Nonverbal communication is a very powerful medium of communication that entails sending and receiving messages through any of the human sense channels, without using language. Messages may occur on a conscious or unconscious level and may be intentional or not, and are usually, though are not limited to visual manifestations. Some forms of nonverbal communication include gestures, body language, facial expressions, eye contact, posture, in addition to body temperature, movement, time and personal space. It is said that nonverbal communication comprises approximately two-thirds of all communication among people and groups.
Whereas verbal language is used in communication of information about external events, nonverbal communication may serve the purpose of establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Specifically, nonverbal behavior in human communication has been identified to serve the following functions:
Haptics, an example of nonverbal communication, involves touch, kissing, high fives, shoulder pats, scratching, back slapping and a lot more manifestations that greatly differ in interpretation across cultures. In the United States, shaking hands is the most appropriate form of greeting when meeting someone for the first time. In Japan, however, touching an acquaintance and shaking his hand would be considered quite rude, therefore, encouraging them to bow to each other in greeting instead.
Chronemics, another example of nonverbal communication, involves the perception of time and how time is used to define identities. How people structure their time and react to time is a potent tool for communication. The speed at which a person speaks, the length of time that someone is willing to listen to somebody, the willingness to wait, and the timing of actions are examples of how time can be perceived differently by individuals and across cultures. Americans, for example, always seem to be in a hurry, rushing someplace to be on time while people from island countries are used to taking their time and are hardly ever in a hurry.
Kinesic communication or kinesics has to do with muscle or body movement such as head nods, facial expressions, hand gestures, and eye contact. These movements are very rich in message content. The body stance or posture of a person can be used to indicate level of interest or involvement as well as attitude toward another person. Gestures such as rolling one’s eyes, hand waves, and shoulder shrugs are largely universal in interpretation while other gestures are very culture-specific. Eye contact and its various aspects such as duration, frequency, pupil dilation, and rate of blinking, are all cues that provide important emotional and social information.
Proxemics involves relationships of space, distance, territory, and duration in addition to how people perceive and use the physical space around them. Again, interpretations of these vary from culture to culture. Personal space for the American covers two feet around the person while for the Latin American, standing one foot away from another person is quite comfortable and touching or tapping strangers on the shoulder is quite common, something that Americans would find quite offensive and consider an intrusion.
Paralanguage, though a vocal means of communication, does not include words and is therefore still considered part of nonverbal communication. Included in paralanguage are murmurs, gasps, sighs, and even voice quality, pitch and intonation.
Other examples of nonverbal communication include artifacts, such as hairstyle, clothing, even architecture and environment where the communication takes place. Written texts also have nonverbal aspects such as spatial arrangement of words and handwriting style.
Gender differences are also observed in the use and interpretation of nonverbal communication. It has been documented that females are more adept than males at encoding and decoding nonverbal cues, when people are telling the truth. When people are telling a lie, however, men are more efficient at interpreting nonverbal cues and detecting the lie. A possible explanation for this gender difference is the division of labor that society has exercised on the two sexes.
Just as verbal communication is learned in the context of one’s society, so is nonverbal behavior. Patterns of nonverbal communication and behavior are culturally defined and are part of the arbitrary selection of symbols of the culture. Every culture has a distinct way of communicating nonverbally and these patterns of nonverbal behavior need to be learned as one enters a new culture.
Learning nonverbal cues, however, can be quite problematic, as the same symbol may mean different things in different cultures while opposing signals may in fact mean the same thing in varying cultures. Having different and sometimes even opposing meanings can be quite confusing and even frustrating for some people. As an example, an American businessman conducting meetings in an island country, would probably think it very rude of his hosts for not keeping appointments on the dot while it would not even occur to his hosts to be at the meeting place at the exact time set. Such cultural nuances could often lead to misunderstandings, strained relations and even hostility.
Needless to say, communication is a very complex process, the whole endeavor of which can only be carried out when the individual has a sufficient understanding of the verbal and nonverbal aspects of the culture.
Photo credit: Peter Pearson