Interpersonal communication is much more than the explicit meaning of words, the information or message conveyed. It also includes 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.
Learning the Language
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.
This, of course, is absolutely true.
Unfortunately interpreting non-verbal communication is not that simple. As covered on our Interpersonal Communication page, non-verbal communication is not a language with a fixed meaning. It is influenced and driven by the context in which it occurs. This includes both the place and the people concerned, as well as the culture.
For example, a nod of the head between colleagues in a committee meeting may mean something very different from when the same action is used to acknowledge someone across a crowded room, and again when two people are having a social conversation.
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 Cultural Context
The good news is that most of us learn to interpret non-verbal communication as we grow up and develop. It is a normal part of how we communicate with other people, and most of us both use it and interpret it quite unconsciously.
This can make it harder to interpret consciously. However, if you stop thinking about it, you will probably find that you have a very good idea of what someone meant.
The bad news is that non-verbal communication can be very culture-specific.
Examples of culture-specific non-verbal communication
The popular stereotype of Italians, involving big gestures, lots of hand-waving, and plenty of loud and excited shouting, may be a stereotype, but it exists for a reason. In the Italian culture, excitement is shown a lot more obviously than in the UK, for example, and non-verbal communication tends to be a lot more obvious. This can make it much harder for Italians to interpret non-verbal communication in the UK or USA, where it is more subtle. However, even in Italy, there are geographical variations.
The thumbs-up gesture, which generally signals approval in English-speaking countries, is considered offensive in other countries, including apparently Greece, Italy and some parts of the Middle East.
It’s worth being careful how you use gestures and body language!
For more about this, see our pages on Intercultural Communication and Intercultural Awareness.
The Importance 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.
People tend to have much less conscious control over their non-verbal messages than of what they’re actually saying.
This is partly because non-verbal communication is much more emotional in nature, and therefore much more instinctive.
If there is a mismatch between the two, therefore, you should probably trust the non-verbal messages, rather than the words used.
A lack of non-verbal message may also be a signal of sorts, suggesting that the speaker is carefully controlling their body language, and may be trying to hide their true emotions.
Types of Non-Verbal Communication
The types of interpersonal communication that are not expressed verbally (with speech) are called non-verbal communications.
There are many different types of non-verbal communication.
Body Movements (Kinesics), for example, hand gestures or nodding or shaking the head;
Posture, or how you stand or sit, whether your arms are crossed, and so on;
Eye Contact, where the amount of eye contact often determines the level of trust and trustworthiness;
Para-language, or aspects of the voice apart from speech, such as pitch, tone, and speed of speaking;
Closeness or Personal Space (Proxemics), which determines the level of intimacy;
Facial Expressions, including smiling, frowning and even blinking; and
Physiological Changes, for example, sweating or blinking more when nervous.
There is more about all of these types of non-verbal communication on our pages:
Non-verbal communication is an extremely complex yet integral part of overall communication skills. However, people are often totally unaware of their non-verbal behaviour.
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, which is, after all, the purpose of communication.