, M. L. & Hall, 2010), and is
more involuntary (though at times, voluntary). Though, nonverbal communication like verbal
communication is arbitrary as there is no linkage between meaning and symbols chosen, yet
the symbols are mostly associated to the intended message. However, while verbal
3

communication is received with lesser sense organs, nonverbal communication is received


through more sense organs touch, taste, seeing, hearing, smells, signs, symbols, colours,
facial expressions, gestures, posture, and intuition are the primary sources of the nonverbal
messages we receive (Calero, 2005, p. 1; Zhan, 2012, p. 1621). It may also be opened to
ambiguity or vagueness just as verbal communication but tends to communicate emotions
better than the verbal communication. Nonverbal communication may be seen to carry more
meaning than verbal communication due the different modes at its disposal. While verbal
communication has vocal or nonvocal (speech and writing) modes, nonverbal has all the
senses as its modes of expression. Unlike its verbal counterpart, it is restrictive as it cannot
communicate past or future events or ideas as well as communicate abstract thoughts or ideas
which verbal communication can handle these perfectly (Schwartz, 2011, p. 181). It is based
on signal while verbal communication is on symbol among other differences (Neuliep, 2015,
p. 288). Compared to verbal communication, it is more honest as it is displayed without the
awareness of the senders of the messages (Pentland, 2008).
Above all, even with verbal communication, nonverbal cues carries more meaning up to
about 90% than the words used (Mehrabian, 1971) as interlocutors rely on the meaning they
derived from the body motions; vocal qualities; and the use of time, space, artefacts, dress,
and even smell, the use of the hands, arms, legs, and face (Neuliep, 2015, p. 286 - 7); helps
to enhance, clarify, or qualify the meaning of a verbal message (Guerrero, & Floyd, 2006, p.
3). This may be best understood in the perspectives of content (where emphasis is on the
words spoken, e.g. Germanic and English speaking countries) and context (where emphasis is
not on the words but what is implied, e.g. Mediterranean, Slavic, Latin American, Arab,
Asian, and African) cultures (Goman, 2008). We must however stress that though the
nonverbal meaning are derived from the body movement, facial expressions etc., the
messages so conveyed are as a result of an indirect consequence of their primary, non4

communicative function (Krauss, Chen & Chawla, 1996, p. 391) (Krauss, R. M., Chen, Y. &
Chawla, 1996).
Nonverbal communication modes in films
The film or movie is a motion picture that tells a story through multimodal means of
communication. It is an audiovisual technological device that relies on the combinative use of
sound and light waves to present it messages. The different media it uses are:
verbal auditory channel, including dialogue, background voices and sometimes lyrics,
non-verbal auditory channel, including music, natural sound and sound effects, verbal
visual channel, including superimposed titles and written signs on the screen and the
non-verbal visual channel including picture composition and flow.(Gottlieb, 1998, p.
245)
Since the focus of this paper is to analyse the nonverbal cues used in the two purposively
sampled films, our discussion will be centred on the nonverbal cues used in films, generally,
by the fictional characters (Ortega, 2011, p. 20) , that are detectable through microphones,
cameras or other suitable sensors (Vinciarelli & Mohammadi, 2012, p. 2). The nonverbal cues
used in films are germane to a thorough understanding of the films particularly for the
multicultural viewers that the films are addressed to. Moreover, since films rely on audio and
visual effects, both tend to work together to create meanings by simultaneously addressing
different senses and cognitive channels (Roell, 2010, p. 2). In this light, key nonverbal modes
of expression at the disposal of the film directors that help their actor(ess) portray the
intended meaning/message to the viewers in films are: physical appearance, gestures and
postures, face and eyes behaviour, vocal behaviour, cultural signs, space and environment
(Hecht, DeVito & Guerrero, 1999; Ortega, 2011). The following nonverbal signals and cues
constitue the primary tools of analysis in this paper.

i.

Physical appearance: this includes not only the somatic characteristics of the
individual person, in case of films, it includes the built size and form of the body,
the colour of skin and hair, height, weight and objects used by the person and personal
appearances of the actor(ess) but also their clothes and body atonements (Hosseyni,
2012, p. 256; Vinciarelli, Salamin & Pantic, 2009, p. 43). Humans tend to get
attracted to attractive people, in their interaction and this in turn affect how they relate

ii.

to them.
gestures and postures: gesture is the unplanned, articulate hand movements that
accompany spontaneous speech (Krauss, Chen, & Chawla, 392) though we need to
understand that it is not all hand movements (for instance, the kinds of scratching,
fidgeting, rubbing, tapping, and touching that speakers often do with their hands) are
gesture. When the real action of it is performed with hand movement, it is not gesture
but when it is mimicked then it becomes gestures (Thirumalai, 1987). Gestures
predated verbal communication and it is universal. Posture is the stable state of the
body of the interlocutors as against gestures that entails movement of the body to
transfer symbolic messages on the orators attitude or intention with regard to the

iii.

message (Colta, 2010, p. 778).


Face and eyes behaviour: the meaning we derived from other interlocutors messages
is got not only form the verbal communication but mostly from the way and in which
direction they looked when they communicated their thoughts. Face and eyes
behaviour mirror the other person(s) state of mind and helps in determining social

iv.

signals and in displaying dominance, power and status (Vinciarelli & Mohammadi).
Vocal behaviour: our vocal behaviour is the vent through which our verbal
expression is let out; both are motor expressions that originate in the pharynx. It
includes the timbre, pitch and intensity of a spoken statement (Ekman, 1957, p. 141).
Vocal behaviour is the intermediary between the verbal and nonverbal perspectives of
human interaction. It includes the way the utterance is made, the vocalisations made
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by interlocutors including discourse markers like: oh oh, ehm, you know, you see,
actually etc. to communication hesitation, support, agreement, disagreement etc. It
also includes the silence we keep during interaction (Vinciarelli. & Mohammadi,
v.

2012).
cultural signs: this involves the meaning attached to things objects, artefacts etc.
(Ortega, 2011) from one culture to another. For example, the neck beads in Yoruba

vi.

culture signifies royalty or affluence.


Space and environment: the distance interlocutors keep or allow between them when
they interact indicates the relationship that exists between them whether intimate,
casual, formal or informal etc. ( Vinciarelli. & Mohammadi).

Data and method of analysis


The data for this study are two purposively selected sampled scenes from two films
(Saworoide (Kilani, 1999), a local production that satirises the Nigerian socio-political scene
and White men cant jump (Shelton, 1992), an American sports comedy), as data, this study
analysed the roles of nonverbal communication, in conveying intercultural meaning.
Saworoide (Kilani, 1999) is an imaginary work that is situated in the ancient hypothetical
Yoruba community, town or country, Jogbo. To check the excesses of the rulers of Jogbo, the
oldest and wisest man in Jogbo on his dead bed made a pact that the rulers (kings) would
follow in order to maintain peace and order over Jugbo. A bound was created between the
would-be king, the drummer of the Yoruba talking drum, gangan, the brass bells and the brass
crown. There are all linked through an initiation ritual that requires the drummer and the king
taking an oath that will be sealed with the incision marks. Any king who does not go through
the ritual oath taking and incision will die of a splitting headache if he wears the brass crown
and hears the talking drum and the brass bell (Saworoide). A particular king, Lapite (Kola
Oyewo) who dreams of enriching himself through his position refuses to take the oath and
incision. He connives with loggers to enrich himself by allowing them to cut logs
7

indiscriminately, in order for him to be wealthy. The community through the youths revolts
against him by disobeying his orders and stealing the brass crown. He engages the services of
the military led by Lagata (Kunle Bamtefa) to retrieve the crown for him. Lagata retrieves the
crown but rather than hands it over to Lapite decides to take a shot at the kingship of Jogbo.
Because he did not go through the prescribed ritual, he died of the splitting head when he
heard the sound of the talking drum and saworoide (brass bells).
White men cant jump (Shelton, 1992) is an American sports comedy that dwells on the deft
moves of a white basketball hustler Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) on the basketball court, a
black mans game. He relies on the mistaken underestimation by black players of his being
white to betting against him. He moves from one court to another plying his con and trade
until he meets Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) a black player who recognises the ingenuity of
Billy Hoyle and teams up with him to con other players.
This study borrows a lead from the psychological perspective of comprehensive facial
measurement using the open-ended observation option (Matsumoto, Ekman & Fridlund,
1991, p. 158 - 9) but goes further to include not just the facial movement but paying attention
to the physical appearance, gestures and postures, face and eyes behaviour, vocal behaviour,
cultural signs and space and environment. This means, each of these elements will be given
attention in analysing the nonverbal cues in the sampled films scenes. However, like the
psychological perspective of analysing facial behaviour, the studys analysis is judgemental
and impressionistic.
Analysis of nonverbal cues in Saworoide
The scene to be analysed in Saworoide for this study is the scene where Lagata takes over
Lapite's government. Where necessary, I will give brief description of happening in the
scene to complement or support the nonverbal cues used in the scene. The scene starts with

Lapite (Kola Oyewo) presenting his address to the people of the community over the return
of the Brass Crown that the youths took from the palace to register their displeasure over
the way their king have being ruling the town. The nonverbal cues examined in the film are:
i.

Physical appearance: Lapite appears in the full regalia of a Yoruba king with pride,
though without the crown we understand this as the crown has been taken away from
the palace by the angry youths. He has the height and built to compliment his position
of authority the king and affluence that goes with the position. He gets up with
audacity befitting a king of his statue. His clothes full agbada with cap to match and
body atonements the royal beads (on his neck and wrists) and a wristwatch this
artefacts all signify him as a man with authority and wealth.
Compared to Lapite, Lagata appears in his military (combat) uniform. This is an
indication that he is ready for action. It also signifies that he has been in combat with
the youths of the land who took the crown, from Lapites palace. Like Lapite, Lagata
also has an imposing figure, to compliment his stature as a military top brass that has
power and authority. This imposing stature helps him cowed the towns people and the
king, Lagata. Apart from the military (combat) gear, Lagata wears a dark shade an
indication that he does not want to be seen or read by other characters the king, his
cabinet chiefs and other towns people, in the plot that is about to unfold. This
becomes glaring up to the point of taking over the throne. Lapite on the other hand,
feels he has the control of the town and the military behind him, as he could not read
the nonverbal signs of the military leader or his (military) subordinates. While Lapite
had the floor, we see Lagata swigging from the extra-large bottle of gin he has with
him. We could read from this that the soldier man lacks decorum and cares less about
peoples opinion of him. One would have expected modesty from a man of his
training and experience in public behaviour but we see him drinking from the bottle,
in public glare. Thus proving the fact that the impressions we have of others and
9

ourselves and the ones that others have of us (most if not all) id got from the
nonverbal cues we send, (un)intentionally.
Both Lapite and Lagata exhibited dominance (of others) through their positions in the
ii.

way they carry themselves.


Gestures and postures: Lapite uses hand gestures and body postures when he speaks
to complement his verbal cues. When his turn to speak comes, he gets up, regally,
turns to the right and left, puts his hands on his body to adjust his dress all signs of
man in authority and affluence. He gestures (articulatory gestures first with his right
hand as he points (gestures) to everyone present to thank them for the return of the
lost crown and points (gestures) with his left hand) towards Lagata (Kunle Bamtefa),
thanking him for returning the lost crown and to identify him as the one he refers to.
He then shrugs his shoulders to show off his position as king (a man in authority) and
his wealth. He beats his chest to compliment what he says when he stresses that
Lagata should state what he wants (Lapete as king) to do for him for returning the
crown, in his position as king. He stresses this by first raising his head high and
nodding it. Indicating ot stressing that he has the power or authority to speak as he
just did. The gestures and postures are all symbolic cues used by Lapite to showcase
his position and power to the gathering and to his interlocutor, Lagata. He makes
efforts to caution Lagata when he realises that the soldier was about singing another
tune by trying to call him to order through the pulling of the arm (and subtle
vocalization) but we see how the soldier rebuffs the attempts by pulling his arm away
from Lapites reach. Thereafter, Lapite becomes speechless an indication that he has
reached the end of the road in the trust he reposes on the soldier.
Lagata on his part uses a lot of hand gestures, either to buttress his statements or to
show who is in charge. In reading from the prepared speech he reads on the occasion,
we can conclude too that he is not an intelligent man, as we see him make recourse to
the prepared speech to the extent that where he could not see clearly, what is on the
10

paper, he stares obviously at the paper to confirm our low esteem of him, in terms of
intelligence. This is brought to a head when Lagata removes his cap and asked or
should we say, instructed, Lapite to place the crown on his (Lagatas) head. The use of
hand gesture is also noticed on the part of one the henchmen of Lapite who tries
rebuffing Lagata, when he inquires of the lineage of Lagata him (Lagata) to have
iii.

requested for the brass crown.


Face and eyes behaviour: The face and eye behaviours Lapite displays in the scene
all points to his state of mind. The social signal this shows or indicates is power.
Lapite speaks with authority as a kning that not only has power or authority over his
subjects but one with wealth to back up his words. He looks Lagata in the face and
faces the audience to show he means what he says name your price. When on the
other hand he sits down and Lagata take over the floor, we see right away that his
countenance changes first from one of bewilderment, surprise or disbelieve to utter
shock and nervousness.
Lagata on his part does not betray any emotion to his face and eye behaviour. We
however note how he uses a dark shade to cover his eyes, thus, preventing other
interlocutors form reading his face and eye behaviour. This supports the notion that

iv.

our faces are the windows to our inner minds.


Vocal behaviour: Lapite starts off with a discourse marker, ehm, then clears his
throat. This is done to indicate that he has the floor and that he demands everyones
full concentration and attention. He clears his throat, then begins. Both vocal
behaviours are attention seeking signals (Brinton, 1996). They indicate to other
interlocutors that the speaker has the floor and demands they attention. They are also
tentative or hesitation markers used by interlocutors to show that they first have to test
the water before plunging head on into it. Lapite vocalisations here shows that he has
things to say but wants the attention of his audience before commencing on his
speech. He then raises his voice and increases the tempo of his voice for emphasis to
11

show authority and the tenacity of his statement, to Lagata. When he finishes, the
audience claps to indicate approval of his speech and as mark of respect to him. The
two other speakers in the scene, Lagata and the kings henchman both uses high
v.

tempo, in the speeches to signify the importance of the statement.


Cultural signs: Lapite uses three layers of beadwork on his neck and his wrist. These
are cultural artefacts or the paraphernalia of office of the Yoruba royalty and
affluence. Being the king, he is expected to be regal both in dressing and posture. This
we see in the way he comports himself in the scene. Lagata uses military combat gear
to show he is from a warfront and ready for another one. He uses dark eye wears to

vi.

hide his intentions.


Space and environment: though, there is little or no movement of persons in the
scene, we however notice how the dramatic personae use their body movements and
the space (occupy or use) when they make their speeches to send messages to other
participants and the viewers. Lapite sways from side to side to show his status and
position of king, in the way he carries himself and the amount of space he occupies
when makes his speech. Lagata also did not move but uses his built to emphasis his
authority. The kings henchman also did not move about the space he has but gets up
in anger and desperation to show to Lagata that he can cut him to size as he jumps up
from his seat to deliver his speech before he becomes the one Lagata lieutenant
brutally cuts down. That the interlocutors did not move about can be understood as
the event happens at a function with little spapce but the space was enough for all the
actions. More so, the cations contained in the scene are all mostly portrayed through
the nonverbal cues.

Nonverbal cues in White men cant jump


Unlike the scene we analysed in Saworoide, the one here contains a lot of nonverbal cues as a
result of the physical nature of the sport, basketball, which the film centres on.
12

i.

Physical appearance: the scene opens with the two principal actors Billy Hoyle
(Woody Harrelson) and Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) at the basket court of a twoaside game. They are adequately kitted for the business they have at hand, play a
game of basketball. The teams are fully and appropriately kitted as their jersey carries
the competitions name Brotherhood Tournament. This signifies the teams mean
business. Physically, the sides are athletically built for the rigours of the game. The
presence of a basketball with of the players, an umpire and the crowd behind the court
shows they too have come to watch the game. The environment matches the essence
of the scene, an elimination stage of a major competition as we see a sign at the back

ii.

that states First Prise $5000.


Gestures and postures: because of the physical nature of the game, the dialogue in
the scene is not as animated with hand gestures as the one in Saworoide, though the
actors still punctuate the speeches with hand gestures. For example, Billy Hoyle uses
hand gestures when he stresses a point to the other team members who he tries to
work up so they could lose their composure on the court. At the same time, when a
member of the opposing team replies Billy, he practically uses hand gestures to
emphasis his statement. The umpire also uses hand gestures to indicate to the players
to return to the court and continue their game. When Sidney finally gets Billy away
from their opponents and tries talking to him about how his (Billys) behaviour is
embarrassing him (Sidney) and how the act could be counter-productive he uses hand
gestures to reiterate this. In terms of posture, the players use body posture to feign
moves on the court to deceive their opponents and when they get physical to the

iii.

extent of engaging in a fight the


Face and eyes behaviour: because of the fast paced nature of the game, we cannot
say much about the face and eye movements of the players. However, on the few

13

occasions when the camera closes in on the faces of the players, we see
iv.

discontentment on the faces of the losing sides and contentment on the winning sides.
Vocal behaviour: throughout the scene, Billy talked at the the players of the opposing
sides. The speeches are clear enough to be heard by everyone with the court
perimeter. But there instances where Billy vocalises without exactly saying anything.

v.

The essence of his vocalisation is to distract and destabilize the other players.
Cultural signs: The scene is on the basketball court and we see the costumes of the
players (actors). Each team wears a unique colour to differentiate them from members
of the other team. They all wear sweat shirts and shorts while some of the players
compliment their jersey with face caps. From time to time, we see the ladies that
signify the presence the scoreboards as they change scores as the game progresses. We
also see the judges on the side of the court while an umpire directs the affairs of the

vi.

game, in each set.


Space and environment: Compared to the scene in Saworoide, there is a lot of space
for the actors who are players on the basketball court to move about. It is not
surprising to see a lot of jumping and dribbling happening on the pitch.

Conclusion
In all, both films employed the use of nonverbal cues to drive home their points. Gestures are
mostly used to indicate size, shape, direction, and distance, lend emphasis to particular words,
highlight essential phrases (Iverson and Goldin-Meadow), status or dominance . We may
posit that despite the preponderance of words in their repertoire of language, humans still
result to gestures and other nonverbal cues because the nonverbal cues serve as aid to speech.
This also supports the claim that humans may first have communicated nonverbally before
they discovered or invented verbal communication and that they will survive and interact
effectively among themselves in many situation by relying on such naturally meaningful
forms of gestural communication (Tomasello, 2008). That the two films from different
countries and cultures relied on nonverbal communication shows that nonverbal
14

communication is a universal property of human beings. The films also help intensify the
importance of technology to films. Viewers though may see and hear the actors, the
microphones, cameras or other suitable sensors further enhanced the messages the films
portray to the viewer. According to (Ortega), nonverbal cues aid the interchange between
characters in films and helps audiences comprehensibility in the multilingual and
multicultural complexities portrayed in the film genre. Nonverbal cues in the area of
physical appearance, gestures and postures, face and eyes behaviour, vocal behaviour,
cultural signs, and space and environment, help in no small way in making the messages of
Saworoide and White men cant jump presented audiovisually. However, despite aiding
meaning, we can see in both films that nonverbal cues portray Lagata in bad light to the
audience when he takes swigs from the extra-large gin bottle and also portrays Billy in the
negative light when he keeps talking to work up his opponents. We may therefore conclude
that if nonverbal communication is not handled properly (we should always have it at the
back of our minds that the cues are involuntarily) they may portray wrong attitudes of the
users.

15

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