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4.2: Characteristics of Nonverbal Communication

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    Learning Objectives

    • List four important characteristics of nonverbal communication and explain each.

    Nonverbal Communication Uses Multiple Channels

    We use a single channel (words) when we communicate verbally versus multiple channels when we communicate nonverbally. Try this exercise! Say your first and last name at the same time. You quickly find that this is an impossible task. Now, pat the top of your head with your right hand, wave with your left hand, smile, shrug your shoulders, and chew gum at the same time. While goofy and awkward, our ability to do this demonstrates how we use multiple nonverbal channels simultaneously to communicate.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1A}\): Verbal Communication Uses a Single Channel. Figure \(\PageIndex{1B}\): Nonverbal Communication Uses Multiple Channels. (CC BY-SA; Spaynton via Wikipedia)

    In the verbal communication chapter, we learned that "meaning is in people, not in words. " The same is true of nonverbal communication, but even more so.  Attempting to accurately decode nonverbal signals such as eye contact, facial expressions, body movements, clothing, personal artifacts, and tone of voice when they all may be happening at the same time can be very difficult. Despite this difficulty, Motley found that we learn to decode nonverbal communication as babies.  How effectively we interpret these nonverbal signals may be influenced by our gender with some research finding that women are much better than men at accurately interpreting the many nonverbal cues we send and receive (Gore). 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): How do you interpret this student’s nonverbal communication? (CC BY-SA; Spaynton via Wikipedia)

    Nonverbal Communication is Continuous

    Whereas verbal communication is distinct (linear), nonverbal communication is continuous (in constant motion and relative to context). Distinct means that messages have a clear beginning and end, and are expressed in a linear fashion. We begin and end words and sentences in a linear way to make it easier for others to follow and understand. If you pronounce the word “cat” you begin with the letter “C” and proceed to finish with “T.” Continuous means that messages are ongoing and work in relation to other nonverbal and verbal cues.

    Think about the difference between analog and digital clocks. The analog clock represents nonverbal communication in that we generate meaning by considering the relationship of the different arms to each another (context). Also, the clock’s arms are in continuous motion. We notice the speed of their movement, their position in the circle and to each other, and their relationship with the environment (is it day or night?). Nonverbal communication is similar in that we evaluate nonverbal cues in relation to one another and consider the context of the situation. Suppose you see your friend in the distance. She approaches, waves, smiles, and says “hello.” To interpret the meaning of this, you focus on the wave, smile, tone of voice, her approaching movement, and the verbal message. You might also consider the time of day, if there is a pressing need to get to class, etc.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): What might this driver be trying to convey? (CC BY-SA; Spaynton via Wikipedia)

    Now contrast this to a digital clock, which functions like verbal communication. Unlike an analog clock, a digital clock is not in constant motion. Instead, it replaces one number with another to display time (its message). A digital clock uses one distinct channel (numbers) in a linear fashion. When we use verbal communication, we do so like the digital clock. We say one word at a time, in a linear fashion, to express meaning.

    Nonverbal Communication Can Be Conscious or Unconscious

    We use verbal communication consciously while we generally use nonverbal communication unconsciously. Conscious communication means that we think about our verbal communication before we communicate. Unconscious communication means that we do not think about every nonverbal message we communicate. If you ever heard the statement as a child, “Think before you speak” you were being told a fundamental principle of verbal communication. Realistically, it’s nearly impossible not to think before we speak. When we speak, we do so consciously and intentionally. In contrast, when something funny happens, you probably do not think, “Okay, I’m going to smile and laugh right now.” Instead, you react unconsciously, displaying your emotions through these nonverbal behaviors. Nonverbal communication can occur as unconscious reactions to situations. Of course, not all nonverbal communication is unconscious. At times we certainly make conscious choices to use or withhold nonverbal communication to share meaning. Angry drivers use many conscious nonverbal expressions to communicate to other drivers! In a job interview, you are making conscious decisions about your wardrobe, posture, and eye contact.

    Because much nonverbal communication is unconscious, many of us tend to believe what we see over what we hear.  

    Can We "Read" Nonverbal Communication?

    Can we really accurately interpret the nonverbal communication used by others?  Some seem to think so.  Michele Meleen, a counselor, lists the following positive nonverbal behaviors:

    • learning in
    • direct eye contact
    • head nodding
    • firm handshake    

    In contrast, here are some negative nonverbal behaviors provided by Meleen: 

    • arms crossed over the chest
    • nail biting
    • hand placed on the cheek
    • tapping or drumming fingers
    • head in hands
    • locked ankles
    • fig-leaf pose

    For a fun take on "reading nonverbal communication, watch these "reads: from the television show, Seinfeld:

    Nonverbal Communication is Culture-Bound

    Researchers such as psychologist Paul Ekman have come to believe that there are certain core emotional expressions that are conveyed by the face that are interpreted the same way across cultures. SADF(I)SH is a mnemonic device* to remember the emotions that are recognized (somewhat) across the world:

    Interest--there is some support for this one, but not as clear as the other ones.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Six Emotions Recognized Universally (Wikimedia)

    Although some facial expressions may be recognized all over the world, as you learned in the chapter on Culture and Communication, most nonverbal communication varies greatly from one culture to the next. This is what we mean by nonverbal communication as "culture-bound." For this reason, if you travel to different regions of the world, it is very important to research and find out what is appropriate before you go.

    Key Takeaways

    Let us sum up the ways in which nonverbal communication is unique:

    • Nonverbal communication uses multiple channels simultaneously as opposed to verbal communication, which uses one.
    • Nonverbal communication is continuous, whereas verbal communication is distinct.
    • Nonverbal communication can be both conscious and unconscious; verbal communication is conscious.
    • Certain nonverbal communication is universally understood, although nonverbal communication for the most part is culture-bound.

    Now that you have a definition of nonverbal communication, and can identify characteristics of nonverbal communication, let’s examine what counts as nonverbal communication.


    Jones, Tricia, PhD. Nonverbal Communication for Educators. n.d. :// Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

    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

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