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What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is behavior, other than spoken or written communication, that creates or represents meaning. In other words, it includes facial expressions, body movements, and gestures. Nonverbal communication is talking without speaking a word. It is very effective, maybe even more so than speech. Remember the saying, Actions speak louder than words. You may be surprised to know that not only humans respond to this kind of communication. If you have a pet, especially a dog, it may follow directions and respond to hand and body movements more than your words. Dogs will even get confused if you say sit but give the hand motion that you usually use for stay. Next, we will focus on different kinds of nonverbal communication and uses of nonverbal communication. There is also one kind of nonverbal communication that is called the universal gesture. See if you can guess what it is by the time you finish this page! There are two main types of nonverbal communication. Body language is the first. Body language is body movements that depend on a persons attitude or feelings. Body language includes the way people walk, how they stand, and their facial features. In other words, any kind of meaning that is shown by a person's body attitude or movements. For example, when a boy is sad he may droop his head and walk slowly. Or, if a girl is happy, she might run and jump or stand up straight and put her hands in the air. People don't have to say anything to show how they feel about things. The color of people's skin may even show how they feel. For example, if people with light colored skin get embarrassed, their skin may turn red, or if they are worried, they might get pale. Body language can be voluntary (on purpose) or involuntary (a person cant help it). An interesting fact is that blind children will smile when happy even though they have never seen a smile. The next main type of nonverbal communication is gestures. Gestures are communications like facial expressions, hand signals, eye gazing, and body postures. Examples include smiles, handshakes, waving, and raising certain fingers to say something. For instance, if you saw a friend at a noisy carnival, you might smile and wave at your friend. You might also point at the Ferris wheel if you wanted to meet your friend there. You could do all of these things

without saying a word. Another great example is in baseball when the catcher signals to the pitcher the kind of pitch to use for the batter that is up. There are three main uses of nonverbal communication. People often use all of them everyday. The first use is for greetings. Greetings include waves, handshakes, hugs and salutes. For example, when you see your friends in the morning on the way to school, you may wave to them. A more formal greeting would be shaking hands with your boss at work. The salute is used in the armed forces when you see a person of a higher rank than you. The next use is for specific communication. For example, workers may use signals at their jobs. One important use is in construction when a worker signals to a crane operator to keep everyone safe. These signals are very specific and tell the operator to move left, right, or raise and lower the hook. Another very important use is sign language. This form of communication is used for people who have hearing problems. They use hand signals and lip reading to communicate very specific things. The third use is involuntary nonverbal communication. These are movements and attitudes that show how people feel. Most times, people don't even know they're communicating when they make these actions, because these actions are automatic. For example, a slumped posture may mean that the person is sad. A stern look may show that the person is in a serious mood. When people rub their eyes, it can show they are tired. All of these examples show how people feel. Expressions and gestures are not the same around the world. Some gestures, like the thumbs up, which is a positive gesture in the United States, may mean something very different in other cultures. In Nigeria, the thumbs up gesture is a rude insult! In Australia it is an obscene insult. Another funny example is spinning your finger around your ear. This is known as the youre crazy sign in America and in some other nations. But in Argentina, it means you have a phone call! Another gesture that can be taken completely differently depending upon where you live is nodding the head. In most parts of the world, it is a positive or yes gesture. In Bulgaria, and parts of Greece and the Middle East, it means no. It is important that government leaders know about these things. It could be bad if a president offended the leader of another nation because of a gesture that was

misunderstood. At least an embarrassed smile will be understood between people from other countries. Other examples of involuntary communication are rubbing hands together to show anticipation, tapping or drumming fingers when impatient, biting nails if nervous, and putting a hand or finger to one's cheek if thinking deeply. Body language and gesture meanings do not always stay the same. Sometimes meanings change over time, or meanings change when cultures mix together. One example might be the hang loose sign from Hawaii. This sign is the pinkie pointed up, and the thumb pointed out. It loosely means everything is ok originally, and is now becoming part of the rest of American culture. Not all gestures and body language are for positive communication. One example of this is gang symbols. These are nonverbal communications that may tell something about whether or not someone is in a gang or lives in a certain area where some gangs are. For example, the way a person wears their shirt or how a cap is worn (like to the left or right side) may tell others that the person is in a certain gang. The color of their clothes may mean something as well. Another communication that is used by gangs is special hand signs. These signs are used by one person to show another person that they are in a certain gang. These signs can be a threat sign to someone in a different or enemy gang. Hopefully you can see how important nonverbal communication is. Some sources say that it may be 78% of communication between people. In other words, nonverbal communication may be the most important part of communicating with other people. Have you figured out what the universal gesture is yet? Here is a list to choose from if you have not: 1. Having your hat turned sideways 2. Walking down the street yelling howdy 3. The wave 4. Smiling 5. Nodding your head

What Is Non-Verbal Communication?

Even though the importance of non-verbal communication has grown rapidly over the last few decades and it is now widely used in media, business, interpersonal relationships, education and politics many people still pay little attention to non-verbal messages and body signals, concentrating mostly on words. It is one of the biggest misconceptions to think that what is being said is more important than how it is being said. In reality only 7% of information is sent through words, the remaining 93% of communication is non-verbal. If you fail to read and de-code non-verbal messages you set yourself up for constant misunderstandings and various communication problems. I am sure that you have heard the expression, Their actions speak louder than words before. This is very true, because:

In many situations people tend to hide their feelings behind carefully chosen words. A non-verbal message is a subconscious response of the body. Therefore, it can not be easily controlled and is likely to be more genuine. As words have limitations, non-verbal communication is more effective in situations where a person has to explain shapes, directions, inner feelings and personalities. Non-verbal signals serve to make the message more powerful and convincing. Try to convince or motivate another person into doing a certain task while keeping your face

expression, gestures and tone of voice unanimated. No matter what you say, you will not be able to sound convincing, or motivating. If a message is too emotional or too complex a separate non-verbal communication channel is needed to transmit this message correctly. Non-verbal communication helps to clarify misunderstanding and avoid possible communication barriers.

Non-verbal communication is not just body language, gestures or facial expressions as many people mistakenly think. It also includes eye contact, touch, spatial distance between two or more people or positioning within a group, kinesics or body movements, appearance, smell, tone of voice and even silence! Body language is one of the most important and complicated parts of non-verbal communication. Although many books have been written on this topic, body language is still hard to decode, because it must be interpreted in the context of a persons lifestyle, cultural background, family, education, physical health, and other factors that may be obscure. Gestures are used to express emotions and signify certain feelings. One of the most frequently observed is hand movements, as people often gesticulate with their hands while talking.

Facial expressions.
Our face is a highly developed organ that can create more than 7,000 facial expressions. Facial expression continually change during interaction and should be constantly monitored by the recipient. Even though the meanings of facial expressions may vary in different countries, there are six main types that are the same in all cultures:

Happiness (sincere broad smile, raised cheeks, round eyes) Anger (lowered eyebrow, tightly pursed lips, intensive stare) Surprise (wide open eyes, open mouth, raised eyebrows) Fear (open mouth, round eyes, pale face) Disgust (wrinkled nose, raised upper lip, lowered eyelids) Sadness (lowered corners of mouth, sad eyes)

Eye contact is an important feature of social communication. In many cultures it is believed, that even if you can control your facial expressions and body movements, eyes can never lie. This is why in business cultures a fair degree of eye contact is viewed as a sign of a persons openness, honesty and trust. Often, just by eye contact we can signal to another person when to talk or to finish. In interpersonal relationships looking away is often perceived as deviousness and avoidance, while gaze holding, decreased blinking rate and dilated eye pupils show our interest in a partner. Also frequency of eye contact may indicate either interest or boredom.

Haptics is a nonverbal communication study of touch. The way one person touches another can tell a great deal of information. Even a handshake can tell a lot about the individuals character and social position. In most interpersonal relationships touching can (arm pat) expresse tenderness, give encouragement and show emotional support. Such physical contacts as embracing, pushing, grabbing, holding another person on the shoulder, patting on the back, ruffling thier hair may reflect elements of intimacy, lack of attraction, patronizing or gentleness. The meaning of touch depends highly on the situation, sex, age, culture and your character. If used improperly it can become a cause of aggravation, communication barriers and mistrust.

Distance and Personal space.

There are two main types of distance: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal distance determines the distance, which people intuitively feel comfortable with when approaching other and having others approach them. There are four horizontal distance zones:

Intimate distance from actual touching to 18 inches. It is assigned for intimate relationships and mother- baby relationships. At this distance the physical presence of another is overwhelming. Violation of our territory, depending on the seriousness may provoke such feelings as discomfort, irritation, anxiety and even anger and aggression. Personal distance from 18 inches to 4 feet. This zone is reserved for interactions with good friends, when discussing personal and casual matters. Social distance from 4 to 12 feet. This is an appropriate distance for impersonal, social gatherings and business communication. Public distance more than 12 feet. At this distance a speaker becomes formal. It is reserved for public speaking and interaction in public places (like parks, supermarkets, or on the street)

The more we get to know the person and the more we like them, the closer we permit them into our personal space. Vertical distance often indicates a degree of dominance and subordinance in the relationship.

Kinetics (or a study of body movements in space) helps a person to transmit information as well as affecting the feelings of the person doing the moving. Body movements are widely used:

As emblems or gestures that have a direct translation to words (e.g. OK sign or a thumb up, meaning great!) To reinforce or emphasize words ( e.g. He is THIS tall, The fish was THIS big!)

To show strong feelings through body motions ( e.g. jumping and clapping hands from joy, tiptoeing from impatience or anxiety) To control the flow of conversation ( e.g. showing with body movements to another person when to start or to stop talking)

Usually people with a more relaxed posture, an open arm and body position and the body leaning slightly forward in the conversation are perceived as more likable, attentive and trustful.

Chronemics is the study of the use of time in non-verbal communication. Time perception greatly affects our lifestyle, movements, speed of speech, and the amount of time set for listening. It is also closely linked to a persons social status. The higher the status, the more control the person has over his time. For example, a boss can talk to an employee whenever he chooses to do so, while the employee has to make an appointment to see the boss. In business communication it is very important to remember that various cultures have different perception of time. For example, in North America, Germany or Switzerland, you often hear statements such as, Time is money, Were running out of time, The deadline for the project is tomorrow. In South America or Arabian countries people believe that they have all the time in the world and the word deadline does not exist in their language.

Olfactics is a non-verbal communication study of smell. We tend to react to people based on their smell. For both men and women body smell is one of the most important subconscious factors of choosing a life mate. During interaction body odor or too much perfume can make even the most attractive person seem repulsive.

Appearance plays an important role in non-verbal communication. Clothes, makeup, accessories, hairstyle, choice of colors and uniforms usually offer signals relating to persons individuality, status, wealth, occupation and even attractiveness. People we find attractive are perceived as more credible, sociable, successful, interesting, sensitive, kind and popular. However you have to remember that forming stereotypes based on other peoples physical characteristics and attractiveness may lead to false assumptions and communication barriers.


Paralanguage is a non-verbal element of communication that includes rate (speed), pitch (highness or lowness of voice), volume (loudness), and enunciation of vocal speech. A persons character, emotional condition and ability to get a message correctly to a receiver can be revealed by vocal cues. Experimental findings suggest that people tend to listen more attentively to men with deep, low voices and resonant tones as these vocal cues are associated with strength, sexiness and selfconfidence. High pitch voices are associated with rage, nervousness and helplessness, while despair and depression is often vocalized by a lower pitch and slower word pace. People who speak very loud are often perceived by others as aggressive, overbearing and uncompromising. Soft spoken people are viewed as timid, polite and unsure of themselves. When a vocal message contradicts a verbal one it is considered an indication of sarcasm. For example, a phrase, Great job can either mean a sincere praise or if intoned sarcastically, it has the opposite meaning.

Silence is also viewed as a part of non-verbal communication that depending on the situation and usage can influence conversation in a positive or negative way. On one hand silence may create tension and uneasiness, while on the other it may give another person time to collect his thoughts and calm down. Silence can also be an indicator of agreement or disagreement, depending on other non-verbal aspects such as facial expression, body language or eye contact. By learning to observe and understand the non-verbal communication process, you can noticeably improve your communication and persuasion skills. You will be able to immediately identify what another person really thinks and change their point of view if necessary.


By Vicki Ritts, St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley and James R. Stein, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. Reprinted by permission.

It is not only what you say in the classroom that is important, but it's how you say it that can make the difference to students. Nonverbal messages are an essential component of communication in the teaching process.

Teachers should be aware of nonverbal behavior in the classroom for three major reasons:

An awareness of nonverbal behavior will allow you to become better receivers of students' messages. You will become a better sender of signals that reinforce learning. This mode of communication increases the degree of the perceived psychological closeness between teacher and student.

Some major areas of nonverbal behaviors to explore are:

Eye contact Facial expressions Gestures Posture and body orientation Proximity Paralinguistics Humor

Eye contact: Eye contact, an important channel of interpersonal communication, helps regulate the flow of communication. And it signals interest in others. Furthermore, eye contact with audiences increases the speaker's credibility. Teachers who make eye contact open the flow of communication and convey interest, concern, warmth and credibility. Facial expressions: Smiling is a powerful cue that transmits:

Happiness Friendliness Warmth Liking Affiliation

Thus, if you smile frequently you will be perceived as more likable, friendly, warm and approachable. Smiling is often contagious and students will react favorably and learn more. Gestures: If you fail to gesture while speaking, you may be perceived as boring, stiff and unanimated. A lively and animated teaching style captures students' attention, makes the material more interesting, facilitates learning and provides a bit of entertainment. Head nods, a form of gestures, communicate positive reinforcement to students and indicate that you are listening.

Posture and body orientation: You communicate numerous messages by the way you walk, talk, stand and sit. Standing erect, but not rigid, and leaning slightly forward communicates to students that you are approachable, receptive and friendly. Furthermore, interpersonal closeness results when you and your students face each other. Speaking with your back turned or looking at the floor or ceiling should be avoided; it communicates disinterest to your class. Proximity: Cultural norms dictate a comfortable distance for interaction with students. You should look for signals of discomfort caused by invading students' space. Some of these are:

Rocking Leg swinging Tapping Gaze aversion

Typically, in large college classes space invasion is not a problem. In fact, there is usually too much distance. To counteract this, move around the classroom to increase interaction with your students. Increasing proximity enables you to make better eye contact and increases the opportunities for students to speak. Paralinguistics: This facet of nonverbal communication includes such vocal elements as:

Tone Pitch Rhythm Timbre Loudness Inflection

For maximum teaching effectiveness, learn to vary these six elements of your voice. One of the major criticisms is of instructors who speak in a monotone. Listeners perceive these instructors as boring and dull. Students report that they learn less and lose interest more quickly when listening to teachers who have not learned to modulate their voices. Humor: Humor is often overlooked as a teaching tool, and it is too often not encouraged in college classrooms. Laughter releases stress and tension for both instructor and student. You should develop the ability to laugh at yourself and encourage students to do the same. It fosters a friendly classroom environment that facilitates learning. (Lou Holtz wrote that when his

players felt successful he always observed the presence of good humor in the locker room.) Obviously, adequate knowledge of the subject matter is crucial to your success; however, it's not the only crucial element. Creating a climate that facilitates learning and retention demands good nonverbal and verbal skills. To improve your nonverbal skills, record your speaking on video tape. Then ask a colleague in communications to suggest refinements.