13.12 Nonverbal Communication


“Nonverbal communication forms a social language that in many ways is richer and more fundamental than our words.”
Leonard Mlodinow

Non-Verbal Communication

How do you know when your friends, family, bosses, or instructors are pleased with your progress (or not)? You might know from the smiles on their faces; from the time and attention they give you; or perhaps in other nonverbal ways, like a raise, a bonus, or a good grade. Whether the interaction takes place face-to-face or at a distance you can still experience and interpret nonverbal responses.

Chances are you have had many experiences where words were misunderstood or where the meaning of words was unclear. When it comes to nonverbal communication, meaning is even harder to discern. We can sometimes tell what people are communicating through their nonverbal communication, but there is no foolproof “dictionary” of how to interpret nonverbal messages. Nonverbal communication is the process of conveying a message without the use of words. It can include gestures and facial expressions, tone of voice, timing, posture, and where you stand as you communicate. It can help or hinder the clear understanding of your message, but it doesn’t reveal (and can even mask) what you are really thinking. Nonverbal communication is far from simple, and its complexity makes our study and our understanding a worthy but challenging goal.

Nonverbal communication involves the entire body, the space it occupies and dominates, the time it interacts, and not only what is not said, but how it is not said. Try to focus on just one element of nonverbal communication and it will soon get lost among all the other stimuli. Let’s consider eye contact. What does it mean by itself without context, chin position, or eyebrows to flag interest or signal a threat? Nonverbal action flows almost seamlessly from one to the next, making it a challenge to interpret one element or even a series of elements.

Nonverbal communication is irreversible. In written communication, you can write a clarification, correction, or retraction. While it never makes the original statement go completely away, it does allow for correction. Unlike written communication, oral communication may allow “do-overs” on the spot: you can explain and restate, hoping to clarify your point. Oral communication, like written communication, allows for some correction, but it still doesn’t erase the original message or its impact. Nonverbal communication takes it one step further. You can’t separate one nonverbal action from the context of all the other acts of verbal and nonverbal communication, and you can’t take it back. You need to be conscious of this aspect of your nonverbal behavior, in the case of nonverbal communication actions really do speak louder than words. This is true in the sense that people often pay more attention to your nonverbal expressions more than your words. As a result, nonverbal communication is a powerful way to contribute to (or detract from) your success in communicating your message to others.

Carlos Budding provides insights into non-verbal communication in his Ted Talk “Eye” Understand: The power of non-verbal communication.

Nonverbal Communication Is Fast

Let’s pretend you are at your computer at work. You see that an e-mail has arrived, but you are right in the middle of a complex task. The e-mail is from a coworker and you click on it. The subject line reads “let go.” You could interpret this to mean a suggestion there is a joke about Disney’s Frozen in the email or a challenge to release some stress but letting go, but in the context of the workplace you may assume it means getting fired. Your emotional response is immediate. If the author of the e-mail could see your face, they would know that your response was one of disbelief and frustration, even anger, all via your nonverbal communication.

Your nonverbal communication happens like this all the time without much conscious thought at all. You may think about how to share the news with your partner and try to display a smile and a sense of calm when you feel like anything but smiling. Nonverbal communication gives our thoughts and feelings away before we are even aware of what we are thinking or how we feel. People may see and hear more than you ever anticipated. Your nonverbal communication includes both intentional and unintentional messages, but since it all happens so fast, the unintentional ones can contradict what you know you are supposed to say or how you are supposed to react.

For example, suppose you are working as a salesclerk in a retail store, and a customer just communicated their frustration to you, about something you don’t think is a big deal. Would the nonverbal aspects of your response be intentional or unintentional? Your job is to be pleasant and courteous at all times, yet your wrinkled eyebrows or wide eyes may have been unintentional. Your nonverbals clearly communicate your negative feelings at that moment. Restating your wish to be helpful and displaying nonverbal gestures may communicate “no big deal,” but the stress of the moment is still “written” on your face.

Can we tell when people are intentionally or unintentionally communicating nonverbally? Ask ten people this question and compare their responses. You may be surprised. It is clearly a challenge to understand nonverbal communication in action. We often assign intentional motives to nonverbal communication when in fact their display is unintentional and often hard to interpret.

As you can see, nonverbal communication can be confusing. We need contextual clues to help us understand, or begin to understand, what a movement, gesture, or lack of display means. Then we have to figure it all out based on our prior knowledge (or lack thereof) of the person and hope to get it right. Talk about a challenge. Nonverbal communication is everywhere, and we all use it, but that doesn’t make it simple or independent of when, where, why, or how we communicate.

Nonverbal Messages Communicate Feelings and Attitudes

Steven Beebe, Susan Beebe, and Mark Redmond (2002) offer us three additional principals of interpersonal nonverbal communication that serve our discussion.

  1. You often react faster than you think
  2. Your nonverbal responses communicate your initial reaction before you can process it through language or formulate an appropriate response
  3. If your appropriate, spoken response doesn’t match your nonverbal reaction, you may give away your true feelings and attitudes

Albert Mehrabian asserts that we rarely communicate emotional messages through the spoken word. According to Mehrabian, 93 percent of the time we communicate our emotions nonverbally, with at least 55 percent associated with facial gestures. Vocal cues, body position and movement, and normative space between speaker and receiver can also be clues to feelings and attitudes (Mehrabain, 1972).

Is your first emotional response always an accurate and true representation of your feelings and attitudes, or does your emotional response change across time? We are all changing all the time, and sometimes a moment of frustration or a flash of anger can signal to the receiver a feeling or emotion that existed for a moment but has since passed. Their response to your communication will be based on that perception, even though you might already be over the issue.  According to William Seiler and Melissa Beall, most people tend to believe the nonverbal message over the verbal message. People will often answer that “actions speak louder than words” and place a disproportionate emphasis on the nonverbal response (Seiler & Beall, 2000). This is why it is important for us to be aware of our own nonverbal communication and ensure we are communicating what we mean. Some common ways we communicate our emotions through nonverbal communication that we may or may not recognize include:

  • Reduction in eye contact while engaged in a conversation
  • Awkward pauses in conversation
  • Higher pitch in voice
  • Deliberate pronunciation and articulation of words
  • Increased delay in response time to a question
  • Increased body movements like changes in posture
  • Decreased smiling
  • Decreased rate of speech

This is where the spoken word serves us well. You may need to articulate clearly that you were frustrated, but not anymore. The words spoken out loud can serve to clarify and invite additional discussion.

For more information on non-verbal communication check out the Ted Talk from Lynne Franklin, Reading Minds Though Body Language, and article by Abhimanyu Das, 7 ways to be a better communicator – tweak your body language e.g. [new tab]


Material in this chapter has been adapted from “Human Relations” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


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