Nonverbal Communication: conveying messages or transmitting thoughts, ideas, and emotions without (or in addition to) the use of words and systematic languages. Nonverbal communication adds several layers of meaning to regular communication. Experts in communication fields and psychology often look at paralanguage, body language, kinesics, and proxemics to help understand the full message, unintentional or otherwise, sent and received during communication exercises. This is also the part of communication that can get you into more trouble than you thought and it is just as likely to be a sender/encoding issue as a receiver/decoding issue. Perhaps after looking at these various areas, it will become more apparent as to why nonverbal communication can sometimes be at odds with verbal communication and why sometimes others may misread your intentions.
- Paralanguage: nonverbal elements in speech, such as intonation and speed, that may affect the meaning of an utterance; may also apply to the written word, such as the use of capital letters, italics, bold, and/or underlining to provide specific emphasis. Here's an example of the use of paralanguage with words. Read each of the following sentences to yourself, emphasizing the word in bold.
1) I love you.
2) I love you.
3) I love you.
As you can see, they send somewhat different meanings even though the same words are used. The first sentence, with the emphasis on "I," indicates that the speaker, above others, loves the recipient. The second sentence focuses on the love of the speaker. The last sentence may indicate that the receiver is an important object of love, if not the most important, for the sender.
Paralanguage is often used to add that extra layer of insistence, importance, urgency, etc. that mere words do not always convey. One of the difficulties with written communication is the limitations on the use of paralanguage, and often the misuse of paralanguage indicators. I'm sure that if you've been on any social media site, or read the comments section on any online forum, or even read a significant volume of email, then you have come across an individual who seems to lack some basic understanding of typed paralanguage. The most common misuses and/or overused written paralanguage techniques I've encountered are the use of all capital letters (often understood to mean excitement or yelling) and the overabundance of smiley faces. In fact, the smiley faces have perpetuated our culture so deeply that I received quite a few assignments from my students over the years with their smileys in the form of the sideways typing [:-)]; this was when they were using regular pen and paper. It apparently never dawned on them that they could draw a regular smiley face in the normal vertical position, they were so used to typing/texting it sideways. In my experience, the misuse of all CAPS tends to occur most often with older individuals. Perhaps the caps lock button was engaged without realizing it, or they use the capital letters to make it easier to see the words. In either instance, it appears to the casual reader that the sender is either extremely emotional or uniformed in proper netiquette.
Verbal paralanguage has its own pitfalls. Speak too slowly and the receiver may feel that you (the sender) perceive them as slow-witted. Speak too quickly and you sometimes come off as rude, too busy to care to communicate well, or that you are trying to hide something by glossing over it. Mumbling is also often interpreted as an attempt to be less than truthful or that you are not confident enough. Laughter or growling (or other angry noises) or tears can affect the message's meaning, too.
- Body language: messages or meaning conveyed through the use of various parts of our body, also known as kinesics. The study of kinesics includes the use of hand gestures, body posture, touch, and facial expressions. This type of nonverbal language is heavily influenced by culture and context and it is possibly the most misinterpreted of the forms of communication because it is so individualized and non-universal. Please note that much of the discussion I include here on body language is based on research with adults. Many of these conventions are thrown out the window when children are involved. Just as children develop in their understanding of verbal language over time, so too does it take time for a child to understand appropriate and inappropriate use of body language and the types of messages that can be sent with kinesics. It may also take a child a while to fully grasp the secondary message you send them through this form of non-verbal communication, so it is up to the more experienced communicator to be aware of potentials for misunderstanding and adjust accordingly.
I'm sure we are all aware of how different facial expressions can change the meaning of our words. Most people who are trying to determine if someone is lying to them will look at the speaker's face. Unfortunately, many of the "tells" that the average person believes indicate dishonesty are not that accurate. While most studies on lying show that the hardest part of the body to lie with is the face, that does not mean that our face will show a guilty conscience. The face is not as much under our conscious control as we would like to think, and lying isn't the only reason we would be nervous when confronted by someone. The human face is capable of generating more than 20,000 different expressions, but they all boil down to three distinct characteristics. 1) Are you interested in what the speaker is saying? 2) Do you have positive, negative, or neutral feelings toward the speaker and/or their message? 3) What is your level of familiarity or comfort with the speaker? For example, a smile can mean a whole lot of different things. The smiling face could mean genuine positive affect--happiness, joy, pleasure, etc.--about the message or the sender. It could also indicate a secret knowledge or inside joke. It could even indicate sarcasm. Similar messages can be conveyed with a frown. Someone frowning is not always in a bad mood; they may not necessarily be angry or depressed but perhaps they are thinking intently. Eye contact is also an important component of the facial expression portion of body language. We generally interpret prolonged eye contact as interest.
Each of the above characteristics--interest, basic affect, comfort/familiarity--also apply to body posture. In addition, body posture can indicate the relationship between the individuals involved in the communication. Having an open posture, such as standing with your hands by your side, usually indicates that you are receptive to communication and are withholding judgment; it may also tell observers that you are a subordinate of the person talking to you. A closed posture of crossed arms often means that you've made up your mind and you don't care to listen to the message because you might not like it or agree with it. It would be interesting to find out if closed postures are used more often by people of a higher status or a lower status than their communication partner. Failing to look at the speaker generally shows that you don't want to listen to what they have to say, unless you are in some eastern cultures, where maintaining prolonged direct eye contact is seen as a sign of disrespect. Leaning in, sitting down, standing, lounging, the direction you face, etc. all add more layers of meaning to what you say as a sender and what you say as a receiver of communication.
Hand gestures are another culture-specific form of nonverbal communication that changes meaning from place to place. An insult in one culture could be a benign or meaningless gesture in another and vice versa. We as a species talk with our hands almost as much as we do with our vocal chords, and that's not counting the various forms of sign language that are out there. Hand gestures are also influenced by one's personality and cultural expectations of expression. I've known some people who couldn't talk unless their hands were moving and I've met others who rarely moved their hands at all. One has to be pretty careful of their hand usage in some areas. You never know when you might accidentally "throw" a gang sign or insult someone with a misplaced gesture. On the plus side, though, hand gestures can be very useful when giving directions or descriptions; they allow us to "draw" in the air to enhance our verbal descriptions.
Touch conveys a lot of emotion to both speakers and listeners. For many people, the right touch could offer a world of emotional support that is too difficult to transmit with words alone. Hugs seem to solve a lot of problems (at least psychologically). Touch can also tell the person that you have no respect for them if the touch is inappropriate--wrong place, too long, too much or too little pressure--for the relationship you have. Studies show that, in general, women use touch more often than men, but also that women are the recipients of touch more often than men. Again, the use and interpretation of touch is heavily influenced by one's personality and culture.
- Proxemics: the study of the distances used between individuals. Proxemics, also known as propinquity or interpersonal distance, is the final piece of nonverbal language that shows more about the context of the communication. There are generally 4 categories of distance, each one telling more about the relationship between the sender and receiver and about the type of communication that is expected. Note that the size of one's "personal bubble," especially the intimate and personal distances, is determined by a) their personality and personal preference for socialization and b) cultural norms regarding appropriate distances between two individuals in various situations. Other interesting modifiers include body size and status--people tend to afford larger bubbles to larger and taller people and those of higher social status. Age is also an interesting modifier. To most children under the age of 4 anyone bigger than them is fair game to be used as a cuddle bug or a jungle gym.
1) Intimate distance. Usually reserved for the most intimate relationships, such as one's children, significant other, most intimate friend. The average space for this distance is from 0"-12" but some individuals have much smaller bubbles and some have larger ones. At this close range, you can say the most with all forms of verbal and nonverbal communication. This distance is rich in information, with the ability to speak in lower tones (whispers) and see facial expressions more clearly. Touch plays a more important role at this distance than at the others. The type of information most often found in this circle tends to be much more personal--emotions, thoughts, laying out vulnerabilities--than in any other circle.
2) Personal distance. Usually reserved for one's closest friends and relatives, those who know you well but are not in the first circle. While the average distance for this bubble is 12"- 4 feet, some individuals have a bit of overlap with the intimate distance circle. At this distance, you can still speak low, but perhaps not quite at a whisper, and most people with fairly good vision can make out most of your facial expressions. You are still within arms-length of one another, so additional messages can be communicated through touch at this point. Information transmitted at this stage can include personal self-disclosure as well as less personal topics.
3) Social distance. This bubble is where you will typically find general friends and acquaintances, coworkers and customers, as well as the average passerby. With the distance being between 4'-12' on average, it becomes more difficult to rely on the more subtle nuances of communication. Vocalization needs to be louder than that afforded at the intimate and personal distances in order to be heard. Some facial expressions may go unnoticed at the increased space between sender and receiver. The use of body posture and hand gestures becomes more important to add needed emphasis to verbal communication. At this distance, one would not expect as much personal information to be divulged. Rather, most conversations in the social distance tend to be more superficial or goal-directed (business transactions, relaying data, etc.) in nature.
4) Public distance. At 12' and counting, this final bubble is rarely conducive to two-way communication. Rather, most often public distance is used by a communicator to simply pass on information to another person. It also generally occurs in more formal settings such as a presentation, lecture, or press conference. Speech needs to be clear and concise. Paralanguage can help add meaning to the words, but it must be used judiciously in order to avoid misinterpretation. Larger gestures and body poses will be needed to convey additional subtext to one's words, especially as facial expressions are not very visible to the average audience from that distance. Most of the information is formal and factual at this point.
Hopefully my expansion on these various areas of communication will help you to become a better communicator--sender AND receiver. The greatest source of frustration and the number one cause of a break in a relationship (especially divorce, according to numerous studies) is communication problems. These problems come from both the sender and the receiver. Sometimes we mince our words, sometimes we hear what we want to hear instead of what is actually said. Sometimes our nonverbal language is at odds with our verbal communication. It's not easy. Even for world-class grade-A communicators, there is always a chance that their audience will misinterpret their meaning. The key is to keep trying and to understand that sometimes we need to adapt to our audience. If I can improve my communication methods on this blog, please feel free to let me know how in the comments section.