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Nonverbal communication - an overview

Nonverbal communication (as the term implies) is anything other than words themselves that communicates or affects (positively or negatively) the message "contained" in the words.

Metacommunication is a word used to describe the nonverbal process. Meta is from the Greek and means "beyond" or "in addition to"; hence, metacommunication is something in addition to the communication.

Anything which can be taken into account as relevant to our interpretation of what another is saying or doing beyond the manifest 'content' of what he is saying or doing can be referred to as metacommunication.

There are two types of nonverbal communication which we will discuss briefly before we look at the more common types. For lack of a better term, we will call these 'special forms'. You may not have thought of them as forms of nonverbal communication. They are paralanguage and silence.



You may have heard someone say, 'It's not what he said, it's the way he said it."

Inflection can have an effect on the impact of a message; and while inflection is applied to words, it is a nonverbal treatment which can completely change the meaning a person would be expected to attach to the words. Inflections or emphasis applied vocally to a message are known as paralanguage.

Paralanguage sounds just the opposite from the words themselves. Someone may have greeted you with a "good morning!" but the tone of the words revealed that it was anything but a good morning.

Winston ChurchillThere are, of course, some messages which are transmitted entirely in a nonverbal manner through gestures and facial expressions. Pictures of Winston Churchill taken during World War 11 show him communicating encouragement to the people by raising two fingers in the familiar 'V for Victory' sign. Probably each of us has had the experience of making a statement that was greeted either by a raised eyebrow (indicating surprise) or by a wrinkled brow (indicating confusion or doubt).

And when the school bully took a step toward us with a raised, clenched fist, we got that message in a hurry, too.






Silence is an important communication tool.

Most of us find an extended period of silence rather oppressive and threatening, and we rush to fill the void with words—usually saying more than we mean to say.

By using silence at strategic times, you can sometimes get your decoder to reveal certain feelings and attitudes that may be hindering effective communication. It is important that we find out how we are doing in our effort to communicate; we do this through feedback. Silence can be an effective technique to encourage feedback. By silence I mean nonverbal elements held to a minimum.


Culture and communication

Webster defines culture as "the characteristic features of a particular stage or state of advancement in civilization."

Or, another definition: Culture is the way a people think, act, live, and communicate. Since this article is about communication, it seems helpful or desirable to get the word communication into the definition.

On the other hand, culture is communication; the two are very much bound together.

A culture develops as the result of interpersonal communication. At the same time, the form, the nature, the makeup of the culture results from the interaction of the people and the place and time in which they live. The "interaction of people" is just another way of saying "communication." Living together, working together, relating to one another is communication. We are always communicating—or attempting to communicate.

An awareness of the relationship between culture and communication as well as an understanding of the differences between cultures is helpful—and at times essential—in communicating successfully.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain culture and its relationship to communication is to say that people are different—we live, work, and play in different societies, environments, and climates, and we adapt to these in different ways. We are talking here not just about regional differences in our own country, but about even greater differences which are found in the numerous cultures of the world.

As a result of living in different societies, environments, and climates, people develop special needs, acquire habits and customs peculiar to themselves, and have experiences (and since words are the names we give to our experiences, we have language differences, too) which, in general, result in particular patterns and methods and forms of expression and relating (communicating) with one another. Many examples of this could be given.

People in a warm, tropical climate, for example, live quite differently from people in a northern urban area of Europe.

We need to know about people and their background if we are to understand their communications. This has important implications for when you may find yourself doing business in a foreign country. It is important that you become acquainted with the local culture and be prepared to follow its rules while you are doing business there. For example, in some Latin American countries, men stand quite close together when talking—much closer than we stand in many western countries. If you, as a Western business executive, were to find yourself in this situation, find the closeness uncomfortable, and back away, you would very likely offend your Latin American business friend.

Your action would probably create a communication barrier because you would appear "coldand stand-offish" to your Latin American counterpart.

Remember that people do things differently. Remember, too, that people communicate in terms of their own experiences. Do not be offended (and communicate offensively) when something out of the ordinary happens. The situation may appear unusual to your frame of reference because it is not within the range of your experience; the situation may be perfectly "normal" to everyone else.

It is small wonder that we seem always to be surrounded by wars and rumours of wars. In addition to the barriers of human behaviour and language, our communication attempts also are complicated by cultural barriers (which actually are linked with language).

Many cultural differences take the form of nonverbal communications. The nonverbal area is relatively new and still is being studied and developed; however, most of us have had enough experience to be aware of its existence and importance. One must be careful to keep this area in perspective and to consider nonverbal elements as only a part of the total communication effort—while the nonverbal may be important, it is not always the whole story. If a person frowns while listening to you speak, it may indicate doubt or disagreement; on the other hand, the person may have a headache or the light may be bothersome. It is important for you to remain alert to nonverbal signals, but it is also essential that you decode them accurately.


Body language

Probably the best-known type of nonverbal communication, at least to the layperson, is body language.

Body language is also known as kinesics. A pioneer in the field, Ray Birdwhistell (Ray L. Birdwhistell, Kinesics and Context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970, p. 80.), writes, "The isolation of gestures and the attempt to understand them led to the most important findings of kinesic research. This original study of gestures gave the first indication that kinesic structure is parallel to language structure. By the study of gestures in context, it became clear that the kinesic system has forms which are astonishingly like words in language."

Researchers have observed people involved in the communication process. They have studied body language and other nonverbal behaviour, and they have then related or identified these actions with actual content of the message being transmitted. The result is a dictionary of body language meanings.

Both encoder and decoder send nonverbal messages as part of the total communication process.

The nonverbal messages of the encoder tend to reveal the degree of presence or absence of sincerity, honesty, conviction, ability, and qualifications; body language reveals a lot about the encoder and this person's attitude and feelings about the message being transmitted.

Body language of the decoders also reveals a lot about them and their feelings; but most important, it frequently tells the encoder the extent to which the decoders are accepting or not accepting the message.

In other words, body language provides instant feedback to the encoder and answers the question, "How am I doing?" It is this instant feedback which makes face-to-face communication such an effective form of communication.

Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us spends a lot of time decoding body language. We observe a wrinkled forehead, a raised eyebrow, a tug on the ear, fingers tapping on the table top, legs crossed and uncrossed, arms crossed over the chest. These movements should be considered in relation to the message itself; however, many times the nonverbal communications come through louder than the words that are actually being spoken.

Have you ever found yourself in a difficult situation and realized that you were shifting your weight in the chair? Or running a finger around the inside of your collar? Or clearing your throat nervously? Nonverbal communication frequently reveals the emotional side of our communications.

A favourite sport of many is "people watching." While waiting in an airport terminal, have you ever observed the crowd and tried to imagine the occupation, the problems, and the thoughts of various people? Have you observed an individual's dress and tried to conclude something about the person? Have you observed gestures, facial expressions, and manner of walk and tried to guess the nature of the topic under discussion?

To be a good reader of body language requires that you sharpen your powers of observation and perception.

Observation is a form of decoding, and your ability in this area can be increased by three factors: education, awareness, and need.

Education and awareness are interrelated. Through education, a person becomes aware of more things. in other words, a person knows what to look for; therefore, a person is more likely to observe it, to decode it. Likewise, realizing a need for something makes a person ready and eager to acquire it. If you have ever tried to find a certain house number in a strange neighbourhood, you know that you were probably more alert and aware than usual; you saw things you had not seen before because you had a need to observe and to find the house number.

Perception has to do with your ability to observe, to remain alert, and to extract from a given communication incident the 'realities' of the situation (recognizing, of course, that reality is different for each of us). You must try to take from the communication verbal and nonverbal messages which are similar for both encoder and decoder. While encoding your message, you must be decoding the body language of the decoder. (Communication is indeed a continuous processl)

Whilst mastery of communication techniques is important, it is essential that the encoder be sensitive to the human relations aspects in the communication process, and these human elements are often revealed vividly in body language and other nonverbal communication.

The sooner you, as encoder, receive feedback in the form of a body language message, the sooner you can switch to a more effective encoding technique if necessary.


Probably everyone has had some experience with eyes as nonverbal communicators. Most of us have been stared at and have wondered why. Was it curiosity or ill manners? Or perhaps the starer had poor vision and was merely trying to get us in focus. But then there is the possibility the observer found us attractive and interesting and was issuing an invitation to get better acquainted. Most of us have decoded "eye language" even if we did not know about body language or nonverbal communication.

There are numerous messages that can be sent with the eyes, but the stare is the most important technique a person has. In our culture one does not stare at another person—one stares at things. Therefore, a stare can have a devastating effect because it reduces a person to nonhuman status.

There is an endless number of messages which can be sent when one thinks of eyes combined with different positions and movements of the eyelids and eyebrows. As with all forms of nonverbal communication, messages sent by the eyes should be decoded in terms of the words accompanying them.

Hands, arms and legs

How can anyone hope to communicate without using hands and arms? And even legs are for something besides walking.

No doubt each of us knows someone who "talks with his or her hands. Some people punctuate communications with such extravagant gestures that it is extremely dangerous to get too close to their nonverbal exclamations. Do you know people who during a conversation or a card game drum or tap incessantly with their finger tips? Are there people you know who constantly click the on-off switch of their ballpoint pens? Do you know people who frequently "pop" their knuckles? Do you notice individuals who tap their feet, who cross and uncross their legs, or who cross their legs and then swing their crossed legs back and forth?

What do these nonverbal messages tell you? Is the person nervous? Insecure? Bored? Thinking? Happy? Craving attention? A nuisance? Perhaps the messages mean nothing. On the other hand, if nonverbal signs reveal the emotional side of a communication, it is often important for you to try to determine what message is being transmitted along with the verbal one. Sometimes they are the same; other times they are drastically different.

Many people are devoting their entire life to the study of body language. Body language is an interesting, fascinating area of nonverbal communication; much remains to be learned about it. By becoming a better observer, by sharpening your powers of perception, and by knowing as much as possible about your audience (decoders), you should be able to translate more accurately nonverbal and verbal messages.



Reports I have written:

Measuring the impact and ROI of social media
Measuring the impact and ROI of social media - for Ark Group
Making social media work for your business
Making Social Media work for your business - for Ark Group
Social Media: the new business communication landscape
Social Media: The New Business Communication Landscape - for Ark Group
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation - for Melcrum Publishing
How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues
Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing

How to use social media to engage employees
Contributing author to How to use social media to engage employees - for Melcrum Publishing

Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing



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