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4.3: Types of Nonverbal Communication

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    Learning Objectives

    • Understand and explain six primary types of nonverbal communication.

    As we discussed previously when it comes to nonverbal messages, there are often multiple things going on at once. Let's gain a better understanding by looking at the types of nonverbal communication.


    Kinesics is the study of how we use body movement and facial expressions. We interpret a great deal of meaning through body movement, facial expressions, hand gestures, and eye contact. In the US, engaging in consistent eye contact makes you appear confident, at ease, and interested. Use a relaxed, steady gaze and be careful not to stare at the other person. Looking directly at someone with sincerity reveals that you are open and engaging in your communication style.  Facial expressions are a primary method of sharing emotions and feelings (Ekman & Friesen; Scherer, Klaus, & Scherer). For example, imagine yourself at a party and you see someone across the room you are attracted to.  What sort of nonverbal behaviors do you engage in to let that person know? Likewise, what nonverbal behaviors are you looking for from him or her to indicate that it’s safe to come over and introduce yourself?  Many people believe they can easily interpret the meanings of body movements and facial expressions in others. The reality is, it is almost impossible to determine an exact meaning. Even so, we know that kinesics can communicate liking, social status, and even relationship responsiveness (Mehrabian). 


    Haptics is the study of touch. Touch is the first type of nonverbal communication we experience as humans and is vital to our development and health (Dolin & Booth-Butterfield; Wilson, et al.). Those who don’t have positive touch in their lives are less healthy both mentally and physically than those who experience positive touch. We use touch to share feelings and relational meanings. Hugs, kisses, handshakes, or even playful roughhousing demonstrate relational meanings and indicate relational closeness. In western society, touch is largely reserved for family and romantic relationships. In contrast, an exchange student from Brazil recognized the differences in touch between cultures when arriving in the United States. She was surprised when someone hesitated to remove an eyelash from her face and apologized for touching her. In her country, no one would hesitate to do this act. She realized how much more physical touch is accepted and even expected in her culture. On the negative side, touch can also be used to intimidate others.  If in doubt about the appropriateness of touch in a specific situation, it is best to avoid it lest it is misunderstood.

    Personal Appearance

    Personal Appearance is another type of nonverbal communication.  This category includes hairstyle and clothing, as well as objects you carry with you (cell phone, purse, etc.) and artifacts you use to adorn the body, such as jewelry, piercings, and necklaces, Even the automobile you drive is a form of nonverbal communication. Your choices express meanings about what you value and the image you wish to put forth. As with most communication, our choices for personal appearance, objects, and artifacts occur within cultural contexts. Consider the recent trendiness and popularity of tattoos. While once associated primarily with prison and armed services, tattoos have become mainstream and are used to articulate a variety of personal, political, and cultural messages.  

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Tattoos, hair style, dress, and makeup are all part of personal appearance. Image of woman with tattoos. (CC BY-SA; Michael Dorausch via Wikipedia)


    Proxemics is the study of our use of space. One aspect of proxemics has to do with how closely we stand to others. The distance may vary based on cultural norms and the type of relationship existing between the parties. Edward T Hall (1966) specified four distance zones which are commonly observed by North Americans.

    • Intimate distance - (0" to 18") This zone extends from actual touching to eighteen inches. It is normally reserved for those with whom one is intimate. At this distance the physical presence of another is overwhelming. Those who violate the intimate space of others are likely to be perceived as intruders.
    • Personal distance ( 18" to 4') This zone extends from eighteen inches to four feet. This is the distance of interaction of good friends.
    • Social distance ( 4' to 12') This zone exists from four to twelve feet. It seems to be an appropriate distance for casual friends and acquaintances to interact.
    • Public distance (12' to 25') Extending outward from twelve feet.  Once at this distance, a speaker becomes formal.  

    This system provides useful insight into the constructive use of space for various interactions. It should be noted, however, that appropriate distance is determined by many variables including the situation, the nature of the relationship, the topic of conversation, and the physical constraints which are present. Dr. Tricia Jones points out that vertical distance is also included in proxemics. Just as the horizontal distance between people communicates something, so does the vertical distance. In this case, however, vertical distance is often understood to convey the degree of dominance or sub-ordinance in a relationship. Looking up at or down on another person can be taken literally in many cases, with the higher person asserting greater status. People who work with small children should realize that children will interact more comfortably with a communicator when they are in the same vertical plane. On the other hand, in a situation of conflict, a person might stand to use vertical distance to their advantage. (

    Our environment includes the way we use spaces we occupy, such as our homes, rooms, cars, or offices. Think of your home, room, automobile, or office space. What meanings can others perceive about you from these spaces? What meanings are you trying to send by how you keep them? Think about spaces you use frequently and the nonverbal meanings they have for you. Most educational institutions intentionally paint classrooms in dull colors. Why? Dull colors on walls have a calming effect, theoretically keeping students from being distracted by bright colors and excessive stimuli. Contrast the environment of a classroom to that of a fast-food restaurant. These establishments have bright colors and hard plastic seats and tables. The bright colors generate an upbeat environment, while the hard plastic seats are just uncomfortable enough to keep patrons from staying too long–remember, it’s FAST food (Restaurants See Color As Key Ingredient). People and cultures place different emphasis on the use of space as a way to communicate nonverbally.

    Case In Point: Feng Shui

    Feng Shui, which means wind and water, is the ancient Chinese art of living in harmony with our environment. Feng Shui can be traced as far back as the Banpo dwellings in 4000 BCE. The ideas behind Feng Shui state that how we use our environment and organize our belongings affects the energy flow (chi) of people in that space, and the person/people who created the environment. The inclusion or exclusion, and placement, of various objects in our environments, are used to create a positive impact on others. The theory is to use the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth to design a space. Feng Shui is applicable to cities, villages, homes, and public spaces. The Temple of Heaven in Bejing, China is an example of Feng Shui architecture. To keep harmony with the natural world, the Temple houses the Hall of Annual Prayer which is comprised of four inner, 12 middle, and 12 outer pillars representing the four seasons, 12 months, and 12 traditional Chinese hours.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Example of Feng Shui via a chair/vase combination. (CC BY-NC-ND; ash.wu via


    Chronemics is the study of how people use time. Are you someone who is always early or on time? Or, are you someone who arrives late to most events? Levine believes our use of time communicates a variety of meanings to those around us. Think about the person you know who is most frequently late. How do you describe that person based on their use of time? Now, think about someone else who is always on time. How do you describe that person? Is there a difference? If so, these differences are probably based on their use of time. In the U.S., we place a high value on being on time and respond more positively to people who are punctual. But, in many Arab and Latin American countries, time is used more loosely, and punctuality is not necessarily a goal to achieve. You may have heard the expression, “Indian time” to refer to “the perception of time [that] is circular and flexible” (Harris, Shutiva). This is the belief that activities will commence when everyone is present and ready; not according to an arbitrary schedule based on a clock or calendar. Neither approach is better than the other, but the dissimilar uses of time can create misunderstandings among those from different cultural groups.


    While the types of nonverbal communication we’ve discussed so far are non-vocal, this form of nonverbal communication is actually vocal (noise is produced). Paralanguage is the term we use to describe vocal qualities or vocalizations. How we say words often expresses greater meaning than the actual words themselves.  Paralanguage includes

    • Volume: how soft or loud voice is
    • Pace or rate: how quickly or slowly we speak
    • Intonation: inflection, accent 
    • Pitch and infections: high to low
    • Vocalizations: “uh-huh”, “shhh”, “mmm”
    • Silence (pauses)
    • Filled pauses (nonfluencies) -  uh, uhm, you know, like

    Our paralanguage adds important information to our verbal message.  It can show our excitement and enthusiasm toward our message or our unease about the words we are saying.  The best paralanguage for the most part complements our verbal message and makes our voice pleasing and interesting to our listener.  Through paralanguage, we can emphasize important words in our sentences and can clue our listeners into whether we are asking a question or making a statement.

    However, there are times we intentionally use vocal qualities to contradict our words.   Sarcasm and incongruence are two examples of this.  Some comedians, such as Stephen Wright, base much of their comedy on the use of paralanguage. Wright talks in a completely monotone voice throughout his act and frequently makes statements such as, “I’m getting really excited” while using a monotone voice, accompanied by a blank facial expression. The humor lies in the incongruity—his paralanguage and facial expression contradict his verbal message. 

    When you use sarcasm, your paralanguage is intended to contradict the verbal message. However, sometimes using sarcasm can backfire when listeners do not pick up our paralinguistic cues and focus primarily on the verbal message. 

    Silence also serves as a type of paralanguage. Have you ever experienced the “silent treatment” from someone? What meanings did you take from that person’s silence? Silence is powerful because the person using silence may be refusing to engage in communication with you. Likewise, we can use silence to regulate the flow of our conversations. Silence has a variety of meanings and, as with other types of nonverbal communication; context plays an important role in interpreting the meaning of silence.

    Finally we come to filled pauses, a type of nonfluency (sound that interrupts).  Most people naturally use nonfluencies in conversation, with uh, uhm, like, and you know being some of the most popular.  Nonfluencies can be thought of as a way of buying time while we think of our next words.  Although filled sounds are common, learning to hear our own use of these sometimes pesky vocalizations is an important communication goal since their overuse can become a distraction or even an annoyance to our listeners.  One of the best ways to limit nonfluencies is to simply practice pausing silently instead of filling each silence with a sound.

    Nonverbal Communication Now: Boosting Power Through Your Nonverbal Communication

    Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy argues that "power posing" -- standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don't feel confident -- can boost feelings of confidence, and might have an impact on our chances for success.  Cuddy's talk was presented at an official TED conference, and was featured by TED editors on the home page. 

    What is your opinion of Cuddy's views?  Try "power posing" a few times and see what you think.

    Click here: 

    With an understanding of the definition of nonverbal communication and the types of nonverbal communication, let’s consider the various functions nonverbal communication serves in helping us communicate. (Ekman; Knapp; Malandro & Barker).​​​​​​

    Key Terms


    • chronemics
    • haptics
    • kinesics
    • personal appearance
    • artifacts
    • proxemics
    • intimate distance
    • personal distance
    • social distance
    • public distance
    • paralanguage
    • filled pauses or nonfluencies


    Jones, Tricia S., PhD. "Nonverbal Communication for Educators."  n.d. Accessed 8/7/2021.  Added by Lisa Coleman, Southwest Tennessee Community College.

    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

    4.3: Types 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.