Nonverbal Communication

           Albert Mehrabian said that 93 percent of a message's emotional impact comes from a nonverbal source.

  Therefore, very little of every message we obtain is created by verbal means.  Understanding nonverbal communication is "important because what we do often conveys more meaning than what we say" (Adler et al., 2001).  This should make each one of us feel responsible to make our actions portray the most accurate message possible because we are constantly reading each other and trying to read each other, using all the information we can get from more means than just words (Siegman et al., 1978).  In other words, it is impossible to not communicate (Adler et al., 2001).

            It is hard to define nonverbal communication because no one can agree where verbal ends and nonverbal begins (Harper et al., 1978).  "The term nonverbal communication has been applied to a broad range of phenomena:  everything from facial expression and gesture to fashion and status symbol, from dance and drama to music and mime, from flow of affect to flow of traffic, from the territoriality of animals to the protocol of diplomats, from extrasensory perception to analog computers, from the rhetoric of violence to the rhetoric of topless dancers" (Harper et al., 1978).  In very simplistic terms, nonverbal communication is defined as "messages expressed by nonlinguistic means" (Adler et al., 2001).  These messages can be expressed through the following outlets of communication:  facial expressions, eye contact, body movement, touch, voice, space, time, physical attractiveness, clothing, and environment (Adler et al., 2001). 

            Nonverbal communication is ambiguous in the sense that one thing can have several different meanings.

  This is because meaning is not in words; meaning is in our interpretation and labeling of individual events.  Nonverbal behavior can perform the following functions:  may repeat a message, can be a substitute for speaking, complements/accents statements, regulates verbal interactions, can contradict a spoken word, and can be used in deceiving (Adler et al., 2001).  A large part of nonverbal communication is the unconscious aspect.  Nonverbal communication tends to reveal us and our intentions because much of it is performed in the unconscious realm.

            Research shows that people also use nonverbal behaviors in their self-presentation strategies.  For example, consider gender socialization.  At a young age, males are discouraged from displaying vulnerable emotions.  Anger expression is encouraged in boys, and happiness expression is encouraged in girls (Franzoi, 2000).  In that sense, nonverbal messages convey emotions that we are either unable or unwilling to express.  In fact, many people recognize the need for nonverbal communication without realizing it.  While writing emails, they accompany a phrase with an icon to express either humor or distaste.  These are included in order to clarify the emotional slant of a sentence (Adler et al., 2001). 

            The first major aspect of nonverbal communication is kinesics, which is most simply defined as the study of bodily movement (Schrank, 1975).

  This can include anything from the movement of the head, hands, feet and limbs, and body trunk (Harper et al., 1978).  The functions of kinesics behavior in interpersonal communication include repeating, contradicting substituting, complementing, accenting, and relating and regulating.  For example, kinesics can be a substitution for words (such as holding palms up in the rain instead of saying, "It's beginning to rain.") or a complement for words (such as drawing back a fist while saying, "I'm going to hit you.") (Adler et al., 2001). 

            In regards to social-psychological variables, "body movements were measured indices of individual difference variables, that is, psychological states or psychological characteristics; the effect of body movements on others' interpersonal behaviors was investigated; finally, the meanings of certain body movements of the information conveyed therein were studied" (Adler et al., 2001).  Consider this:  "Two humans alone in a room carrying on a rather ordinary conversation exchange an overwhelming 200 to 5,000 bits of information per second.  Only a tiny percentage of this avalanche of informational exchange is verbal.  The majority that remains is concerned with body movements and position" (Schrank, 1975).  These body movements are often referred to as gestures.  "Gestures are a fundamental element of communication--so fundamental, in fact, that people who have been blind from birth use them" (Adler et al., 2001).  Gestures are such a large and intuitive part of our lives that we barely recognize their presence. 

            There are 700,000 gestures composed of a combination of facial expressions, postures, and arms and hands, but each culture uses only a small amount as meaningful.

  Gestures are movements made without a conscious intent to communicate.  Usually, they are made without the awareness of the individual who is gesturing (Schrank, 1975).  Much of the process is unconscious.  "When verbal and gestural messages conflict, chances are that the nonverbal message is the more accurate.  We have learned to verbally protect what we want to conceal, but very few people can bring their gestures into congruence with the untruth" (Schrank, 1975).  This is why lies can best be detected by ignoring the person's words and observing only their nonverbal behavior.  But, in this same sense, we must be careful to interpret postures/gestures within the context of the situation.  In fact, researchers found that we mirror a person's posture if we agree with them.  In other words, "congruent attitudes are often revealed by congruent postures" (Schrank, 1975). 

            In addition to gestures, another aspect of kinesics behavior is facial expression.  "In many respects the face may be the single most important body area and ‘channel' of nonverbal communication" (Harper et al., 1978).  Ekman, Friesen, and Ellsworth, three researchers, identified seven major categories of emotions displayed through facial expressions:  happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, disgust-contempt, and interest.  There is "considerable evidence that facial expressions of emotion themselves are ‘universal' though specific cultures may dictate how and when they are expressed (Harper et al., 1978).  In fact, over 100 years ago, Charles Darwin stated that facial expressions portraying emotion were universal and not just learned from man, and studies conducted in the last 30 years prove his theory.  For example, people from places completely unexposed to the mass media or the outside world correctly identified facial expressions as representations of certain emotions (Siegman et al., 1978).  In a study, facial cues (not body cues) were recognized as the behavior that revealed deception (Harper et al., 1978). 

            Another form of kinesics is eye behavior. 

"The most fundamental primary mode of interpersonal encounter is the interaction between two pairs of eyes and what is meditated by this interaction.  For it is mainly here, throughout the wide ranges of social encounter, that people actually meet" (Harper et al., 1978).  "Depending on the cues available for labeling arousal, eye contact can produce avoidance or arousal" (Harper et al., 1978).  Similarly, making little eye contact with others gives the impression of not wanting to communicate or become involved.  Eye habits can be very revealing during an ordinary conversation.  People tend to look away while speaking--perhaps to form or gather thoughts--and look at the person at the beginning and end of their statements (Schrank, 1975).  A negative aspect of visual behavior is staring.  "There is a strong social norm against staring, violation of which produces significant intra- and interpersonal consequences for behavior" (Harper et al., 1978).  In a study conducted on a subway, strangers were less likely to help a person in need after they had been stared at by that person. 

            A sometimes overlooked aspect of nonverbal communication involves paralanguage.  There is a difference between vocal communication (by mouth) and verbal communication (with words).  Once this is specified, it is easy to see how something vocal can be nonverbal communication.  In fact, listeners pay more attention to paralanguage than to the content of words.  Our voice communicates through tone, speed, pitch, volume, number and length of pauses, and disfluencies (such as ah, um, er) (Adler et al., 2001).  In fact, a study conducted revealed the unnecessary nature of words.  The study involved a conversation consisting of "number spoken with appropriate inflections to communicate feelings."  As a result, listeners could "match the voice recordings to descriptions by the speakers of the feelings they expressed" (Harper et al., 1978).  An example of disfluencies is the use of powerful versus powerless language.  Though the bulk of the words may not be different, if a speaker uses more uh's, um's, and disclaimers, they send strong nonverbal messages that they do not know what they are talking about.  In contrast, silence has very strong messages of its own.  Silence is used in the following circumstances:  encoding speech, deciding who will talk in a conversation, emotionally close relationship, "interpersonal snub if the interactants are not familiar," form of social control, in presence of a superior, interpersonal embarrassment, maintain or alter interpersonal distance (Harper et al., 1978). 

            "Distance determines the kind of communication that takes place" (Harper et al., 1978).

  The "distance" referred to here is another form of nonverbal behavior known as proxemics.  Proxemics is defined as learning how the body utilizes space in the immediate environment (Schrank, 1975).  "We can consider personal space as an extension of the self, the establishment of psychological rather than physical boundaries for where the self begins in space" (Schrank, 1975).  There are four defined distance zones in which we operate:  intimate distance (0-18 inches), personal distance (18 inches-4 feet), social distance (4 feet -12 feet), public distance (12 feet and on) (Harper et al., 1978).  Many times people are not aware of their distance zones until someone invades them. 

            Regarding cultural interactions, people generally allow a closer spatial interaction with people of the same race.  Similarly, in mixed-gender situations, people feel the most comfortable near those of the same sex.  One study showed that females have closer interpersonal distances than males (i.e. distance zones that are closer to their body).  The study observed 100 people walking into and seating themselves in a mixed-gender room.  The females sat closer to each other and appeared more at ease with the lack of personal space.  Another study showed that, in ordinary conversations, females chose to sit closer and look each other more often in the eye.  This means they not only disregarded a close physical boundary, but they did not have the need to construct a psychological boundary between themselves (Harper et al., 1978). 

            It may be the most overlooked, but nonverbal communication is perhaps one of the most vital elements of our communications with others.

  Though subtle and sometimes even unrecognizable, this form of communication is one that has the ability to exponentially improve interactions.  As awareness increases and concepts are implemented, the world of communication will be one step closer to achieving its maximum potential and improving relationships worldwide. 


    Adler, R. B., Rosenfeld, L. B., Proctor, R. F. (2001). Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication. Philadelphia: Harcourt College Publishers. 

    Franzoi, S. L. (2000). Social psychology. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

    Harper, R. G., Wiens, A. N., Matarazzo, J. D. (1978). Wiley series on personality processes. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

    Schrank, J. (1975). Deception detection. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Siegman, A. W., Feldstein, S. (1978). Nonverbal behavior and communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlabaum Associates.