Non-Verbal Communication: Face and Voice

See also: Emotional Intelligence

Our page on Non-Verbal Communication explains that non-verbal communication is vital to ensuring understanding during speech.

This page is one of two on 'types of non-verbal communication', and covers the importance of the face and voice.

See also our page that covers body language and body movement, posture and proximity.

Aspects of the face and voice that are particularly important to communication include eye contact, facial expression, and elements of voice such as pitch, tone, and speed of speaking.

Eye Contact

The eyes are the window to the soul

Anonymous saying

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

1. 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.

It has also been suggested that if someone maintains constant eye contact, then they are trying too hard, and may well be lying.

2. To let a partner know when it is their 'turn' to speak

This is related to point one. 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.

3. To communicate something about a relationship between people

When you dislike someone, you tend to avoid eye contact and your pupil size is often reduced. On the other hand, the maintenance of positive eye contact signals interest or attraction in a partner.

Dilation of the pupils is an involuntary reaction to the sight of someone attractive, so increased eye contact could be a biological mechanism to help make that dilation signal clearer to a potential partner.

A biological basis for eye contact?

Scientists have found that there may be a biological basis to the importance of eye contact in human communication. A study published in 2007 found that certain iris characteristics, and in particular the way in which the lines radiate out from the centre, and curve around the outer edge, were associated with certain personality traits. This may sound like eugenics, but the study’s authors speculated that the results might be due to the same gene being responsible for development of both the iris and the frontal cortex in the brain, which is the area linked to personality. This sounds feasible, but clearly needs a lot more work before it is accepted theory.

It does, however, offer a possible clue as to why we value being able to make steady eye contact when we speak to someone else.

Para-language, or Voice Signals

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, or the use of particular tones of voice can imply whether or not feedback is required. For example, in English, and other non-tonal languages, a rising tone at the end of the sentence can indicate a question.

See our page: Effective Speaking for more information.


One of the reasons why it is particularly hard for speakers of atonal languages such as English to learn tonal languages, for example, Mandarin, is because much of the expression and non-verbal communication in English is by tone. In tonal languages, however, the tone changes the word, not just the non-verbal sense, and therefore cannot be used to convey other meaning.

Anyone who has ever tried to give a presentation or speak in public when nervous will be aware of some of the effects on voice of certain emotions and feelings.

Nervousness, for example, causes physiological changes such as a tightening of the larynx, or voice box, which tends to make the voice higher in pitch. Nervous people often speak faster, as well.

Unlike some aspects of non-verbal communication, in particular facial expression, it is entirely possible to learn to control these aspects of speech. The first step is to develop an awareness of them in yourself, and this is an important part of overcoming presentation nerves.

Facial Expression

Affect displays are facial expressions or gestures which show the emotions we feel.

Affect displays 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, and should generally be trusted over words if there is a mismatch between the two.

Learning to hide emotions – and the importance of ‘tells’

Some people, for example, professional card players, have practised extensively to control their facial expressions, so that they do not show excitement and give away information about their feelings, for example when they have a particularly good hand.

Most people, however, are rumoured to have a ‘tell’ - a twitch or tic that gives away excitement. This suggests that it is extremely hard to hide emotions altogether, and that facial expression is a vital part of human communication.

Human communication is the sum of its parts

One of the reasons that people often complain about telephone and email, not to mention social media, is that they do not allow for any non-verbal communication. This means that a huge part of meaning can be lost.

On the telephone, for instance, you have to work much harder on conveying your emotional response with your voice, because your face is not visible.

In email and social media, we have adopted ‘emojis’ or emoticons to express our emotions.

Although you may find emoticons fun or silly or even irritating they simply serve to underline the importance of non-verbal communication.

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