Non-Verbal Communication

See also: Personal Appearance.

Interpersonal communication not only involves the explicit meaning of words, the information or message conveyed, but also refers to implicit messages, whether intentional or not, which are expressed through non-verbal behaviours.

Non-verbal communications include facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, gestures displayed through body language (kinesics) and the physical distance between the communicators (proxemics). These non-verbal signals can give clues and additional information and meaning over and above spoken (verbal) communication.

Non-verbal Messages Allow People To:

  • Reinforce or modify what is said in words. For example, people may nod their heads vigorously when saying "Yes" to emphasise that they agree with the other person, but a shrug of the shoulders and a sad expression when saying "I'm fine thanks,” may imply that things are not really fine at all!
  • Convey information about their emotional state.
  • Define or reinforce the relationship between people.
  • Provide feedback to the other person.
  • Regulate the flow of communication, for example by signalling to others that they have finished speaking or wish to say something.

Many popular books on non-verbal communication present the topic as if it were a language that can be learned, the implication being that if the meaning of every nod, eye movement, and gesture were known, the real feelings and intentions of a person would be understood.

Unfortunately interpreting non-verbal communication is not that simple. As covered on our Interpersonal Communication page, the way communication is influenced by the context in which it occurs. For example, a nod of the head between colleagues in a committee meeting may mean something very different to when the same action is used to acknowledge someone across a crowded room.

Interpersonal communication is further complicated in that it is usually not possible to interpret a gesture or expression accurately on its own. Non-verbal communication consists of a complete package of expressions, hand and eye movements, postures, and gestures which should be interpreted along with speech (verbal communication).

The types of interpersonal communication that are not expressed verbally are called non-verbal communications.

These include:

  • Body Movements (Kinesics)
  • Posture
  • Eye Contact
  • Para-language
  • Closeness or Personal Space (Proxemics)
  • Facial Expressions
  • Physiological Changes

Types of Non-Verbal Communication

When we communicate, non-verbal cues can be as important, or in some cases even more important, than what we say. Non-verbal communication can have a great impact on the listener and the outcome of the communication.

There are many different aspects of non-verbal communication including:

Body Language or Body Movements (Kinesics)

Body movements include gestures, posture, head and hand movements or whole body movements. Body movements can be used to reinforce or emphasise what a person is saying and also offer information about the emotions and attitudes of a person. However, it is also possible for body movements to conflict with what is said. A skilled observer may be able to detect such discrepancies in behaviour and use them as a clue to what someone is really feeling.

Research work has identified the different categories of body movement that are detailed below with each category describing the purpose they commonly serve:

  • Emblems: Gestures that serve the same function as a word are called emblems. For example, the signals that mean 'OK', 'Come here!', or the hand movement used when hitch-hiking. However, be aware that whilst some emblems are internationally recognised, others may need to be interpreted in their cultural context.
  • Illustrators: Gestures which accompany words to illustrate a verbal message are known as illustrators. For example, the common circular hand movement which accompanies the phrase 'over and over again', or nodding the head in a particular direction when saying 'over there'.
  • Affect Displays: These are facial expressions or gestures which show the emotions we feel. These are often unintentional and can conflict with what is being said. Such expressions give strong clues as to the true emotional state of a person.
  • Regulators: Gestures used to give feedback when conversing are called regulators, for example head nods, short sounds such as 'uh-huh', 'mm-mm', and expressions of interest or boredom. Regulators allow the other person to adapt his or her speech to reflect the level of interest or agreement. Without receiving feedback, many people find it difficult to maintain a conversation.
  • Adaptors: Non-verbal behaviours which either satisfy some physical need such as scratching or adjusting uncomfortable glasses, or represent a psychological need such as biting fingernails when nervous. Although normally subconscious, adaptors are more likely to be restrained in public places than in the private world of individuals where they are less likely to be noticed. Adaptive behaviours often accompany feelings of anxiety or hostility.

Posture

Posture can reflect people's emotions, attitudes and intentions. Research has identified a wide range of postural signals and their meanings, such as:

Open and Closed Posture: Two forms of posture have been identified, ‘open’ and ‘closed’, which may reflect an individual's degree of confidence, status or receptivity to another person. Someone seated in a closed position might have his/her arms folded, legs crossed or be positioned at a slight angle from the person with whom they are interacting. In an open posture you might expect to see someone directly facing you with hands apart on the arms of the chair. An open posture can be used to communicate openness or interest in someone and a readiness to listen, whereas the closed posture might imply discomfort or disinterest.

Mirroring: Notice the way a loving couple relate to each other. You might like to observe a close relationship in person or on television. You will see that the partners' postures will match, as if one partner is a mirror reflection of the other. For example, if one partner drapes an arm over the back of a chair this might be replicated in the other person's position. If one partner frowns, it could be reflected in the other partner's facial expression. This 'mirroring' indicates interest and approval between people and serves to reassure others of interest in them and what they are saying.


Eye Contact

Eye contact is an important aspect of non-verbal behaviour. In interpersonal interaction, it serves three main purposes:

  • To give and receive feedback: Looking at someone lets them know that the receiver is concentrating on the content of their speech. Not maintaining eye contact can indicate disinterest. Communication may not be a smooth process if a listener averts their eyes too frequently.
  • To let a partner know when it is their 'turn' to speak: This is related to the above point. Eye contact is more likely to be continuous when someone is listening, rather than speaking. When a person has finished what they have to say, they will look directly at the other person and this gives a signal that the arena is open. If someone does not want to be interrupted, eye contact may be avoided.
  • To communicate something about a relationship between people: When you dislike someone, you tend to avoid eye contact and pupil size is often reduced. On the other hand, the maintenance of positive eye contact signals interest or attraction in a partner.

Para-language

Para-language relates to all aspects of the voice which are not strictly part of the verbal message, including the tone and pitch of the voice, the speed and volume at which a message is delivered, and pauses and hesitations between words.

These signals can serve to indicate feelings about what is being said. Emphasising particular words can imply whether or not feedback is required.

See our page: Effective Speaking for more information.


Closeness and Personal Space (Proxemics)

Every culture has different levels of physical closeness appropriate to different types of relationship, and individuals learn these distances from the society in which they grew up.

In today's multicultural society, it is important to consider the range of non-verbal codes as expressed in different ethnic groups. When someone violates an 'appropriate' distance, people may feel uncomfortable or defensive. Their actions may well be open to misinterpretation.

In Western society, four distances have been defined according to the relationship between the people involved, the study of personal space is termed proxemics.

The Four Main Categories of Proxemics


  • Intimate Distance (touching to 45cm)
  • Personal Distance (45cm to 1.2m)
  • Social Distance (1.2m to 3.6m)
  • Public Distance (3.7m to 4.5m)

These four distances are associated with the four main types of relationship - intimate, personal, social and public.

Each of the distances are divided into two, giving a close phase and a far phase, thus making eight divisions in all. It is worth noting that these distances are considered the norm in Western Society:

  • Intimate Distance: Ranges from close contact (touching) to the 'far' phase of 15-45cm. In British society, it tends to be seen as an inappropriate distance for public behaviour and, as mentioned above, entering the intimate space of another person with whom you do not have a close relationship can be extremely disturbing.
  • Personal Distance: The 'far' phase of personal distance is considered to be the most appropriate for people holding a conversation. At this distance it is easy to see the other person's expressions and eye movements, as well as their overall body language. Handshaking can occur within the bounds of personal distance.
  • Social Distance: This is the normal distance for impersonal business, for example working together in the same room or during social gatherings. Seating is also important; communication is far more likely to be considered as a formal relationship if the interaction is carried out across a desk. In addition, if the seating arrangements are such that one person appears to look down on another, an effect of domination may be created. At a social distance, speech needs to be louder and eye contact remains essential to communication, otherwise feedback will be reduced and the interaction may end.
  • Public Distance: Teachers and public speakers address groups at a public distance. At such distances exaggerated non-verbal communication is necessary for communication to be effective. Since subtle facial expressions are lost at this distance so clear hand gestures are often used as a substitute. Larger head movements are also typical of an experienced public speaker who is aware of changes in the way body language is perceived at longer distances.

Understanding these distances allows us to approach others in non-threatening and appropriate ways. People can begin to understand how others feel about them, how they view the relationship and, if appropriate, adjust their behaviour accordingly.


Non-verbal communication is an extremely complex yet integral part of overall communication skills. However, people are often totally unaware of the non-verbal behaviour they use.

A basic awareness of non-verbal communication strategies, over and above what is actually said, can help to improve interaction with others. Knowledge of these signs can be used to encourage people to talk about their concerns and can lead to a greater shared understanding - the purpose of communication.

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