Non Verbal Communication

You probably know someone that talks a lot with their hands. Research has discovered the many uses of this. In this explanation, we'll explore different ways of nonverbal communication. We'll have a look at types of nonverbal communication and the importance of nonverbal communication.

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Table of contents

    What is the nonverbal communication definition?

    What is the definition of nonverbal communication? We can consider a good portion of our communication is nonverbal. Simple acts such as handshakes, raising eyebrows, or a wink can get a message across to someone else. Nonverbal communication does not involve words or using your voice. These nonverbal cues can mean more than a word or, in general, than verbal communication.

    Non-verbal communication is a method of expressing thoughts and passing information to others without talking.

    Researchers have attempted to understand the what, when, and why reasonings of non-verbal communication. In 1872, Darwin proposed the evolutionary theory, which can be applied to understand the what, when and why of non-verbal communication. According to the theory, all animals engage in non-verbal communication (the what) when innate instincts 'kick in' that they are in danger. This evolutionary mechanism aims to ensure survival (the why).

    Some animals bare their teeth and growl at other animals to scare away predators or other animals, which may prevent fights and increases the animals' chance of survival.

    Is non-verbal behaviour innate?

    A common question you will encounter while studying psychology is whether the behaviour is innate – something we are born with, or learned? Darwin's theory suggests that non-verbal behaviour is an innate, adaptive function that can be observed in neonates.

    Research has shown that neonates use a pre-cry expression to show sadness or smiles and similar/appropriate facial expressions to demonstrate pain or surprise. But is non-verbal behaviour learned? If non-verbal behaviours are learned, then individuals who are sensory deprived would not be able to use them in the same way. However, this is not the case. Studies have shown babies born blind have similar expressions behaviours to babies born with vision.

    Is non-verbal behaviour learned?

    Contradictory research has found that non-verbal behaviour is learned. Yuki (2007) gave the same questionnaire to American and Japanese students. Students were required to rate how happy to sad emoticon faces were in this research. The results showed that Japanese students focused on the eyes. In contrast, Americans focused on the mouth when interpreting emoticons, suggesting people learn about expressions and how to interpret emotions and cultural norms influence this.

    Cultural differences in non-verbal communication

    You may have noticed that non-verbal communication can have differences in certain cultures. Different cultures across the globe have different ways of engaging in and interpreting social interactions. Cultures are often categorised as:

    A collectivist society is a group of people who believe that solidarity and working together to maintain the status quo are more important than individual goals.

    Examples of common non-verbal communication in collectivist societies are avoiding eye contact, bowing when showing respect to someone of authority and generally using fewer body movements to express oneself.

    Individualistic societies are people who emphasise personal gains and goals over the well-being of their community.

    Non-verbal communication in an individualistic society tends to be less reserved and more expressive. For instance, people may use more gestures to express their feelings.

    Types of non-verbal communication

    Mehrabian (1971) found that when expressing emotions and attitudes to others, 7% is conveyed through words, 38% via tones and 55% through body language, highlighting the importance of non-verbal communication. This finding showed that it is used to express and interpret others' thoughts and actions. Now let's look at some of the commonly known types of nonverbal communication.

    Non-verbal Communication, Illustration of four people having a conversation with speech bubbles above their heads, StudySmarterFour people having a conversation,

    Non-verbal communication examples

    There are different methods of non-verbal communication. Individuals use these to express their feelings and intentions or pass along information to others. Some nonverbal communication examples that will be discussed are:

    • Gestures

    • Facial expressions

    • Paralinguistics

    • Body language and posture

    • Eye gaze/contact

    • Proxemics/personal space

    • Touch

    • Appearance

    Methods of non-verbal communication – gestures

    Sifferent forms of gestures exist – from waving to pointing and even cursing. Gestures are non-verbal signals that communicate messages or positive or negative feelings. They are also occasionally used to emphasise a point someone is making.

    An example of gestures is that someone may point to a poster to re-direct others' attention to it.

    The movement of body parts characterises gestures.

    Gestures are an important method of non-verbal communication because they can add meaning and emphasise something that is being said. Gestures can be used to get someone to pay attention to the seriousness of a topic. If someone exaggerates their gestures, others may be more likely to pay attention to the seriousness of the topic.

    Methods of non-verbal communication – posture and touch

    Another important type of non-verbal communication is body posture. The way we sit, stand and pose are messages themselves. Different types of postures have different meanings. These include:

    • Open posture may be when someone is sitting back in a laid-back way, suggesting to others the person is open and approachable.
    • Closed posture, i.e., standing with arms crossed, may suggest the person is feeling attacked or defensive.
    • Postural echo; you may have noticed you sometimes mirror others' postures, which is essentially postural echo.

    Postural echos are usually subconscious movements done when the other is a respected person or the individual may be trying to suggest equal status.

    Body posture helps people express themselves and helps others interpret how someone is feeling.

    Touch is another method of non-verbal communication. It can be interpreted in many ways depending on the context of the situation.

    For example, touching someone's arm for a long time in a social situation can be seen as flirtatious. Whereas when touching someone aggressively may suggest a conflict between two people.

    Types of non-verbal communication – facial expressions

    Facial expressions make up a large part of nonverbal communication. Think about it: a simple smile or facial expression that conveys a message of anger can mean a lot and provide a lot of information. Although nonverbal communication and behaviour can vary by culture, facial expressions of joy, anger, sadness, and fear usually remain the same.

    Non-verbal Communication, Illustration of children doing different facial expressions, StudySmarterVarying facial expressions, pixabay

    Types of non-verbal communication – eye contact

    As we mentioned before, eye gaze or eye contact is another significant way of communicating. Staring, blinking, and rolling eyes are important nonverbal cues. Staring at someone could mean a range of emotions, such as hostility, attraction or interest. Usually, maintaining eye contact is interpreted as being honest. When eye contact is not maintained, a person is often thought to be hiding something or lying.

    Eye contact has many vital functions.

    For example, eye contact can maintain a conversation. Usually, when eye contact is broken, the conversation may start to come to an end. In some social settings if two people hold eye contact for a long, which can indicate attraction.

    The power of eye contact – eye contact is a powerful communication tool as it can make someone feel recognised and valuable and deepen a relationship between two people.

    Types of non-verbal communication – proxemics/personal space

    Personal space is also a form of nonverbal communication. The amount of space and distance a person needs from another or others reveals a message. Social norms usually influence personal space, how familiar or comfortable you are with someone and cultural factors.

    Keeping a distance from someone can suggest hostility or that someone does not wish to be interacted with.

    The importance of nonverbal communication

    Nonverbal communication methods and cues give a message to the person to whom we are trying to communicate, i.e. whether we are happy, angry, or honest with that person. When nonverbal types of communication match what we say, these increase trust between the people involved.

    Non-verbal communication is also important as it plays five important roles, which are: repetition (strengthens the verbal message), contradiction, substitution (used to replace a verbal message), complementing (to add to or complete a verbal message) and accenting.

    This type of communication can also help someone express themselves and help others understand what is trying to be said. It is difficult to use nonverbal communication alone to express emotions.

    Non-verbal communication is usually used to support verbal communication. For example, it may be used when the individual may find it difficult to express what they are trying to say in words or to emphasise their point.

    Non-Verbal Communication - Key takeaways

    • Non-verbal communication is a method of expressing thoughts and passing information to others without talking.
    • We can consider a good portion of our communication is nonverbal. Simple acts such as handshakes, raising eyebrows or a wink are often used to communicate with others.
    • Research has found that non-verbal communication is an innate and learned behaviour.
    • Some Nonverbal communication examples are gesture, posture, eye gaze, touch and facial expressions.
    • Nonverbal communication is crucial as it can help people communicate better and express emotions.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Non Verbal Communication

    What percentage of communication is nonverbal?

    Mehrabian (1971) found that when expressing emotions and attitudes to others, 7% is conveyed through words, 38% via tones, and 55% through body language.

    What are the types of nonverbal communication?

    Some examples of non-verbal communication are:

    • Body movements 
    • Facial expressions 
    • Eye contact 
    • Personal space 

    How does nonverbal communication affect communication?

    Non-verbal communication is often used to support verbal communication. For example, it may be used when having difficulties expressing oneself or when trying to emphasise a point. 

    What are some examples of nonverbal communication?

    An example of non-verbal communication is gestures. Different forms exist, such as handshakes, pointing, or even cursing. 

    Why is non-verbal communication important?

    Non-verbal communication plays five roles: repetition, contradiction, substitution, complementing, and accenting. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Does culture influence how non-verbal communication is expressed and interpreted? 

    What did Yuki's study conclude?

    What type of posture may suggest that someone is feeling attacked? 


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