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6.1: Introduction to Nonverbal Communication

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    • Define nonverbal communication and explain its metacommunicative nature.
    • Describe the process of nonverbal communication.
    • Assess the impact of nonverbal communication in interpersonal relationships.


    Defining nonverbal communication

    Your partner flashes a big smile when you surprise them for their birthday even though they secretly are embarrassed. You send an emoji “face with tears of joy” (��) to your BFF after getting a perfect score on a rhetorical criticism paper. You kiss someone on a first date. What do these scenarios have in common? Nonverbal communication of course -- an essential but frequently misunderstood dimension of interpersonal relations (Gifford, 2011). Nonverbal communication is often simply defined as communication without words. Others have noted that nonverbal communication includes “all behaviors that are not words” (Guerrero & Floyd, 2006, p. 4). Regardless of the deceiving simplicity of its definition, know that nonverbal communication is very complex.

    In everyday life, nonverbal communication is multimodal and multifunctional in nature serving many functions. It is closely linked to how we feel about our relationships with others and how we manage those relationships. In interpersonal interaction, nonverbal messages can be found in facial expressions, eyes, body language, touching as well as clothing, tone of voice, posture and even spatial distance. Indeed, you can say a lot without saying anything, or as psychologist and philosopher Paul Watzlawick (1978) observed in the first axiom of his interpersonal communication theory that you cannot not communicate. The inevitability of sending and receiving messages is extremely important to understand because it means that each of us is a type of “transmitter” that cannot be shut off. Nonverbal behaviors are implicated in messages of intimacy, arousal and composure, dominance, formal, and task or social orientation. Whether intentional or unintentional, deceitful or sincere, no matter what we do, we give off information about ourselves. In short, nonverbal communication is an important part of human interaction and always present in face-to-face interactions.

    A related concept is what social scientists call metacommunication -- communicating about communication. In interpersonal relationships, it involves how people perceive you, not just your words. For example, if I say, “Nice to see you!” to someone and roll my eyes at the same time, they will likely doubt my sincerity.

    This example illustrates one of the more interesting effects of nonverbal messages: most people tend to believe the nonverbal message over the verbal message if the two appear to be in disagreement (Knapp, 1972; Knapp, Earnest, Griffin, & McGlone, 2020; Malandro & Barker, 1983; Mehrabian, 1981). People seem to believe that actions really do speak louder than words. As a result, they place a disproportionate emphasis on the nonverbal response -- therefore it’s always a good idea to make nonverbal behavior consistent with our verbal messages (Hackman & Johnson, 2000).

    So, welcome to the world of nonverbal communication. Its types, its contexts, and its impacts -- all of these will be explored in the pages that follow.

    The process of nonverbal communication

    Is nonverbal communication its own type of language? Yes and no. Like language, the fundamental process of nonverbal communication consists of a message encoded in a selected medium (body language, for example) that is then decoded. When you form language and speak it, your brain encodes a thought into words and intelligible sounds. For example, if you want to tell someone to leave the room, you can simply speak the words, “Please leave the room.” Nonverbally, you can also encode an extra layer of “illustration” -- for example, first pointing at the person and then at the door.

    Some forms of nonverbal communication are emblematic in nature, where the performance stands for a concrete idea. Emblems are gestures like pointing, giving a thumbs up, or signing “OK” in specific contexts where those gestures are intelligible. Other nonverbal emblems include wearing a uniform to indicate team membership or sporting a tattoo that has a literal, unambiguous meaning. The most famous emblem of all, of course, may be the infamous “middle finger.”

    However, not all nonverbal communication is emblematic. If you sway in your chair during a lecture, the meaning of that behavior may not be immediately obvious. Perhaps you need to go to the bathroom. Maybe you’re just restless. You could even be doing light exercises to help stay awake. Without asking you, any interpretation would be tentative -- a guess. In fact, you might not even know the answer to what your behavior means. It turns out that some people perform nonverbal gestures without realizing them. When some people speak before an audience, for example, they might look down a lot, move their legs a lot, or put their hands behind their backs -- all without realizing it. These are “adaptive” behaviors designed to subconsciously help the speaker feel better (more comfortable) about the situation they’re in.

    How aware (or not) someone is of their nonverbal behavior raises the important question of intention. Certainly, some aspects of nonverbal are intentionally performed. Chances are, your clothing and hairstyle at the moment you’re reading this were intentional choices, but what about your posture and the position of your hands and arms? There are aspects of nonverbal communication that we may convey without meaning to. Goffman (1952) called the intentional aspects of nonverbal performance as “cues given” and the unintentional aspects as “cues given off.” Whether intentional or not, these cues can be communicated via a variety of “media” (all of them associated with you) -- your eyes, smell, tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures to name a few. Increasing your competence in nonverbal communication means learning to pay more attention to these unintentional aspects.

    Later in this chapter, you will learn different channels of nonverbal communication. These channels are grouped into four categories: personal characteristics (aspects relating to a person’s physical features), environment (artifacts in a given location), motion (movement-oriented gestures), and vocal cues (relating to the non-linguistic aspects of talking).

    The impact of nonverbal communication

    You might have heard that 93% of communication is nonverbal. That figure comes from a famous study by Merhabian and Ferris (1967). Participants in their study were read aloud single words that they previously rated as either positive, neutral, or negative on-paper. When they were read aloud, they were read vocal tones that were previously rated as either neutral or positive. Then the experiment was repeated using facial cues, where the experimenter read the words while displaying certain facial cues (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967). Mehrabian utilized the results to calculate the listener’s perceived attitudes, which were a combination of three cues in the following proportion: 7% verbal, 38% vocal (tone), and 55% facial expression.

    Notice that these studies were focused on the utterance of single words, not complete sentences within a context. We know that our typical social interactions occur in contexts of complete thoughts and actions, not just single words. These studies, therefore, face issues with external validity (the ability to apply to actual social situations). This criticism (among others concerning sample size and possible participant biases) was expressed by Burgoon, Woodall, and Ferris (1989). Though you may hear the 93% number frequently expressed in popular culture, you now know that this is based on a very limited study.

    So if it isn’t 93%, how much of communication is nonverbal? The only thing that scholars agree on is that it matters, and that it matters in many contexts. In the next section, we will explore 14 channels (yes, 14!) and the many ways they allow us to communicate ideas beyond the power of words. In the end, our competence in nonverbal communication can help determine how an interaction will proceed and, perhaps, whether it will take place at all.


    Activity 1: Gestures List

    Ask students: How do we communicate without words? What are some common gestures? Divide students into groups and give each group just two minutes to come up with as many ways of communicating without using words as they can.

    Activity 2: Silent Scene

    Divide students into pairs. Have each pair create a one-minute scene featuring a problem that needs to be solved. When performing the scene, neither member of the pair can talk (all communication has to be expressed nonverbally). Can the audience guess the content of the scene without any dialogue to help?


    Ambady, N., & Weisbuch, M. (2010). Nonverbal behavior. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology, (pp. 464-497). Wiley.

    Burgoon, J. Buller, D, & Woodall, W. (1989) Nonverbal communication: The unspoken dialogue. Harper and Row.

    Gifford, R. (2011). The role of nonverbal communication in interpersonal relations. In L. Horowitz, & S. Strack (Eds.), Handbook of interpersonal psychology Theory, research, assessment, and therapeutic interventions (pp. 171-190). Wiley.

    Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Anchor Books.

    Hackman, M.Z., & Johnson, C.E. (2000). Leadership: A communication perspective. Waveland.

    Knapp, M. L. (1972). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    Knapp, M., Earnest, W., Griffin, D., & McGlone, M. (2020). Lying and deception in human interaction (3rd ed.). Kendall Hunt.

    Knapp, M., Hall, J., & Horgan, T. (2014). Nonverbal communication in human interaction (8th ed.). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

    Malandro, L. A., & Barker, L. (1983). Nonverbal Communication. Addison-Wesley.

    Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes (2nd ed.). Wadsworth.

    Mehrabian, A. & Ferris, S. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 13, 248-252.

    Mehrabian A., & Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 109-114.

    Watzlawick, P. (1978). The language of change: Elements of therapeutic communication. Norton W.W., & Company, Inc.


    Competence: One’s ability to encode and decode nonverbal communication.

    Decoding: The process of interpreting and assigning meaning to a message.

    Encoding: The process of organizing a message, choosing words and sentence structure, and verbalizing the message.

    Medium: The channel or system by which information is transmitted.

    Metacommunication: Messages that refer to other messages, usually in the context of a relationship.

    Nonverbal Communication: Communication enacted by means other than words.

    Emblem: A nonverbal signal that stands for an established semantic meaning.


    1. Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

    At the TEDGlobal 2012 conference, social psychologist Amy Cuddy gave the talk “Your body language shapes who you are,” based on research in which she detailed the effects of “power posing.” Do you agree or disagree with her that our body language can change other people’s perceptions—and perhaps even our own body chemistry—simply by changing body positions? Are her findings consistent with definitions of nonverbal communication?

    2. The Secrets of Body Language

    Full documentary; This 90-minute documenary shows us several examples of this, including the summit meetings between U.S. president Bill Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak which took place at the dawning of the new millennium, and President Richard Nixon's offerings of transparency while in the throes of the Watergate scandal more than two decades earlier. In each instance, the simplest pat on the back, crossing of arms across the chest, quiver in the voice, speed of a footstep or stance during a handshake illustrates underlying tensions and doubt. Can you identify or describe the process of creating and interpreting nonverbal cues in this documentary?

    This page titled 6.1: Introduction to Nonverbal Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

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