Nonverbal communication

Understanding each other through hand and eye expression; seen in a street near the bell tower of Xi'an, China.

Nonverbal communication between people is communication through sending and receiving wordless clues.

It includes the use of visual cues such as body language (kinesics), distance (proxemics) and physical environments/appearance, of voice (paralanguage) and of touch (haptics).[1] It can also include chronemics (the use of time) and oculesics (eye contact and the actions of looking while talking and listening, frequency of glances, patterns of fixation, pupil dilation, and blink rate).

Just as speech contains nonverbal elements known as paralanguage, including voice quality, rate, pitch, volume, and speaking style, as well as prosodic features such as rhythm, intonation, and stress, so written texts have nonverbal elements such as handwriting style, spatial arrangement of words, or the physical layout of a page. However, much of the study of nonverbal communication has focused on interaction between individuals,[2] where it can be classified into three principal areas: environmental conditions where communication takes place, physical characteristics of the communicators, and behaviors of communicators during interaction.

Nonverbal communication involves the conscious and unconscious processes of encoding and decoding. Encoding is the act of generating information such as facial expressions, gestures, and postures. Decoding is the interpretation of information from received sensations from previous experiences.[2]

Only a small percentage of the brain processes verbal communication. As infants, nonverbal communication is learned from social-emotional communication, making the face rather than voice the dominant communication channel. As children become verbal communicators, they begin to look at facial expressions, vocal tones, and other nonverbal elements more subconsciously.

Culture plays an important role in nonverbal communication, and it is one aspect that helps to influence how learning activities are organized. In many Indigenous American Communities, for example, there is often an emphasis on nonverbal communication, which acts as a valued means by which children learn. In this sense, learning is not dependent on verbal communication; rather, it is nonverbal communication which serves as a primary means of not only organizing interpersonal interactions, but also conveying cultural values, and children learn how to participate in this system from a young age.[3]


Symbol table for non-verbal communication with patients

Nonverbal communication represents two-thirds of all communication.[4] Nonverbal communication can portray a message both vocally and with the correct body signals or gestures. Body signals comprise physical features, conscious and unconscious gestures and signals, and the mediation of personal space.[4] The wrong message can also be established if the body language conveyed does not match a verbal message. Nonverbal communication strengthens a first impression in common situations like attracting a partner or in a business interview: impressions are on average formed within the first four seconds of contact.[4] First encounters or interactions with another person strongly affect a person's perception.[5] When the other person or group is absorbing the message, they are focused on the entire environment around them, meaning the other person uses all five senses in the interaction: 83% sight, 11% hearing, 3% smell, 2% touch and 1% taste.[6]

History of research

Scientific research on nonverbal communication and behavior was started in 1872 with the publication of Charles Darwin's book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.[6] In the book, Darwin argued that all mammals, both humans and animals, showed emotion through facial expressions. He posed questions such as: "Why do our facial expressions of emotions take the particular forms they do?" and "Why do we wrinkle our nose when we are disgusted and bare our teeth when we are enraged?"[7] Darwin attributed these facial expressions to serviceable associated habits, which are behaviors that earlier in our evolutionary history had specific and direct functions.[7] For example, a species that attacked by biting, baring the teeth was a necessary act before an assault and wrinkling the nose reduced the inhalation of foul odors. In response to the question asking why facial expressions persist even when they no longer serve their original purposes, Darwin's predecessors have developed a highly valued explanation. According to Darwin, humans continue to make facial expressions because they have acquired communicative value throughout evolutionary history.[7] In other words, humans utilize facial expressions as external evidence of their internal state. Although The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was not one of Darwin's most successful books in terms of its quality and overall impact in the field, his initial ideas started the abundance of research on the types, effects, and expressions of nonverbal communication and behavior.[8]

Despite the introduction of nonverbal communication in the 1800s, the emergence of behaviorism in the 1920s paused further research on nonverbal communication.[8] Behaviorism is defined as the theory of learning that describes people's behavior as acquired through conditioning.[9] Behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner trained pigeons to engage in various behaviors to demonstrate how animals engage in behaviors with rewards.[9]

While most psychology researchers were exploring behaviorism, the study of nonverbal communication began in 1955 by Adam Kendon, Albert Scheflen, and Ray Birdwhistell. They analyzed a film using an analytic method called context analysis.[8] Context analysis is the method of transcribing observed behaviors on to a coding sheet. This method was later used in studying the sequence and structure of human greetings, social behaviors at parties, and the function of posture during interpersonal interaction.[8] Birdwhistell pioneered the original study of nonverbal communication, which he called kinesics. He estimated that humans can make and recognize around 250,000 facial expressions.

Research on nonverbal communication rocketed during the mid 1960s by a number of psychologists and researchers. Argyle and Dean, for example, studied the relationship between eye contact and conversational distance. Ralph V. Exline examined patterns of looking while speaking and looking while listening.[8] Eckhard Hess produced several studies pertaining to pupil dilation that were published in Scientific American. Robert Sommer studied the relationship between personal space and the environment.[8] Robert Rosenthal discovered that expectations made by teachers and researchers can influence their outcomes, and that subtle, nonverbal cues may play an important role in this process.[8] Albert Mehrabian studied the nonverbal cues of liking and immediacy. By the 1970s, a number of scholarly volumes in psychology summarized the growing body of research, such as Shirley Weitz's Nonverbal Communication and Marianne LaFrance and Clara Mayo's Moving Bodies.[8] Popular books included Body Language (Fast, 1970), which focused on how to use nonverbal communication to attract other people, and How to Read a Person Like a Book (Nierenberg & Calero, 1971) which examined nonverbal behavior in negotiation situations.[8] The Journal of Environmental Psychology and Nonverbal Behavior were also founded in 1978.[6]

First impression

It takes just one-tenth of a second for someone to judge and make their first impression.[10] A first impression is a lasting non-verbal communicator. The way a person portrays themselves on the first encounter is non-verbal statement to the observer. "First impressions are lasting impressions." There can be positive and negative impressions.[11] Positive impressions can be made through the way people present themselves. Presentation can include clothing and other visible attributes. Negative impressions can also be based on presentation and also on personal prejudice. First impressions, although sometimes misleading, can in many situations be an accurate depiction of others.[10]


Main article: Posture (psychology)

There are many different types of body positioning to portray certain postures, including slouching, towering, legs spread, jaw thrust, shoulders forward, and arm crossing. The posture or bodily stance exhibited by individuals communicates a variety of messages whether good or bad. Posture can be used to determine a participant's degree of attention or involvement, the difference in status between communicators, and the level of fondness a person has for the other communicator, depending on body "openness".[12]:9 Studies investigating the impact of posture on interpersonal relationships suggest that mirror-image congruent postures, where one person's left side is parallel to the other person's right side, leads to favorable perception of communicators and positive speech; a person who displays a forward lean or decreases a backward lean also signifies positive sentiment during communication.[13]
Posture can be situation-relative, that is, people will change their posture depending on the situation they are in.[14]


Clothing is one of the most common forms of non-verbal communication. The study of clothing and other objects as a means of non-verbal communication is known as artifactics[15] or objectics.[16] The types of clothing that an individual wears conveys nonverbal cues about his or her personality, background and financial status, and how others will respond to them.[6] An individual's clothing style can demonstrate their culture, mood, level of confidence, interests, age, authority, and values/beliefs.[17] For instance, Jewish men may wear a yarmulke to outwardly communicate their religious belief. Similarly, clothing can communicate what nationality a person or group is, for example, in traditional festivities Scottish men often wear kilts to specify their culture.

Aside from communicating a person's beliefs and nationality, clothing can be used as a nonverbal cue to attract others. Men and women may shower themselves with accessories and high-end fashion in order to attract partners they are interested in. In this case, clothing is used as a form of self-expression in which people can flaunt their power, wealth, sex appeal, or creativity.[17] A study of the clothing worn by women attending discothèques, carried out in Vienna, Austria, showed that in certain groups of women (especially women who were without their partners), motivation for sex and levels of sexual hormones were correlated with aspects of their clothing, especially the amount of skin displayed and the presence of sheer clothing.[18]

The way one chooses to dress tells a lot about one's personality. In fact, there was a study done at the University of North Carolina, which compared the way undergraduate women chose to dress and their personality types. The study showed that women who dressed "primarily for comfort and practicality were more self-controlled, dependable, and socially well adjusted" ("Sarasota Journal" 38).[19] Women who didn't like to stand out in a crowd had typically more conservative and traditional views and beliefs. Clothing, although non-verbal, tells people what the personality of the individual is like. The way a person dresses is typically rooted from deeper internal motivations such as emotions, experiences and culture.[20] Clothing expresses who the person is, or even who they want to be that day. It shows other people who they want to be associated with, and where they fit in. Clothing can start relationships, because they clue other people in on what the wearer is like ("Sarasota Journal" 38).[19][20]


Gestures may be made with the hands, arms or body, and also include movements of the head, face and eyes, such as winking, nodding, or rolling one's eyes. Although the study of gesture is still in its infancy, some broad categories of gestures have been identified by researchers. The most familiar are the so-called emblems or quotable gestures. These are conventional, culture-specific gestures that can be used as replacement for words, such as the hand wave used in western cultures for "hello" and "goodbye." A single emblematic gesture can have a very different significance in different cultural contexts, ranging from complimentary to highly offensive.[21] For a list of emblematic gestures, see List of gestures. There are some universal gestures like the shoulder shrug.[6]

Gestures can also be categorized as either speech independent or speech related. Speech-independent gestures are dependent upon culturally accepted interpretation and have a direct verbal translation.[12]:9 A wave or a peace sign are examples of speech-independent gestures. Speech-related gestures are used in parallel with verbal speech; this form of nonverbal communication is used to emphasize the message that is being communicated. Speech-related gestures are intended to provide supplemental information to a verbal message such as pointing to an object of discussion.

Facial expressions, more than anything, serve as a practical means of communication. With all the various muscles that precisely control mouth, lips, eyes, nose, forehead, and jaw, human faces are estimated to be capable of more than ten thousand different expressions. This versatility makes non-verbals of the face extremely efficient and honest, unless deliberately manipulated. In addition, many of these emotions, including happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, shame, anguish and interest are universally recognized.[22]

Displays of emotions can generally be categorized into two groups: negative and positive. Negative emotions usually manifest as increased tension in various muscle groups: tightening of jaw muscles, furrowing of forehead, squinting eyes, or lip occlusion (when the lips seemingly disappear). In contrast, positive emotions are revealed by the loosening of the furrowed lines on the forehead, relaxation of the muscles around the mouth, and widening of the eye area. When individuals are truly relaxed and at ease, the head will also tilt to the side, exposing our most vulnerable area, the neck. This is a high-comfort display, often seen during courtship, that is nearly impossible to mimic when tense or suspicious.[23]

Gestures can be subdivided into three groups:


Some hand movements are not considered to be gestures. They consist of manipulations either of the person or some object (e.g. clothing, pencils, eyeglasses)—the kinds of scratching, fidgeting, rubbing, tapping, and touching that people often do with their hands. Such behaviors are referred to as adapters. They may not be perceived as meaningfully related to the speech in which they accompany, but may serve as the basis for dispositional inferences of the speaker's emotion (nervous, uncomfortable, bored.)[7]


Other hand movements are considered to be gestures. They are movements with specific, conventionalized meanings called symbolic gestures. Familiar symbolic gestures include the "raised fist," "bye-bye," and "thumbs up." In contrast to adapters, symbolic gestures are used intentionally and serve a clear communicative function. Every culture has their own set of gestures, some of which are unique only to a specific culture. Very similar gestures can have very different meanings across cultures. Symbolic gestures are usually used in the absence of speech, but can also accompany speech.[7]


The middle ground between adapters and symbolic gestures is occupied by conversational gestures. These gestures do not refer to actions or words, but do accompany speech. Conversational gestures are hand movements that accompany speech, and are related to the speech they accompany. Though they do accompany speech, conversational gestures are not seen in the absence of speech and are only made by the person who is speaking.[7]


According to Edward T. Hall, the amount of space we maintain between ourselves and the persons with whom we are communicating shows the importance of the science of proxemics. In this process, it is seen how we feel towards the others at that particular time. Within American culture Hall defines four primary distance zones: (i) intimate (touching to eighteen inches) distance, (ii) personal (eighteen inches to four feet) distance, (iii) social (four to twelve feet) distance, and (iv) public (more than twelve feet) distance. Intimate distance is considered appropriate for familiar relationships and indicates closeness and trust. Personal distance is still close but keeps another "at arm's length" the most comfortable distance for most of our interpersonal contact, social distance is used for the kind of communication that occurs in business relationships and, sometimes, in the classroom. Public distance occurs in situations where two-way communication is not desirable or possible.[24]:137

Eye contact

Main article: Eye contact
Information about the relationship and affect of these two skaters is communicated by their body posture, eye gaze and physical contact.

Eye contact is the instance when two people look at each other's eyes at the same time; it is the primary nonverbal way of indicating engagement, interest, attention and involvement. Studies have found that people use their eyes to indicate interest. This includes frequently recognized actions of winking and movements of the eyebrows. Disinterest is highly noticeable when little or no eye contact is made in a social setting. When an individual is interested, however, the pupils will dilate.

According to Eckman, "Eye contact (also called mutual gaze) is another major channel of nonverbal communication. The duration of eye contact is its most meaningful aspect."[25] Generally speaking, the longer there is established eye contact between two people, the greater the intimacy levels.[4] Gaze comprises the actions of looking while talking and listening. The length of a gaze, the frequency of glances, patterns of fixation, pupil dilation, and blink rate are all important cues in nonverbal communication.[26] "Liking generally increases as mutual gazing increases."[4]

Along with the detection of disinterest, deceit can also be observed in a person. Hogan states "when someone is being deceptive their eyes tend to blink a lot more. Eyes act as leading indicator of truth or deception,"[4] Both nonverbal and verbal cues are useful when detecting deception. It is typical for people who are detecting lies to rely consistently on verbal cues but this can hinder how well they detect deception. Those who are lying and those who are telling the truth possess different forms of nonverbal and verbal cues and this is important to keep in mind. In addition, it is important to note that understanding the cultural background of a person will influence how easily deception is detectable because nonverbal cues may differ depending on the culture. In addition to eye contact these nonverbal cues can consist of physiological aspects including pulse rate as well as levels of perspiration.[9] In addition eye aversion can be predictive of deception. Eye aversion is the avoidance of eye contact. Eye contact and facial expressions provide important social and emotional information. Overall, as Pease states, "Give the amount of eye contact that makes everyone feel comfortable. Unless looking at others is a cultural no-no, lookers gain more credibility than non-lookers"[6]

In concealing deception, nonverbal communication makes it easier to lie without being revealed. This is the conclusion of a study where people watched made-up interviews of persons accused of having stolen a wallet. The interviewees lied in about 50% of the cases. People had access to either written transcript of the interviews, or audio tape recordings, or video recordings. The more clues that were available to those watching, the larger was the trend that interviewees who actually lied were judged to be truthful. That is, people that are clever at lying can use tone of voice and facial expressions to give the impression that they are truthful.[27] Contrary to popular belief, a liar does not always avoid eye contact. In an attempt to be more convincing, liars deliberately made more eye contact with interviewers than those that were telling the truth.[28][29] However, there are many cited examples of cues to deceit, delivered via nonverbal (paraverbal and visual) communication channels, through which deceivers supposedly unwittingly provide clues to their concealed knowledge or actual opinions.[30] Most studies examining the nonverbal cues to deceit rely upon human coding of video footage (c.f. Vrij, 2008[31]), although a recent study also demonstrated bodily movement differences between truth-tellers and liars using an automated body motion capture system.[32]

Across cultures

While not traditionally thought of as "talk," nonverbal communication has been found to contain highly precise and symbolic meanings, similar to verbal speech. However the meanings in nonverbal communication are conveyed through the use of gesture, posture changes, and timing.[33] Nuances across different aspects of nonverbal communication can be found in cultures all around the world. These differences can often lead to miscommunication between people of different cultures, who usually do not mean to offend. Differences can be based in preferences for mode of communication, like the Chinese, who prefer silence over verbal communication.[34]:69 Differences can even be based on how cultures perceive the passage of time. Chronemics, how people handle time, can be categorized in two ways: polychronic which is when people do many activities at once and is common in Italy and Spain, or monochronic which is when people do one thing at a time which is common in America.[35]:422 Because nonverbal communication can vary across many axes—gestures, gaze, clothing, posture, direction, or even environmental cues like lighting—there is a lot of room for cultural differences.[36]:8 In Japan, a country which prides itself on the best customer service, workers tend to use wide arm gestures to give clear directions to strangers—accompanied by the ever-present bow to indicate respect.


Gestures vary widely across cultures in how they are used and what they mean. A common example is pointing. In the United States, pointing is the gesture of a finger or hand to indicate or "come here please" when beckoning a dog. But pointing with one finger is also considered to be rude by some cultures. Those from Asian cultures typically use their entire hand to point to something.[37] Other examples include, sticking your tongue out. In Western countries, it can be seen as mockery, but in Polynesia it serves as a greeting and a sign of reverence.[35]:417 Clapping is a North American way of applauding, but in Spain is used to summon a waiter at a restaurant. Differences in nodding and shaking the head to indicate agreement and disagreement also exist. Northern Europeans nodding their heads up and down to say "yes", and shaking their head from side to side to say "no". But the Greeks have for at least three thousand years used the upward nod for disagreement and the downward nod for agreement."[35]:417 There are many ways of waving goodbye: Americans face the palm outward and move the hand side to side, Italians face the palm inward and move the fingers facing the other person, French and Germans face the hand horizontal and move the fingers toward the person leaving.[35]:417 Also, it is important to note that gestures are used in more informal settings and more often by children.[35]:417

Displays of emotion

Emotions are a key factor in nonverbal communication. Just as gestures and other hand movements vary across cultures, so does the way people display their emotions. For example, "In many cultures, such as the Arab and Iranian cultures, people express grief openly. They mourn out loud, while in Asian cultures, the general belief is that it is unacceptable to show emotion openly."[38] For people in Westernized countries, laughter is a sign of amusement, but in some parts of Africa it is a sign of wonder or embarrassment.[35]:417 Emotional expression varies with culture.[39] Native Americans tend to be more reserved and less expressive with emotions.[40]:44 Frequent touches are common for Chinese people; however, such actions like touching, patting, hugging or kissing in America are less frequent and not often publicly displayed.[34]:68

Nonverbal actions

According to Matsumoto and Juang, the nonverbal motions of different people indicate important channels of communication. Nonverbal actions should match and harmonize with the message being portrayed, otherwise confusion will occur.[8] For instance, an individual would normally not be seen smiling and gesturing broadly when saying a sad message. The author states that nonverbal communication is very important to be aware of, especially if comparing gestures, gaze, and tone of voice amongst different cultures. As Latin American cultures embrace big speech gestures, Middle Eastern cultures are relatively more modest in public and are not expressive. Within cultures, different rules are made about staring or gazing. Women may especially avoid eye contact with men because it can be taken as a sign of sexual interest.[37] In some cultures, gaze can be seen as a sign of respect. In Western culture, eye contact is interpreted as attentiveness and honesty. In Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American cultures, eye contact is thought to be disrespectful or rude, and lack of eye contact does not mean that a person is not paying attention. Voice is a category that changes within cultures. Depending on whether or not the cultures is expressive or non-expressive, many variants of the voice can depict different reactions.[41]

The acceptable physical distance is another major difference in the nonverbal communication between cultures. In Latin America and the Middle East the acceptable distance is much shorter than what most Europeans and Americans feel comfortable with. This is why an American or a European might wonder why the other person is invading his or her personal space by standing so close, while the other person might wonder why the American/European is standing so far from him or her.[42] In addition, for Latin Americans, the French, Italians, and Arabs the distance between people is much closer than the distance for Americans; in general for these close distance groups, 1 foot of distance is for lovers, 1.5–4 feet of distance is for family and friends, and 4–12 feet is for strangers.[35]:421 In the opposite way, most Native Americans value distance to protect themselves.[40]:43

Children's learning in indigenous American communities

Nonverbal communication is commonly used to facilitate learning in indigenous American communities. Nonverbal communication is pivotal for collaborative participation in shared activities, as children from indigenous American communities will learn how to interact using nonverbal communication by intently observing adults.[33] Nonverbal communication allows for continuous keen observation and signals to the learner when participation is needed. In a study on Children from both US Mexican (with presumed indigenous backgrounds) and European American heritages who watched a video of children working together without speaking found that the Mexican-heritage children were far more likely to describe the children's actions as collaborative, saying that the children in the video were "talking with their hands and with their eyes."[43]

A key characteristic of this type of nonverbal learning is that children have the opportunity to observe and interact with all parts of an activity.[44] Many Indigenous American children are in close contact with adults and other children who are performing the activities that they will eventually master. Objects and materials become familiar to the child as the activities are a normal part of everyday life. Learning is done in an extremely contextualized environment rather than one specifically tailored to be instructional.[44] For example, the direct involvement that Mazahua children take in the marketplace is used as a type of interactional organization for learning without explicit verbal instruction. Children learn how to run a market stall, take part in caregiving, and also learn other basic responsibilities through non-structured activities, cooperating voluntarily within a motivational context to participate. Not explicitly instructing or guiding the children teaches them how to integrate into small coordinated groups to solve a problem through consensus and shared space.[44] These Mazahua separate-but-together practices have shown that participation in everyday interaction and later learning activities establishes enculturation that is rooted in nonverbal social experience.[44] As the children participate in everyday interactions, they are simultaneously learning the cultural meanings behind these interactions. Children's experience with nonverbally organized social interaction helps constitute the process of enculturation.[44]

In Tzotzil, Zinacantec infants communicate with their caregivers through nonverbal means that incorporate them into the social fabric of the community, and give them the opportunity to be a social participant in the community.[45] Young children are embedded within conversations between adults as they interpret to one another the child's non-verbal language, and are side participants and an addressees in both two-person and multiparty communications. This engagement of infants into adult conversation and social interactions influences the development of the children in those communities, as they are able to take on an active role in learning from toddlerhood.

In some Indigenous communities of the Americas, children reported one of their main reasons for working in their home was to build unity within the family, the same way they desire to build solidarity within their own communities.[46] Most indigenous children learn the importance of putting in this work in the form of nonverbal communication. Evidence of this can be observed in a case study where children are guided through the task of folding a paper figure by observing the posture and gaze of those who guide them through it.[47] This is projected onto homes and communities, as children wait for certain cues from others to initiatively cooperate and collaborate.

This collaboration is referred to in the learning style "Learning by Observing and Pitching In".[48] The prism highlights the features of collaboration as a flexible ensemble with fluid coordination, blending ideas, agendas and pace. Many Indigenous cultures have this manner of learning, and work side by side with adults and children as peers. Children become able to complete a wide range of responsibilities because parents freely allowed their participation in adults' tasks when they were younger. For example, immigrant US children perform translation work for their families and express pride in their contributions and collaborative orientation to working with their parents. By giving children the chance to prove their work ethic, indigenous communities often see contribution and collaboration from children, especially since their initiative is a lesson taught at young age using facial and body language.[49]

One aspect of nonverbal communication that aids in conveying these precise and symbolic meanings is "context embeddedness." The idea that many children in Indigenous American Communities are closely involved in community endeavors, both spatially and relationally, which help to promote nonverbal communication, given that words are not always necessary. When children are closely related to the context of the endeavor as active participants, coordination is based on a shared reference, which helps to allow, maintain, and promote nonverbal communication.[50] The idea of "context embeddedness" allows nonverbal communication to be a means of learning within Native American Alaskan Athabaskans and Cherokee communities. By observing various family and community social interactions, social engagement is dominated through nonverbal communication. For example, when children elicit thoughts or words verbally to their elders, they are expected to structure their speech carefully. This demonstrates cultural humility and respect as excessive acts of speech when conversational genre shifts reveal weakness and disrespect. This careful self-censorship exemplifies traditional social interaction of Athapaskin and Cherokee Native Americans who are mostly dependent on nonverbal communication.[51]

Nonverbal cues are used by most children in the Warm Springs Indian Reservation community within the parameters of their academic learning environments. This includes referencing Native American religion through stylized hand gestures in colloquial communication, verbal and nonverbal emotional self-containment, and less movement of the lower face to structure attention on the eyes during face-to-face engagement. Therefore, children's approach to social situations within a reservation classroom, for example, may act as a barrier to a predominantly verbal learning environment. Most Warm Springs children benefit from a learning model that suits a nonverbal communicative structure of collaboration, traditional gesture, observational learning and shared references.[52]

It is important to note that while nonverbal communication is more prevalent in Indigenous American Communities, verbal communication is also used. Preferably, verbal communication does not substitute one's involvement in an activity, but instead acts as additional guidance or support towards the completion of an activity.[33]


"In the study of nonverbal communications, the limbic brain is where the action is...because it is the part of the brain that reacts to the world around us reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought."[23] There is evidence that the nonverbal cues made from person-to-person do not entirely have something to do with environment.[6]

Along with gestures, phenotypic traits can also convey certain messages in nonverbal communication, for instance, eye color, hair color and height. Research into height has generally found that taller people are perceived as being more impressive. Melamed and Bozionelos (1992) studied a sample of managers in the United Kingdom and found that height was a key factor in who was promoted. Height can have benefits and depressors too. "While tall people often command more respect than short people, height can also be detrimental to some aspects of one-to-one communication, for instance, where you need to 'talk on the same level' or have an 'eye-to-eye' discussion with another person and do not want to be perceived as too big for your boots."[6]

Movement and body position


The term "kinesics" was first used (in 1952) by Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist who wished to study how people communicate through posture, gesture, stance, and movement. Part of Birdwhistell's work involved making films of people in social situations and analyzing them to show different levels of communication not clearly seen otherwise. Several other anthropologists, including Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, also studied kinesics.

Kinesics is the study of body movements. The aspects of kinesics are face, eye contact, gesture, posture, body movements.

  1. Face: The face and eyes are the most expressive means of body communication.It can facilitate or hamper feedback.
  2. Eye contact: It is the most powerful form of non-verbal communication. It builds emotional relationship between listener and speaker.
  3. Gesture: It is the motion of the body to express the speech.
  4. Posture: The body position of an individual conveys a variety of messages.
  5. Body movement: Used to understand what people are communicating with their gestures and posture[24]:141

Kinesic messages are more subtle than gestures.[53]:419 Kinesic messages comprise the posture, gaze, and facial movements.[53]:419 American looks are short enough just to see if there is recognition of the other person, Arabs look at each other in the eye intensely, and many Africans avert the gaze as a sign of respect to superiors.[53]:420 There are also many postures for people in the Congo; they stretch their hands and put them together in the direction of the other person.[36]:9

Haptics: touching in communication

Main article: Haptic communication
A high five is an example of communicative touch.

Haptics is the study of touching as nonverbal communication, and haptic communication refers to how people and other animals communicate via touching.

Touches among humans that can be defined as communication include handshakes, holding hands, kissing (cheek, lips, hand), back slapping, high fives, a pat on the shoulder, and brushing an arm. Touching of oneself may include licking, picking, holding, and scratching.[12]:9 These behaviors are referred to as "adapters" or "tells" and may send messages that reveal the intentions or feelings of a communicator and a listener. The meaning conveyed from touch is highly dependent upon the culture, the context of the situation, the relationship between communicators, and the manner of touch.[12]:10

Touch is an extremely important sense for humans; as well as providing information about surfaces and textures it is a component of nonverbal communication in interpersonal relationships, and vital in conveying physical intimacy. It can be both sexual (such as kissing) and platonic (such as hugging or tickling).

Touch is the earliest sense to develop in the fetus. Human babies have been observed to have enormous difficulty surviving if they do not possess a sense of touch, even if they retain sight and hearing. Babies who can perceive through touch, even without sight and hearing, tend to fare much better.

In chimpanzees, the sense of touch is highly developed. As newborns, they see and hear poorly but cling strongly to their mothers. Harry Harlow conducted a controversial study involving rhesus monkeys and observed that monkeys reared with a "terry cloth mother," a wire feeding apparatus wrapped in soft terry cloth that provided a level of tactile stimulation and comfort, the monkey who had the real parent were considerably more emotionally stable as adults than those with a mere wire mother (Harlow, 1958).

Touching is treated differently from one country to another and socially acceptable levels of touching vary from one culture to another (Remland, 2009). In Thai culture, for example, touching someone's head may be thought rude. Remland and Jones (1995) studied groups of people communicating and found that touching was rare among the English (8%), the French (5%) and the Dutch (4%) compared to Italians (14%) and Greeks (12.5%).[54] Striking, pushing, pulling, pinching, kicking, strangling and hand-to-hand fighting are forms of touch in the context of physical abuse.


Main article: Proxemics

Proxemics is the study of the cultural, behavioral, and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals.[55] Every person has a particular space that they keep to themselves when communicating, like a personal bubble. When used as a type of nonverbal signal in communication, proxemics helps to determine the space between individuals while they interact. There are four types of proxemics with different distances depending on the situation and people involved.[56] Intimate distance is used for close encounters like embracing, touching, or whispering. Personal distance is for interactions with close friends and family members. Social distance is for interactions among acquaintances. It is mostly used in workplace or school settings where there is no physical contact. Public distance is for strangers or public speaking.


Argyle (1970)[57] put forward the hypothesis that whereas spoken language is normally used for communicating information about events external to the speakers, non-verbal codes are used to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships. It is considered more polite or nicer to communicate attitudes towards others non-verbally rather than verbally, for instance in order to avoid embarrassing situations.[58]

Argyle (1988) concluded there are five primary functions of nonverbal bodily behavior in human communication:[59]

In regards to expressing interpersonal attitudes, humans communicate interpersonal closeness through a series of nonverbal actions known as immediacy behaviors. Examples of immediacy behaviors are smiling, touching, open body positions, and eye contact. Cultures that display these immediacy behaviors are considered high-contact cultures.

Versus verbal communication

An interesting question is: When two people are communicating face-to-face, how much of the meaning is communicated verbally, and how much is communicated non-verbally? This was investigated by Albert Mehrabian and reported in two papers.[60][61] The latter paper concluded: "It is suggested that the combined effect of simultaneous verbal, vocal, and facial attitude communications is a weighted sum of their independent effects – with coefficients of .07, .38, and .55, respectively."

Since then, other studies have analysed the relative contribution of verbal and nonverbal signals under more naturalistic situations. Argyle,[57] using video tapes shown to the subjects, analysed the communication of submissive/dominant attitude and found that non-verbal cues had 4.3 times the effect of verbal cues. The most important effect was that body posture communicated superior status in a very efficient way. On the other hand, a study by Hsee et al.[62] had subjects judge a person on the dimension happy/sad and found that words spoken with minimal variation in intonation had an impact about 4 times larger than face expressions seen in a film without sound. Thus, the relative importance of spoken words and facial expressions may be very different in studies using different set-ups.


When communicating, nonverbal messages can interact with verbal messages in six ways: repeating, conflicting, complementing, substituting, regulating and accenting/moderating.


Conflicting verbal and nonverbal messages within the same interaction can sometimes send opposing or conflicting messages. A person verbally expressing a statement of truth while simultaneously fidgeting or avoiding eye contact may convey a mixed message to the receiver in the interaction. Conflicting messages may occur for a variety of reasons often stemming from feelings of uncertainty, ambivalence, or frustration. When mixed messages occur, nonverbal communication becomes the primary tool people use to attain additional information to clarify the situation; great attention is placed on bodily movements and positioning when people perceive mixed messages during interactions. Definitions of nonverbal communication creates a limited picture in our minds but there are ways to create a clearer one. There are different dimensions of verbal and nonverbal communication that have been discovered. They are (1) structure versus non-structure, (2) linguistic versus non-linguistic, (3) continuous versus discontinuous, (4) learned versus innate, and (5) left versus right hemispheric processing.[63]:7


Accurate interpretation of messages is made easier when nonverbal and verbal communication complement each other. Nonverbal cues can be used to elaborate on verbal messages to reinforce the information sent when trying to achieve communicative goals; messages have been shown to be remembered better when nonverbal signals affirm the verbal exchange.[12]:14


Nonverbal behavior is sometimes used as the sole channel for communication of a message. People learn to identify facial expressions, body movements, and body positioning as corresponding with specific feelings and intentions. Nonverbal signals can be used without verbal communication to convey messages; when nonverbal behavior does not effectively communicate a message, verbal methods are used to enhance understanding.[12]:16

Structure versus non-structure

Verbal communication is a highly structured form of communication with set rules of grammar. The rules of verbal communication help to understand and make sense of what other people are saying. For example, foreigners learning a new language can have a hard time making themselves understood. On the other hand, nonverbal communication has no formal structure when it comes to communicating. Nonverbal communication occurs without even thinking about it. The same behavior can mean different things, such as crying of sadness or of joy. Therefore, these cues need to be interpreted carefully to get their correct meaning.[63]:7–8

Linguistic versus non-linguistic

There are only a few assigned symbols in the system of nonverbal communication. Nodding the head is one symbol that indicates agreement in some cultures, but in others, it means disagreement. On the other hand, verbal communication has a system of symbols that have specific meanings to them.[63]:8

Continuous and discontinuous

Verbal communication is based on discontinuous units whereas nonverbal communication is continuous. Communicating nonverbally cannot be stopped unless one would leave the room, but even then, the intrapersonal processes still take place (individuals communicating with themselves). Without the presence of someone else, the body still manages to undergo nonverbal communication. For example, there are no other words being spoken after a heated debate, but there are still angry faces and cold stares being distributed. This is an example of how nonverbal communication is continuous.[63]:8

Learned versus innate

Learned non-verbal cues require a community or culture for their reinforcement. For example, table manners are not innate capabilities upon birth. Dress code is a non-verbal cue that must be established by society. Hand symbols, whose interpretation can vary from culture to culture, are not innate nonverbal cues. Learned cues must be gradually reinforced by admonition or positive feedback.

Innate non-verbal cues are "built-in" features of human behavior. Generally, these innate cues are universally prevalent and regardless of culture. For example, smiling, crying, and laughing do not require teaching. Similarly, some body positions, such as the fetal position, are universally associated with weakness. Due to their universality, the ability to comprehend these cues is not limited to individual cultures.[63]:9

Left versus right-hemispheric processing

This type of processing involves the neurophysiological approach to nonverbal communication. It explains that the right hemisphere processes nonverbal stimuli such as those involving spatial, pictorial, and gestalt tasks while the left hemisphere involves the verbal stimuli involving analytical and reasoning tasks. It is important to know the implications in processing the differences between verbal and nonverbal communication messages. It is possible that individuals may not use the correct hemisphere at appropriate times when it comes to interpreting a message or meaning.[63]:9

Clinical studies

From 1977 to 2004, the influence of disease and drugs on receptivity of nonverbal communication was studied by teams at three separate medical schools using a similar paradigm.[64] Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, Yale University and Ohio State University had subjects observe gamblers at a slot machine awaiting payoffs. The amount of this payoff was read by nonverbal transmission prior to reinforcement. This technique was developed by and the studies directed by psychologist Robert E. Miller and psychiatrist A. James Giannini. These groups reported diminished receptive ability in heroin addicts[65] and phencyclidine abusers,[66] contrasted with increased receptivity in cocaine addicts. Men with major depression[67] manifested significantly decreased ability to read nonverbal cues when compared with euthymic men.

In some subjects tested for ability to read nonverbal cues, intuitive paradigms were apparently employed while in others a cause and effect approach was used.[68] Subjects in the former group answered quickly and before reinforcement occurred. They could not give a rationale for their particular responses. Subjects in the latter category delayed their response and could offer reasons for their choice. The level of accuracy between the two groups did not vary nor did handedness.[69]

Freitas-Magalhaes studied the effect of smiling in the treatment of depression and concluded that depressive states decrease when people smile more often.[70]

Obese women[71] and women with premenstrual syndrome[72] were found to also possess diminished abilities to read these cues. In contradistinction, men with bipolar disorder possessed increased abilities.[73] A woman with total paralysis of the nerves of facial expression was found unable to transmit or receive any nonverbal facial cues whatsoever.[74] Because of the changes in levels of accuracy on the levels of nonverbal receptivity, the members of the research team hypothesized a biochemical site in the brain which was operative for reception of nonverbal cues. Because certain drugs enhanced ability while others diminished it, the neurotransmitters dopamine and endorphin were considered to be likely etiological candidate. Based on the available data, however, the primary cause and primary effect could not be sorted out on the basis of the paradigm employed.[75]

Child comprehension

An increased emphasis on gestures exists when intonations or facial expression are used. "Speakers often anticipate how recipients will interpret their utterances. If they wish some other, less obvious interpretation, they may "mark" their utterance (e.g. with special intonations or facial expressions)."[76] This specific emphasis known as 'marking' can be spotted as a learned form of non-verbal communication in toddlers. A groundbreaking study from the Journal of Child Language has concluded that the act of marking a gesture is recognized by three-year-olds, but not by two-year-olds.

In the study, two and three-year-old toddlers were tested on their recognition of markedness within gestures. The experiment was conducted in a room with an examiner and the test subjects, which for the first study were three-year-olds. The examiner sat across from each child individually, and allowed them to play with various objects including a purse with a sponge in it and a box with a sponge in it. After allowing the child to play with the objects for three minutes, the examiner told the child it was time to clean up and motioned by pointing to the objects. They measured the responses of the children by first pointing and not marking the gesture, to see the child's reaction to the request and if they reached for the objects to clean them up. After observing the child's response, the examiner then asked and pointed again, marking the gesture with facial expression, as to lead the child to believe the objects were supposed to be cleaned up. The results showed that three-year-old children were able to recognize the markedness, by responding to the gesture and cleaning the objects up as opposed to when the gesture was presented without being marked.

In the second study in which the same experiment was performed on two-year-olds, the results were different. For the most part, the children did not recognize the difference between the marked and unmarked gesture by not responding more prevalently to the marked gesture, unlike the results of the three-year-olds. This shows that this sort of nonverbal communication is learned at a young age, and is better recognized in three-year-old children than two-year-old children, making it easier for us to interpret that the ability to recognize markedness is learned in the early stages of development, somewhere between three and four years of age.

Boone and Cunningham conducted a study[77] to determine at which age children begin to recognize emotional meaning (happiness, sadness, anger and fear) in expressive body movements. The study included 29 adults and 79 children divided into age groups of four-, five- and eight-year-olds. The children were shown two clips simultaneously and were asked to point to the one that was expressing the target emotion. The results of the study revealed that of the four emotions being tested the 4-year-olds were only able to correctly identify sadness at a rate that was better than chance. The 5-year-olds performed better and were able to identify happiness, sadness and fear at better than chance levels. The 8-year-olds and adults could correctly identify all four emotions and there was very little difference between the scores of the two groups. Between the ages of 4 and 8, nonverbal communication and decoding skills improve dramatically.

Comprehension of nonverbal facial cues

A byproduct of the work of the Pittsburgh/Yale/Ohio State team was an investigation of the role of nonverbal facial cues in heterosexual nondate rape. Males who were serial rapists of adult women were studied for nonverbal receptive abilities. Their scores were the highest of any subgroup.[78] Rape victims were next tested. It was reported that women who had been raped on at least two occasions by different perpetrators had a highly significant impairment in their abilities to read these cues in either male or female senders.[79] These results were troubling, indicating a predator-prey model. The authors did note that whatever the nature of these preliminary findings the responsibility of the rapist was in no manner or level diminished.

The final target of study for this group was the medical students they taught. Medical students at Ohio State University, Ohio University and Northeast Ohio Medical College were invited to serve as subjects. Students indicating a preference for the specialties of family practice, psychiatry, pediatrics and obstetrics-gynecology achieved significantly higher levels of accuracy than those students who planned to train as surgeons, radiologists, or pathologists. Internal medicine and plastic surgery candidates scored at levels near the mean.[80]

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