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4.1: Nonverbal Communication- A Definition

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    What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Learning Objectives

    • Define Nonverbal Communication.
    • Explain why humans continued to use nonverbal communication, even after they learn to speak.
    • Understand different types of nonverbal communication.
    • Understand that tone of voice is also considered nonverbal communication.

    Your brother comes home from school and walks through the door. Without saying a word, he walks to the refrigerator, gets a drink, and turns to head for the couch in the family room. Once there, he plops down, stares straight ahead, and sighs. You notice that he sits there in silence for the next few minutes. At this time, he never speaks a word. Is he communicating? If your answer is yes, how would you interpret his actions? How do you think he is feeling? What types of nonverbal communication was your brother using? Like verbal communication, nonverbal communication is essential in our everyday interactions.  While nonverbal and verbal communications have many similar functions, nonverbal communication has its own set of functions for helping us communicate with each other. Before we get into the types and functions of nonverbal communication, let’s examine what is meant by nonverbal communication.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Image of two silhouettes. (CC BY-NC-ND; joel zobel via

    What is Nonverbal Communication?

    Nonverbal Communication can be defined as communication without words. It includes readily-observable behaviors such as facial expressions, uses of eyes, touching, and tone of voice, as well as less obvious messages such as dress, posture, and the spatial difference between two or more people.  Everything communicates, including material objects physical space, and the way we use time.  Although verbal communication can be turned off, nonverbal communication cannot.  Even silence speaks.  

    Tricia Jones explains that "nonverbal communication skills are developed at a very young age. Young children know far more than they can verbalize and are generally more adept at reading nonverbal cues than adults are because of their limited verbal skills and their recent reliance on the nonverbal to communicate. As children develop verbal skills, nonverbal channels of communication do not cease to exist but rather they become entwined in the total communication process." Humans continue to use nonverbal communication for many reasons, as shown below.

    Why Humans Continue to Use Nonverbal Communication

    1. Words have limitations. There are numerous areas where nonverbal communication is more effective than verbal (describing the shape of something, or providing quick direction, for instance).
    2. We can't control nonverbal behaviors as easily as spoken words. This is one reason nonverbal behaviors tend to be more genuine than spoken words.
    3. Nonverbal signals can express feelings inappropriate to state: social etiquette limits what can be said, but nonverbal cues can communicate thoughts.
    4. A separate communication channel is useful to help send complex messages: a speaker can add enormously to the complexity of the verbal message through simple nonverbal signals."  (Jones)

    Nonverbal Communication in Action

    The following video is a compilation of three clips from the old television series, The Lucy Show.  You can watch the first two clips without sound and guess what is happening.  The third shows how nonverbal communication can be misinterpreted.  Watching a person's face, shoulders, hands, and even listening to their tone is important to understanding nonverbal language. 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Contributed to YouTube by Mari Bryson.

    Key Term

    • nonverbal communication


    • Jones, Tricia, PhD. Nonverbal Communication for Educators. nd.  Retrieved 8 July 2021. CC 2.5.
    • Survey of Communication Study. Authored by: Scott T Paynton and Linda K Hahn. Provided by: Humboldt State University. Located at: License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

    4.1: Nonverbal Communication- A Definition is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.