Nonverbal Communication

The significance of nonverbal communication in human interaction has always been undervalued simply because it is not as clear or obvious in its meaning as spoken or written messages. When anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists talk about nonverbal behavior that conveys a specific message, they are referring to the use of facial expressions, body movements, hand gestures and any other action performed by the human body that does not include the use of words.


The most common types of communication not using words will complement or emphasize verbal communications. For example, pointing or poking your finger at someone, using your hands to describe the shape and/or size of something, or crossing your arms over your chest while speaking, are all ways in which we deliberately perform nonverbal actions to accentuate the messages with which we are trying to impress others.

In addition to nonverbal communication with body positions, facial expressions and gestures, we use other methods to "say" what we are feeling or thinking such as:

  • Dancing
  • Painting/sculpture
  • Photography
  • Writing or playing music
  • Decorating your home
  • Wearing a certain style and color of clothes

By browsing an artist's gallery or listening to a song written and played by a particular musician, you can surmise quite a bit about the kind of person he or she is, what they value and how they perceive the world.

In the modern society we live in we have electronic media, such as, email, social media and Short Message Service (sms) i.e texting.

Understanding Nonverbal Communication

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Learning how to interpret body language and facial expressions involves observing universal actions seen in people living in the United States and other Western countries.

  • Notice if the person is saying one thing, but using their body to say another. For example, is he or she answering "no" to something you asked them, but slightly nodding their "yes" simultaneously? Is the person smiling or laughing, but not engaging the corner eye muscles as people do when they are genuinely smiling? These can be signs of dishonesty on the part of the speaker.
  • Is the person making eye contact with you? A searing gaze or lack of any eye contact may indicate someone who is attempting to manipulate you or someone who is hiding something.
  • Someone who blinks rapidly often is feeling uncomfortable, nervous and distressed for some reason. Alternately, when blinking seems to be intentionally delayed, that person could be trying to seem calm and unfazed by something that is making him feel just the opposite.
  • Pursed or tightly held lips may indicate disapproval or distaste for something. People who bite or constantly lick their lips are exhibiting internal anxiety and stress concerning their thoughts or the conversation in which they are involved.
  • If you are speaking to someone who is standing erect with hands on hips, you may be speaking to someone who feels in control, possibly a bit aggressive and ready to defend himself if necessary.
  • When someone suddenly clasps their hands behind their back, you may be dealing with someone who is feeling anxious, irritated or perhaps bored. Keeping the hands restrained and out of view is a way someone can prevent their emotions from spilling over into obvious gestures.

One of the most powerful forms of nonverbal communication is a period of deliberately planned silence by one individual in the presence of another. In the U.S. and other Western societies, silence is a means to control the interaction, stifle the other's ability to communicate or convey a feeling of distaste or disapproval without actually stating this. However, in Native American and many Asian cultures, silence between two people indicates they are being respectively attentive or mindful of the other.

Another aspect of nonverbal communication is haptics, or the examination of touching as a form of body language that conveys a meaningful message. Touching is as compelling as silence and can reveal much to the person who is being touched or not being touched. However, as with all interpretations of body language, the ability to correctly decipher these gestures takes practice along with keen observation skills, the ability to empathize and knowing how to effectively communicate with others.

One of the best ways to learn to interpret other’s body language is to first become aware of your own silent communications. What are your gestures, movements, or facial expressions saying?

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