Nonverbal Communication

Presentation (Elaboration) 2005 19 Pages

Communications - Intercultural Communication


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Defining nonverbal communication

3. Relationship between nonverbal and verbal behaviour

4. Forms of nonverbal communication
4.1 Physical appearance
4.2 Paralanguage
4.3 Kinesics
4.4 Haptics
4.5 Oculesics olfactics and chromatics
4.6 Chronemics
4.7 Proxemics

5. Communicating emotions – Black and White styles in conflict

6. Synopsis

7. Literature

1. Introduction

Nonverbal communication accompanies us mostly unconsciously every day. We do not think what kind of gestures or distance is appropriate in certain situations. However about 60 to 65 percent of all meaning created in human encounters derives from nonverbal cues (Knapp:246).

Studies of nonverbal communication can be traced back till times of the Roman Empire. The rhetorical treatises of Quintilian and Cicero already dealt with the meaning of hand gestures. However just in the seventeenth century with Bonifcio’s and Bulwer’s works gestures obtained a status “of a subject of its one right” (Bull:25). Yet elaborate study of nonverbal communication is only possible since sophisticated recording techniques have been developed which allow repeated viewing and analysis of human behaviour (for instance data gloves or video tapes). As a consequence studies of nonverbal communication developed rather lately. In the late fifties of the last century Edward Hall and Ray Birdwhistell made first attempts to study nonverbal behaviour not only as a psychological function but as a means of communication. In general studies of nonverbal communication emerged as a reaction to the “overwhelming emphasis placed on verbal behaviour in the field of communication“ (Jones/LeBaron:512). Subsequent a number of studies were conducted so that in the seventies nonverbal communication became an established topic (Heller:2). In the nineties space and place received renewed interest..

This paper introduces the vast field of nonverbal communication. It is aimed at giving an overview of the different forms while focussing on proxemics, as “all behavior is located in and constructed of space”(Low/Zúñiga:1).

2. Defining nonverbal communication

There have been a variety of approaches in the study of nonverbal communication and nonetheless there is no real agreement on its exact definition due to its ambiguity. There is not one single universal nonverbal language. Nonverbal communication means different things to different people and different cultures and is therefore mainly responsible for misunderstandings.

Generally nonverbal communication can be defined as “communicating without words through multiple communication channels” (Ting-Toomey:200). Multiple communication channels here comprise the different media like gestures, space or time.

However there are disputes what shall be included in the term and when behaviour starts to be communication at all. One possible distinction is proposed by Burgoon/ Buller/Woodall. They distinguish between intent, consciousness and awareness while defining communication (Burgoon/Buller/Woodall:14). Watzlawick and Birdwhistell argue that all behaviour is communication may it be intended or not: “no matter how one may try, one cannot not communicate“ (Watzlawick:48). In contrast to that for Ekman and Friesen communication is only behaviour that intends to be communicative (Bull:27). Moreover in their point of view communication does not need to be shared. They argue that "communicative acts need not necessarily have a shared decoded meaning; there could be non-informative communicative acts where the sender intended to transmit a message but no one understands him" (Lane). These opponent point of views where challenged by Wiener. According to his viewpoint behaviour is not necessarily communicative and needs systematic encoding and decoding but no intention. Communication might even take place against the intention of the encoder and without recognition of neither encoder nor decoder (Bull:27).

3. Relationship between nonverbal and verbal behaviour

“Verbal and nonverbal communication are linked together synchronously” (Birdwhistell cited after Canfield). For a long time in research verbal and nonverbal cues where examined separately, as if they were independent phenomena. Just in the mid nineties of the last century the interrelationship between verbal and nonverbal communication attracted more and more the attention of the researchers. Since then even the terms »verbal« and »nonverbal« were criticized as being outdated, useless and misleading (Jones:500).[1]

Verbal and nonverbal communication are interrelated in certain ways. Nonverbal cues can stand alone (substitute the verbal message) or they are used together with verbal messages. Acts, that have a direct verbal translations and are used to replace words (for example when talking is difficult or impossible), are referred to as ‘emblems’ by Ekman and friesen (Bull:49). The so called ‘ring gesture’ (thumb and forefinger form a circle) or the stop gestures are examples. If nonverbal cues are used together with verbal cues they can accompany (by repeating, accenting, augmenting and illustrating) or contradict what was said verbally. For these kind of “contradictory verbal and nonverbal messages” Birdwhistell coined the term ‘kinesic slips’ (Tubbs/Moss:107). If such a kinesic slip occurs nonverbal cues are mostly given greater weight then what was said verbally. Moreover nonverbal messages that depict and elaborate the verbal cues are called ‘Illustrators’ by Ekman and friesen (Bull:49). Illustrators are used to facilitate understanding. For instance people at the hairdresser not only tell how much hair should be cut, but they will most likely show how much inches they mean by using their fingers. Illustrators can either be deictic (pointing to a location of a person, object or place) or physiographic (showing what an objects means) (Bull:49). Besides that nonverbal cues can be used together with verbal cues in order to maintain conversational coherence and/or to negotiate speaking turns. Nodding, maintaining eye contact or gestures thus function as ‘turn-yielding’ or ‘attempt-suppressing signals’ and are referred to as ‘regulators’ by Ekman and friesen (Bull:49). A prolonged gaze is such a signal. Before ending an utterance a speaker might look at another person signalling that he or she should take over the turn.

Comparing verbal and nonverbal messages reveals that both forms operate differently. Whereas the verbal language offers the option to refer back to what was said by using meta-communication there is no such possibility using nonverbal communication. This is crucial as potential miscommunication cannot be clarified or negotiated. Acting in order to point up “I did not mean this gesture” is not possible. If anything goes wrong in nonverbal communication people put it down to the personal level. Nonverbal cues are mainly responsible for framing first impressions by giving information about intentions and emotions. Hence people generally give greater credence to nonverbal cues when they judge style, interpret or evaluate ideas and attitudes as well as leadership qualities or credibility (Tubbs/Moss:105). In contrast to grown-ups children however give generally more weight to verbal cues as the ability to interpret nonverbal cues just develops with a certain age.

4. Forms of nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication is often simply equated with body language (kinesics). However it encompasses much more. It includes vocal features, facial and body movements (gaze, interpersonal distance) and even communication through smell, touch or with the help of artefacts like masks or clothes. In the following the different types of nonverbal communication are briefly described. It is intended to be rather an overview than an elaboration. Since emphasis is placed on chronemics and proxemics thereinafter.

4.1. Physical appearance

Body type, height, weight, hair, skin colour and attractiveness affect interaction between people. According to Forgas people’s physical attractiveness influences how facial cues are interpreted (Tubbs/Moss:119). But not only the natural looks influence interaction also the way people dress and the artefacts they wear. Artefacts like jewellery, tattoos and piercings mark our identity. Physical appearance communicates age, gender, group membership, socioeconomic status and values. It reveals personality as well as culture and provides information to determine time in history (Ting-Toomey:203;Tubbs/Moss: 128).

4.2. Paralanguage

Besides physical appearance, paralanguage also forms identity. “Through the use of paralanguage we encode a sense of self via different nonverbal features” (Ting-Toomey: 206). Paralanguage can be defined as the “sounds and tones we use in conversation and the speech behaviour that accompanies the message” (Ting-Toomey:205). In short it is the way how something is said. By accenting different aspects of an utterance paralanguage modifies the meaning of what was said and is therefore a major source of humour, sarcasm and irony. Paralanguage is used intentionally as well as unintentionally. It can be divided in four categories: primary qualities, qualifier, differentiators and alternants. Primary qualities are timbre, volume, tempo, pitch and rhythm. These qualities are shaped by biological, physiological, psychological, social and cultural features. Qualifier are according to Poyatos “sound effects produced by several factors, from the way air is controlled in the speech organs to muscular tension and articulation as well as the anatomical configuration or speech movements of the lips, tongue, teeth and mandible”(38). Besides that paralanguage comprises differentiators like laughing, sighing, crying, coughing, yawning, sneezing, belching, shouting and whispering. Moreover “word-like single or compound sounds” (Poyatos:39) so called ‘alternants' like “mmh” or “psst” are part of paralanguage and play an important role in human interaction.


[1] In spite of this criticism this paper still sticks to the classification in order not to mislead the reader.


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Nonverbal Communication Conflict Talk Sociolinguistics Meets Pragmatics



Title: Nonverbal Communication