Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal Communication

Marsha Collins steps into Houston’s office  and says, I’m not going to be able to meet with you to talk about the report you wrote because I’m swamped with work.

In  a speech to her constituents, Stephanie Morris a candidate for Congress, says, I want you to know I am committed to the needs of the people of this district.

How will Houston take Marsha Collins’s excuse? Likewise, how much faith will Stephanie Morris’s constituents have in her commitment? In both cases, the answer will rest largely on how Houston and Morris’s constituents interpret Marsha’s and Stephanie’s vocal inflections, facial expressions, and gestures as much as their words. In reality, the meaning of any communication is based on both the content of the verbal message and the interpretation of the nonverbal behavior that accompanies and surrounds the verbal message.

In this chapter, we provide a framework for analyzing and improving nonverbal communication behavior in all contexts. We begin by studying the nature of nonverbal behavior and the way verbal and nonverbal communication messages interrelate. We then look at the major types of nonverbal communication body motions, para language, self presentation, and management of the environment. We conclude our discussion by suggesting methods for increasing the accuracy with which nonverbal behavior is understood.

The Nature of Nonverbal Communication Behavior

Nonverbal communication behaviors are those bodily actions and vocal qualities that typically accompany a verbal message, that are usually interpreted as intentional, and that have agreed upon interpretations within a culture or speech community (Bur goon, 1994).

When we say that nonverbal are interpreted as intentional, we mean that people act as if they are intended even if they are performed unconsciously or unintentionally. So, when Anita says I’ve had it as she slams a book down on the table, we interpret the loudness of her voice and the act of slamming the book down as intentionally emphasizing the meaning of the words.

Likewise, when we refer to agreed-upon interpretations in a culture or speech community, we recognize that although people from around the world use many of the same nonverbal cues they may interpret them  differently. For instance, a smile may mean a positive experience, or it may mean enjoyment with contact, or it may simply be a means of saving face in an uncomfortable situation.

In addition to bodily actions and vocal qualities that accompany verbal messages, nonverbal communication also includes the messages sent by our use of physical space and our choices of clothing, furniture, lighting, temperature, and color.

Because much of what is considered appropriate nonverbal behavior depends on culture, we begin by discussing each type of behavior from a U.S. cultural perspective. Then we describe some of the most important ways nonverbal communication behavior is interpreted differently in other cultures and cornerstones.

Body Motions

Of all nonverbal behavior, you are probably most familiar with kinetics, or body motions, which include the use of eye contact, facial expression, gesture, and posture to communicate.

Eye Contact

Eye contact, also referred to as gaze, is how and how much we look at people with whom we are communicating. Eye contact serves many functions in our communication. Its presence shows that we are paying attention. How we look at a person also reveals a range of emotions such as affection, anger, or fear. Moreover, intensity of eye contact may also be used to exercise dominance (Pearson, West, & Turner, 1995). For instance, we describe people in love as looking doe eyed we comment on looks that could kill,” and we talk of someone staring another person down.

Moreover, through our eye contact we monitor the effect of our communication. By maintaining your eye contact, you can tell when or whether people are paying attention to you, when people are involved in what you are saying, and whether what you are saying is eliciting feelings.

The amount of eye contact differs from person to person and from situation to situation. Although people look at each other as they talk, studies show that talkers hold eye contact about 40 percent of the time and listeners nearly 70 percent of the time (Knapp & Hall, 1992).

We generally maintain better eye contact when we are discussing topics :with which we are comfortable, when we are genuinely interested in a person’s comments or reactions, or when we are trying to influence the other person. Conversely, we tend to avoid eye contact when we are discussing topics that make us uncomfortable, when we lack interest in the topic or person, or when we are embarrassed, ashamed, or trying to hide something.

Because of its importance in public speaking, we will talk more about eye contact Practicing the Presentation of Your Speech.

Facial Expression

Facial expression is the arrangement of facial muscles to communicate emotional states or reactions to messages. Our facial expressions are especially important in conveying the six basic emotions of happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, and disgust that are recognized across cultures (Ekman & Fries en, 1.975).


Gestures are the movements of hand, arms, and finger that  we use  to describe or to emphasize. Thus, when a person says, about this high or nearly this round, we expect to see a gesture accompany the verbal description. Likewise, when a person says, Put that down or Listen to me, a pointing finger, pounding fist, or some other gesture often reinforces the point. People do vary, however, in the amount of gesturing that companies their speech. Some  people talk with their hands far more than others.


Posture is the position and movement of the body. Changes in posture can also communicate. For instance, suddenly sitting upright and leaning forward show increased attention, whereas standing up may signal I’m done now, and turning one’s back to the other conveys a redirection of attention away from the other person.

How Body Motions Are Used

Body motions in general and gestures in particular help us considerably in conveying meaning (Ekman & Friesen, 1969).

1. Body motions may be used to take the place of a word or phrase. We could many contexts, emblems are used as a complete language, Sign language refers to systems of body motions used to communicate, which include sign languages of the deaf and alternate sign languages used by Trappist monks in Europe and the women of Australia (Leathers, 1997).

2. Body motions may be used to illustrate what a speaker is saying. We use gestures to illustrate in at least five ways.

• To emphasize speech: A man may pound the table in front of him as he says, Don’t bug me.

• To show the path or direction of thought: A professor may move her hands on an imaginary continuum when she says. The papers ranged from very good to very bad.

• To show position: A waiter may point when he says, Take that table.

•  To describe: People may use their hands to indicate size as they say. The ball is about three inches in diameter.

• To mimic: People may nod their heads as they say, Did you see the way he nodded.

3. Body motions can display the nonverbal expression of feelings. These emotional displays will take place automatically and are likely to be quite noticeable. For instance, if you stub your toe on a chair as you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, you are likely to grimace in pain. Occasionally we are fooled by these displays when people purposely intensify or overreact. For example, a baseball player may remain surfaced when he is hit by a wild pitch and refuse to rub the spot where he has been struck; likewise, a youngster may howl in pain when her older sister bumps her by accident.

4. Body motions may be used to control or regulate the flow of a conversation or other communication transaction. We use shifts in eye contact, slight head movements, .shifts in posture, raised eyebrows, and nodding head to tell a person when to continue, to repeat, to elaborate, to hurry up, or to finish. Effective communicators learn to adjust what they are saying and how they are saying it on the basis of such cues.

5. Body motions may be used to relieve tension. As we listen to people and watch them while they speak, they may scratch their head, tap their foot, wring their hands.

Cultural Variation

Several cultural differences in body motions are well documented.

Eye contact A majority of people in the ‘United States. and in other Western cultures expect those with whom they are communicating to look them in the eye, but in many societies avoiding eye contact communicates respect and deference (Martin & Nakayama, 1997, p. 149). For instance, in Japan people direct their gaze to a position around the Adam’s apple and avoid direct eye contact. Chinese, Indonesians, and rural Mexicans lower their eyes as a sign of deference-to them too much direct eye contact is a sign of bad manners. Arabs, in contrast, look intently into the eyes of the person with whom they are talking-to them direct eye contact demonstrates keen interest. Likewise, there are also differences in use of eye contact in the subcultures of the United States. For instance, African Americans use more continuous eye contact than whites when they are speaking but less when they are listening (Samovar, Porter, & Stefani, 1998).

Gestures, movements, and facial expression People of other cultures also show considerable differences in their use of gestures, movements, and facial expressions. Gestures in particular can assume completely different meanings. For instance, forming a circle with the thumb ‘and forefinger-the OK sign in the United States-means zero or worthless in France and is a vulgar gesture in Germany, Brazil, and Australia (Ax tell, 1999). Displays of emotion also vary. For instance in some Eastern cultures, people have been socialized to intensify emotional behavior cues, whereas members of other cultures have been socialized to amplify their displays of emotion. The cultural differences that are related to emotional displays are often reflected in the interpretation that can be given to facial expressions (Samovar, Porter, & Stefani, 1998).

Gender Variations

Men and women also show differences in their use of nonverbal communication behavior (Canary & Hause, 1993).

Eye contact In the United. States, women tend to have more frequent eye contact during conversations than men do (Cegala & Sillars, 1989). For instance, women tend to hold eye contact more than men regardless of the sex of the person they are interacting with (Wood 1997, p. 198).

Facial expression and gesture Women tend to smile more than men do, but their smiles are harder to inrerprer, Men’s smiles generally mean positive feelings, whereas women’s smiles tend to be suggestions of responding to affiliation and friendliness (Hall, 1998, p. 16.9). Gender differences in the use of gestures are so profound that people have been found to attribute masculinity or femininity on the basis of gesture style alone (Pearson, West, & Turner, 1995, p. 126). For instance, women are more likely to keel’ their arms close to rhei. body, are less likely to lean forward with their body, play more often with their hair or clothing, and tap their hands more often than men do.

Not only do men aw:l women use nonverbal behaviors in different way, but men and women differ in how they interpret the nonverbal communication behaviors of others. Major difficulties in male-female relationships are often created .by inaccurately encoding and decoding nonverbal messages. A number of studies have shown that women are better than men at decoding nonverbal, vocal, and facial cues (Stewart, Cooper, Stewart, & Friedley, 1998, p. 74).