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4.4: Functions of Nonverbal Communication

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    Learning Objectives

    • Explain and demonstrate the functions of nonverbal communication.
    • Explain what happens when a mixed message is received.
    • Understand the Mehrabian Equation.

    You learned that there are many categories of nonverbal communication. But what functions does it serve?  

    We use nonverbal communication to repeat verbal communication.

    For example, we point in a direction while stating directions or we nod or a head-shake to duplicate the verbal messages of “yes” or “no.”   

    We use nonverbal communication to replace verbal communication.

    If someone asks you a question, instead of a verbal reply “yes” and a head-nod, you may choose to simply nod your head without the accompanying verbal message. When we replace verbal communication with nonverbal communication, we use nonverbal behaviors that are easily recognized by others such as a wave, head-nod, or head-shake.  Shaking the head side-to-side to indicate "No," or to show disbelief or disapproval is used by human babies to refuse food or drink; even children born deaf and blind shake their heads to refuse objects or to show others they do not wish to be touched.  (Givens). 

    We use nonverbal cues to complement or contradict verbal communication.

    If a friend tells you that she recently received a promotion and a pay raise, you can show your enthusiasm in a number of verbal and nonverbal ways. If you exclaim, “Wow, that’s great! I’m so happy for you!” while at the same time smiling and hugging your friend, you are using nonverbal communication to complement what you are saying. Unlike duplicating or replacing, nonverbal communication that complements cannot be used alone without the verbal message. If you simply smiled and hugged your friend without saying anything, the interpretation of that nonverbal communication would be more ambiguous than using it to complement your verbal message.  Sometimes nonverbal messages can be used to contradict the verbal message.  For example, a "wink" may contradict a stated message.

    We use nonverbal communication to accent the verbal message. 

    For instance, you may be upset with a family member and state, “I’m very angry with you.” To accent your feelings, you might use paralanguage to vocally emphasize the word “very.” ("I'm VERY angry with you").  Parents might tell their children to “come here.” If they point to the spot in front of them dramatically, they are accenting the “here” part of the verbal message.  

    We use nonverbal communication to regulate communication.

    Rarely, if ever, would we approach someone and say, “I’m going to start a conversation with you now. Okay, let’s begin.” Instead, we might make eye contact, move closer, or face the person directly — all nonverbal behaviors that indicate our desire to interact. Likewise, we do not generally end conversations by stating, “I’m done talking to you now” unless there is a breakdown in the communication process. Instead, we may look at our watch, look in the direction we wish to go or stay silent to indicate an impending end in the conversation.  If our listener doesn't respond to our nonverbal cues, we may say something to the effect, “I really need to get going now.” 

    We use nonverbal communication to indicate relationships 

    Take a few moments today to observe the nonverbal communication of people you see in public areas. What can you determine about their relational standing from their nonverbal communication? For example, romantic partners tend to stand close to one another and touch one another frequently. On the other hand, acquaintances generally maintain greater distances and touch less than romantic partners. Those who hold higher social status often use more space when they interact with others. In the United States, it is generally acceptable for women in platonic relationships to embrace and be physically close while males are often discouraged from doing so. Contrast this to many other nations where it is custom for males to greet each other with a kiss or a hug and hold hands as a symbol of friendship. We make many inferences about relational standing based on the nonverbal communication of those with whom we interact and observe. Imagine seeing a couple talking to each other across a small table. They both have faces that looked upset, red eyes from crying, closed body positions, are leaning into each other, and are whispering emphatically. Upon seeing this, would you think they were having a “Breakup conversation”?

    We use nonverbal communication to communicate emotions

    While we can certainly tell people how we feel, we more frequently use nonverbal communication to express our emotions. Conversely, we tend to interpret emotions by examining nonverbal communication. For example, a friend may be feeling sad one day and it is probably easy to tell this by her nonverbal communication. Not only may she be less talkative but her shoulders may be slumped and she may not smile. One study suggests that it is important to use and interpret nonverbal communication for emotional expression, and ultimately relational attachment and satisfaction (Schachner, Shaver, & Mikulincer). Research also underscores the fact that people in close relationships have an easier time reading the nonverbal communication of emotion of their relational partners than those who aren’t close. Likewise, those in close relationships can more often detect concealed emotions (Sternglanz & DePaulo).

    We use nonverbal communication to demonstrate and maintain cultural norms

    We’ve already shown that some nonverbal communication is universal, but the majority of nonverbal communication is culturally specific. For example, in United States culture, people typically place high value on their personal space. In the United States, people maintain far greater personal space than those in many other cultures. If you go to New York City, you might observe that any time someone accidentally touches you on the subway he/she might apologize profusely for the violation of personal space. Cultural norms of anxiety and fear surrounding issues of crime and terrorism appear to cause people to be more sensitive to others in public spaces, highlighting the importance of culture and context.

    If you go grocery shopping in China as a westerner, you might be shocked that shoppers would ram their shopping carts into others’ carts when they wanted to move around them in the aisle. This is not an indication of rudeness, but a cultural difference in the negotiation of space. You would need to adapt to using this new approach to personal space, even though it carries a much different meaning in the U.S. Nonverbal cues such as touch, eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures are culturally specific and reflect and maintain the values and norms of the cultures in which they are used.

    Contrast this example to norms in many Asian cultures where frequent touch in crowded public spaces goes unnoticed because space is not used in the same ways. For example, watch this short video showing the subway pushers in Japan whose job it is to pack the train.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Japanese Subway Pushers Pack the Morning Train. (Source:

    Mixed Messages

    A mixed message is when your nonverbal communication and verbal communication are stating two different things. Imagine that you visit your boss’s office and she asks you how you’re enjoying a new work assignment. You may feel obligated to respond positively because it is your boss asking the question, even though you may not truly feel this way. However, your nonverbal communication--such as a hesitation in answering or a frown-- may contradict your verbal message, sending a mixed message to your boss.

    Social Psychology Professor Albert Mehrabian explored the relative impact of various channels of communication in terms of the power they have to convey our feelings and attitudes to others. Specifically, he studied the relative effectiveness of words alone compared to the nonverbal channels of voice and tonality and facial expressions, and body language. His study gave rise to The Mehrabian Equation which found that 

    • 7% of the impact of a message is communicated with words that are spoken (verbally).

    • 38% of the message is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).

    • 55% of the message is in facial expression and other forms of body language.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Mehrabian Equation: Comparing words, paralanguage, and body language. (Wikimedia)

    Clearly, paying attention to our nonverbal communication and attempting to keep it consistent with our verbal message is important for delivering messages that communicate what we want them to.

    Key Takeaway

    We use nonverbal communication in many ways, including to show emotions, demonstrate cultural norms, regulate communication, and complement/contradict, accent, emphasize, or replace verbal communication.  In the case of a mixed message, Mehrabian's studies showed that nonverbal communication was most important to meaning (55%), followed by paralanguage (38%) and verbal (7%).

    Nonverbal Communication and Service Industries: When Nonverbal Communication Goes Wrong

     Analyze the nonverbal communication used by the employee in this video clip.  Using terms you learned in this and the previous segment (Types of Nonverbal Communication), point out specific problems.  If you were this employee's supervisor, what advice would you give him?

    Nonverbal Communication and You: Nonverbal Communication and Getting a Job

    You may be thinking that getting the right degree at the right college is the way to get a job. Think again! It may be a good way to get an interview, but once at the interview, what matters? College Journal reports that “Body language comprises 55% of the force of any response, whereas the verbal content only provides 7%, and paralanguage, or the intonation — pauses, and sighs given when answering — represents 38% of the emphasis.” If you show up to an interview smelling of cigarette smoke, chewing gum, dressed inappropriately, and listening to music on your phone, you’re probably in trouble.

    About.Com states that these are some effective nonverbal practices during interviews:

    • Make eye contact with the interviewer for a few seconds at a time.
    • Smile and nod (at appropriate times) when the interviewer is talking, but, don’t overdo it. Don’t laugh unless the interviewer does first.
    • Be polite and keep an even tone to your speech. Don’t be too loud or too quiet.
    • Don’t slouch.
    • Do relax and lean forward a little towards the interviewer so you appear interested and engaged.
    • Don’t lean back. You will look too casual and relaxed.
    • Keep your feet on the floor and your back against the lower back of the chair.
    • Pay attention, be attentive, and interested.
    • Listen.
    • Don’t interrupt.
    • Stay calm. Even if you had a bad experience at a previous position or were fired, keep your emotions to yourself and do not show anger or frown.
    • Not sure what to do with your hands? Hold a pen and your notepad or rest an arm on the chair or on your lap, so you look comfortable. Don’t let your arms fly around the room when you’re making a point.

    Eat Like a Lady

    In Japan, it is considered improper for women to be shown with their mouths open in public. Not surprisingly, this makes it difficult to eat particular foods, such as hamburgers. So, in 2013, the Japenese Burge chain, Freshness Burger, developed a solution: the liberation wrapper. The wrapper, or mask, hides women’s mouths as they eat thus allowing them to maintain the expected gendered nonverbal behavior for the culture. To read and see more about this, click here.


    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

    4.4: Functions 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.