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Why Nonverbal Communication Matters?

From the moment we meet new people, we “tell” them a great deal about ourselves and we infer a lot about them, even before exchanging words. Our physical appearance (e.g., eye shape, body type, skin color) actions and behaviors (e.g., gestures, volume of speech, use of artifacts) convey much more information than we are aware of. All these elements are part of what is called nonverbal communication or NVC. Nonverbal communication is the single most prominent form of human communication, according to NVC specialists. Albert Mehrabian (1982), best known for his publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages, estimated that around 93% of meaning is conveyed nonverbally. Along similar lines, Jane Jackson (2014), professor of Applied Linguistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, suggests that what we wear, how we wear it, and what we surround ourselves with, convey multiple messages about our personal nature as well as our preferred self-identities. This means that, even if our language system is a vital component of communication, people will mainly make judgments based on the observation of nonverbal cues. This article proposes that nonverbal communication is as important as verbal communication and seeks to investigate the significance of studying manual language.

The first question that arises is: why should one study nonverbal communication? Mehrabian (1982) claims that the vast majority of meaning and emotional intent is transmitted not through verbal but through nonverbal channels. Simply put, nonverbal cues account for most of the communication people have with others during conversation. However, the discovery of nonverbal communication is not at all a new discovery. In Troilus and Cressida, William Shakespeare highlights the diverse ways in which a person’s whole presence engages in the communication process.

Fie, fie upon her!
There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip;
Nay, her foot speaks. Her wanton spirits look out
At every joint and motive of her body.

(William Shakespeare, 1609, lines 64-66)

In this passage, Cressida’s lips, eyes, cheeks, joints and posture give away her emotions, even though she is not aware of it. Similarly, people disclose their feelings, their attitudes and their thoughts through subconscious movements of their body. By expanding our knowledge of nonverbal communication, it is possible to reach a better understanding of human behavior and of social interactions and relations.

Figure 1:  Troilus and Cressida, Act 3, Scene 2. Vernor & Hood (Folger Shakespeare Library)
Figure 1: Troilus and Cressida, Act 3, Scene 2. Vernor & Hood (Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d)

The term nonverbal communication was originally introduced in 1956 by the psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch and author Weldon Kees in Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations. However, scientists and scholars had long prior recognized that nonverbal messages are critical aspects of communication. In The Advancement of Learning of 1605, for instance, Francis Bacon observed that body movements and features can disclose people’s state of mind. Since then, many definitions have been put forward. In 2016, Valerie Manusov described nonverbal communication as “everything other than language that we use as a means for communicating with others” (p. 2). Later on, in 2018, Van de Vijver defined this way of interacting as a “socially shared coding system of communication, beyond language” (p. 81), a code that is even broader than the earlier term “body language”. These definitions adopt a code approach toward nonverbal interaction, implying a separation of spoken and nonverbal communication.

But are these two systems really distinct? According to Edward Twitchell Hall (2019), an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, it is not quite correct to define nonverbal communication as everything but words, by the mere fact that most of nonverbal behaviors do not have a fixed meaning. On the contrary, they should be interpreted in light of co-occurring behavior resulting in a single, coordinated message system: a kind of multimodal communication. In multimodal communication, nonverbal codes not only work together with verbal language, but they also support oral speech, reinforcing or adding message value rather than providing meaning on their own. This is common in online communication via social platforms and web forums (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, email). With technological advances, this field of research witnessed the emergence of new forms of nonverbal interaction. In internet-mediated communication, for example, people no longer rely on words alone, but insert emoticons, images and pictorial representations that accompany the written texts (e.g., posts, comments, messages) and inform the receiver of the user’s current feelings and emotions. An aggressive comment on a post is, most of the times, accompanied by an angry emoticon (Jackson, 2014). Nonverbal cues can also substitute verbal messages. A primary teacher might tell their students to be quiet by simply putting her finger in front of her lips, instead of verbally asking it. One can express sympathy through a gentle touch on the arm, communicate grief by sitting silently next to the bereaved, display ignorance by shrugging their shoulders or raise their palms in the air to show that a particular situation is out of control. Nonverbal cues can help to avoid an awkward situation. If someone comes across a person they do not wish to speak to, they can choose to keep on walking, while tapping their watch to imply that they are busy or in a rush to get somewhere. Thirdly, nonverbal cues function as a mean to direct conversational turn-taking. A speaker may use a hand gesture towards the interlocutor to illustrate that they are giving the floor or they can signal that they want to speak by leaning forward (Jackson, 2014). Although nonverbal and verbal communication differ in many ways, the two systems often function together. Therefore, there is a strong agreement about the frequently-interconnected nature of these two systems. Whether it is better to examine them as simply related or as fully intertwined, remains controversial.

The figure in Edvard Munch's iconic "The Scream" has become an emblematic symbol for anxiety, and is referenced thousands of times a day via the "person screaming" emoji it inspired
Figure 2: The figure in Edvard Munch's iconic "The Scream" has become an emblematic symbol for anxiety, and is referenced thousands of times a day via the "person screaming" emoji it inspired (Emoji Paintings, n.d)

There are eight different nonverbal dimensions according to Judee Burgoon (1994):

Paralanguage: the study of vocal cues

Kinesics: the study of body movement (posture, gesture, facial expressions)

Oculesics: the study of eye behavior in interaction (eye contact, eye movement, gaze)

Proxemics: the study of the physical distance that speakers keep from each other (intimate space, personal space, social space, public space)

Physical appearance

Haptics: the use of touch in interaction (frequency intensity)

Olfactics: the study of the perception of odor

Chronemics: the study of how people use, perceive and structure time

Of these eight types, the nonverbal code that people receive and process first is physical appearance. Appearance messages encompass physical features (gender, weight, height, deformities) and artifacts, items shaped or created by humans that enhance physical presence (body piercings, makeup, tattoos, clothes, hairstyle, brand names, accessories). All the aforementioned cues convey a wide range of social and interpersonal information, including individual identity, interpersonal attributes and characteristics, social status, and group membership or affiliation (Hall, 2019). In many cases, these messages are more influential than conscious, overt messages. The main reason why this is the case is because physical appearance constitutes our “cover page”, which informs the first impression an individual gives of themselves. When we first meet someone, within the first few seconds of the encounter, we spontaneously make judgments and form an impression about their financial and social status, their credibility, and the degree of similarity to us, based on how they look, what they wear and how they stand, among other things. This affects our perception, our willingness, and desire to interact and form a subsequent personal relationship with that particular person. According to Jackson (2014), most people would be noticeably less inclined to develop intimate relationships or friendships with individuals they perceived as quite different from themselves.

Figure 3: Diversity in physical appearance (Vikky Miar, n.d)

From a young age, people learn the norms of nonverbal communication. In doing so, they do not follow direct and formal instructions as when they learn grammar rules and vocabulary. On the contrary, these norms are acquired implicitly through imitation, observation and experimentation of how to use and interpret nonverbal messages. This process is known as enculturation (Jackson, 2014) and it is the primary socialization process that helps people recognize and interpret verbal and nonverbal cues, firstly in their home environment and then in wider social contexts. Through this process, they develop expectations about what is socially acceptable in different cultural settings. However, when people with distinct cultural backgrounds interact, conflicting expectations of behavior can easily lead to misunderstandings. According to Jackson, “when someone stands too close to us or stares us longer than we are used to we are likely to feel uneasy and even threatened; we may view this person and the relationship negatively [and] extend this perception to all perceived members of this individual’s culture” (2014, pp. 124-125). This occurs when people have divergent ideas about what spatial distances are appropriate in a given setting and interactions of this sort may end in what Burgoon referred to as The Nonverbal Expectancy Violation Theory (1978). For instance, when a Latin American man meets a Northern European woman for the first time, he might kiss her on both cheeks and stand close to her. The woman might misinterpret his behaviour or even feel threatened, as her personal space is being invaded. In her effort to regain her physical space and sense of safety and security, she may step back. This movement may be considered rude by the Latin American man and interpreted as impolite. As was previously mentioned, individuals form expectations about how their surroundings should interact nonverbally in a variety of contexts. When these expectations are violated they tend to react in specific ways. The same applies to external appearance. As with spatial distance, people “build up expectations of what physical appearance and attire are acceptable in certain situations and contexts” (Jackson, p. 103). For example, when one goes out on a date, the clothes, the perfume, and the accessories will be cautiously and purposefully chosen in order for this individual to give prominence to their best features, showcase their personality, and manifest their interest in their partner. Similarly, when someone prepares for a job interview, they will not choose wrinkled, soiled sportswear, which will certainly lessen their overall credibility or even transmit messages of failure and poor work ethic, but rather they will probably prefer a well-groomed tailored suit, ultimately aiming to instill respect, professionalism, and a sense of responsibility (Jackson, 2014).

Figure 3: Unconscious body movements generate and share particular meanings
Figure 4: Unconscious body movements generate and share particular meanings (Zobel, 2008)

Since even the slightest detail can have a profound impact on all kinds of relationship, it is imperative that people deepen their knowledge on nonverbal communication and develop their repertoire of nonverbal skills and behaviors. In today’s globalized world, it is important to be aware of individual variations and overlook preconceived ideas about people affiliated with a specific culture. Being sensitive to such differences, speakers can adapt to the comfort level of their communication partner and adjust their use of social space accordingly. This way, they will achieve intercultural communication competence and their overall behavior will be more appropriate and effective in diverse contexts and situations.

Bibliographical Sources

Bacon, F. (1949). The Advancement of Learning (1605). In H. Jones (Ed.), Primer of Intellectual Freedom (pp. 172-192). Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press.

Burgoon, J. (1994). Nonverbal signals. ResearchGate.

Hall, E. T. (1959). “The silent language”. New York: Doubleday.

Hall, E.T. (1990) “The Hidden Dimension”, New York: Anchor Books.

Hall, S. (1990) “Cultural identity and diaspora”, in J. Rutherford (ed.) Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, London: Lawrence and Wishart, pp. 222– 37.

Hess, U. (2016). “Nonverbal Communication”. Encyclopedia of Mental Health. ResearchGate. 10.1016/B978-0-12-397045-9.00218-4.

Jackson, J. “Language and Nonverbal Communication”, Introducing language and Intercultural Communication, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Hall, J. A., Horgan, T. G., & Murphy, N. A. (2019). Nonverbal Communication. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 70:271-294.

Manusov, V. (2016). “Nonverbal Communication”. ResearchGate. 10.1002/9781118766804.wbiect096

Mehrabian, A. (1982) Nonverbal Communication, Chicago: Aldine.

Milford, L. S. (2001). “Nonverbal Communication”. Litigation, 27(4), 32–65.

Ruesch, J., & Kees, W. (1956). Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations. The University of Chicago Press Journals, 47.

van de Vijver, F. (2018b) “Nonverbal communication across cultures”, in Y.Y. Kim (ed.) The International Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication, Volume 3, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp. 1617– 26.

Visual Sources

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Maria Stachouli

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