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4.5: Interpreting Nonverbal Communication

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    Learning Objectives

    • To understand how nonverbal communication may differ because of culture and gender.
    • To explain nonverbal learning disabilities and how they may impact nonverbal communication.

    It is important to remember that nonverbal communication is influenced by many different factors.  Always be cautious about making assumptions that may be untrue or unfair.

    Nonverbal Communication in the Classroom

    small child at desk As you learned in the chapter on Culture and Communication, culture and gender may have a considerable impact on nonverbal communication. A really clear example of this playing out in the classroom is provided in a study by Gallimore, Boggs, and Jordan (1974) that explored differences between Native Hawaiian and white Hawaiian schoolchildren. The study showed that Native Hawaiian schoolchildren sought help verbally from the teacher 19 percent of the time, whereas white schoolchildren sought help verbally 93 percent of the time. The study showed that Native Hawaiian children sought help, but did so through nonverbal means, such as increased eye contact or standing near the teacher. (Jones)

    When gender was considered, the differences were even more dramatic. Among the schoolchildren studied, none of the verbal communication used among the Native Hawaiian children came from the girls. Native Hawaiian boys did seek help verbally. In contrast, among the white non-native schoolchildren, boys relied on verbal communication strategies to seek help much less often than the girls. White boys sought help verbally 86 percent of the time, whereas white girls sought help verbally in every recorded instance, or 100 percent of the time. In this classroom, if the teacher had ignored nonverbal cues the Native Hawaiian girls would have received no help at all. (Jones) 

    Nonverbal Learning Disabilities

    Some children and adults may have a nonverbal learning disability.  These individuals have a difficult time interacting with others, communicating in a group or beginning a conversation. They may also have difficulty conforming to group norms required in the classroom  In addition, they may have a hard time showing empathy for others, or resolving conflicts.  Some school children may show varying levels of disregard for acceptable behavior, for example, active listening, and paying attention to or following directions.

    It is important that we are aware of the kinds of disabilities related to nonverbal communication.  If you are a family member or teacher of a child with this type of disability, you can help by modeling the specific social skills and nonverbal communication skills.  Teachers sometimes use modeling in the classroom during a class meeting or open focus groups specifically dedicated to problem-solving. Modeling can be done with the use of Role Plays, Simulations, and/or Games.

    Nonverbal social skills disorders or inability to read emotions are also associated with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of Autism, and ADHD, and ADD. You can learn more information about various types of Nonverbal Learning Disabilities from the articles, books, and websites provided below. (Jones)

    Resources for Nonverbal Learning Disabilities

    Promoting Social Skills Among Students With Nonverbal Learning Disabilities from Teaching Exceptional Children, JAN/FEB 2002 Author: Stephanie Morris
    Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 66-70. Copyright 2002 CEC. Link to Article:

    There is an informative article describing Asperger's Syndrome on Wikipedia at the link below:

    Please check out the article on ADHD (ADD) respectively at the link below:

    Chapter Summary 

    In this chapter, you have learned that we define nonverbal communication as communication without words. It includes facial expressions, eye contact, touching personal appearance, and use of personal space.  One difference between verbal and nonverbal communication is that verbal communication uses one channel while nonverbal communication occurs through multiple channels simultaneously. As a result, verbal communication is distinct while nonverbal communication is continuous. For the most part, nonverbal communication is enacted at an unconscious level while we are almost always conscious of our verbal communication. As a result, if we receive a mixed message, we tend to believe the nonverbal over the verbal. Finally, even though some facial expressions are recognizable by people all over the world, nonverbal communication is heavily influenced by culture.

    There are many types of nonverbal communication including kinesics, haptics, appearance, objects, artifacts, proxemics, our environment, chronemics, paralanguage, and silence. These types of nonverbal communication help us share meanings in our interactions. 

    Since most nonverbal communication is strongly influenced by culture, it is extremely important to exercise caution when interpreting another's nonverbal behavior.  We learned that some individuals have nonverbal communication disabilities or other conditions that affect their nonverbal behavior.

    Key Terms

    • chronemics
    • conscious
    • context
    • continuous
    • distinct
    • environment
    • haptics
    • kinesics
    • mixed messages
    • nonverbal communication
    • paralanguage
    • personal appearance
    • proxemics
    • silence
    • unconscious

    Learning Activities

    1. Have you ever had your nonverbal cues misinterpreted? For example, someone thought you liked him or her because your proxemics suggested an intimate relationship. How did you correct the misinterpretation?
    2. What kind of nonverbal communication do you use every day? What does it accomplish for you?
    3. Which do you consider has greater weight when interpreting a message from someone else, verbal or nonverbal communication? Why?
    4. Do you or have you known someone who had a nonverbal learning disability?  How did that disability affect him or her?  How did it affect his or her treatment by others?


    Images are by Wikimedia.

    Jones, Tricia, PhD. Nonverbal Communication for Educators. n.d. Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License

    Tidwell, Charles, PhD. Intercultural Communication Notes for Intercultural Business Relations. 19 June, 2019.

    4.5: Interpreting 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.

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