What Is Nonverbal Communication?

Busy office scene depicting seven types of nonverbal communication

ThoughtCo / Hilary Allison

Nonverbal communication, also called manual language, is the process of sending and receiving messages without using words, either spoken or written. Similar to the way that italicizing emphasizes written language, nonverbal behavior may emphasize parts of a verbal message.

The term nonverbal communication was introduced in 1956 by psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch and author Weldon Kees in the book "Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations."

Nonverbal messages have been recognized for centuries as a critical aspect of communication. For instance, in "The Advancement of Learning" (1605), Francis Bacon observed that "the lineaments of the body do disclose the disposition and inclination of the mind in general, but the motions of the countenance and parts do not only so, but do further disclose the present humour and state of the mind and will."

Types of Nonverbal Communication

"Judee Burgoon (1994) has identified seven different nonverbal dimensions:"

  1. Kinesics or body movements including facial expressions and eye contact;
  2. Vocalics or paralanguage that includes volume, rate, pitch, and timbre;
  3. Personal appearance;
  4. Our physical environment and the artifacts or objects that compose it;
  5. Proxemics or personal space;
  6. Haptics or touch;
  7. Chronemics or time.

"Signs or emblems include all of those gestures that supplant words, numbers, and punctuation marks. They may vary from the monosyllabic gesture of a hitchhiker's prominent thumb to such complex systems as the American Sign Language for the deaf where nonverbal signals have a direct verbal translation. However, it should be emphasized that signs and emblems are culture-specific. The thumb and forefinger gesture used to represent 'A-Okay' in the United States assumes a derogatory and offensive interpretation in some Latin American countries." (Wallace V. Schmidt et al., Communicating Globally: Intercultural Communication and International Business. Sage, 2007)

How Nonverbal Signals Affect Verbal Discourse

"Psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen (1969), in discussing the interdependence that exists between nonverbal and verbal messages, identified six important ways that nonverbal communication directly affects our verbal discourse."

"First, we can use nonverbal signals to emphasize our words. All good speakers know how to do this with forceful gestures, changes in vocal volume or speech rate, deliberate pauses, and so forth. ..."

"Second, our nonverbal behavior can repeat what we say. We can say yes to someone while nodding our head ... ."

"Third, nonverbal signals can substitute for words. Often, there isn't much need to put things in words. A simple gesture can suffice (e.g., shaking your head to say no, using the thumbs-up sign to say 'Nice job,' etc.). ..."

"Fourth, we can use nonverbal signals to regulate speech. Called turn-taking signals, these gestures and vocalizations make it possible for us to alternate the conversational roles of speaking and listening ... ."

"Fifth, nonverbal messages sometimes contradict what we say. A friend tells us she had a great time at the beach, but we're not sure because her voice is flat and her face lacks emotion. ..."

"Finally, we can use nonverbal signals to complement the verbal content of our message... Being upset could mean we feel angry, depressed, disappointed, or just a bit on edge. Nonverbal signals can help to clarify the words we use and reveal the true nature of our feelings." (Martin S. Remland, Nonverbal Communication in Everyday Life, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Deceptive Studies

"Traditionally, experts tend to agree that nonverbal communication itself carries the impact of a message. 'The figure most cited to support this claim is the estimate that 93 percent of all meaning in a social situation comes from nonverbal information, while only 7 percent comes from verbal information.' The figure is deceiving, however. It is based on two 1976 studies that compared vocal cues with facial cues. While other studies have not supported the 93 percent, it is agreed that both children and adults rely more on nonverbal cues than on verbal cues in interpreting the messages of others." (Roy M. Berko et al., Communicating: A Social and Career Focus, 10th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

Nonverbal Miscommunication

"Like the rest of us, airport security screeners like to think they can read body language. The Transportation Security Administration has spent some $1 billion training thousands of 'behavior detection officers' to look for facial expressions and other nonverbal clues that would identify terrorists."

"But critics say there’s no evidence that these efforts have stopped a single terrorist or accomplished much beyond inconveniencing tens of thousands of passengers a year. The T.S.A. seems to have fallen for a classic form of self-deception: the belief that you can read liars’ minds by watching their bodies."

"Most people think liars give themselves away by averting their eyes or making nervous gestures, and many law-enforcement officers have been trained to look for specific tics, like gazing upward in a certain manner. But in scientific experiments, people do a lousy job of spotting liars. Law-enforcement officers and other presumed experts are not consistently better at it than ordinary people even though they’re more confident in their abilities." (John Tierney, "At Airports, a Misplaced Faith in Body Language." The New York Times, March 23, 2014)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Nonverbal Communication?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-nonverbal-communication-1691351. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What Is Nonverbal Communication? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-nonverbal-communication-1691351 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Nonverbal Communication?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-nonverbal-communication-1691351 (accessed June 4, 2023).