Nonverbal communication refers to communication which does not rely on words, be them written or spoken. It includes such aspects as body movements, eye contact, facial expression, the voice tone, the dress code, gestures, mimics, and many others. Nonverbal communication has an important role in the way that people transmit messages to each other on a daily basis. According to S. Steinberg (58), 65% of everything we say to each other is transmitted by means of nonverbal behavior. Moreover, as the author argues, nonverbal communication is important even in cases in which the participants do not have a face-to-face conversation. For example, in a telephone conversation, the tone of the voice helps the participants to make sense of some words that can have double meaning, or to interpret certain phrases. However, non-verbal messages may be interpreted wrongly in certain conditions and this leads to confusion, and even conflict.
In general, a person’s ability to decipher non-verbal messages is very important because it eliminates problems that may arise from misunderstanding what one tries to say. However, when it comes to persons from different cultures, this may be very difficult because non-verbal communication, same as verbal communication, depends on culture (Wood 124). As Julia Woods explains, the manner in which we communicate non-verbally reflects the values and the norms of our society. For example, people from different cultures wear different types of clothes. A woman in the United States may wear a miniskirt, but a person in an Islamic country is expected to cover (124). Each of these ways of dressing tells a lot about the woman’s beliefs, attitudes and values.
Nonverbal communication is often perceived as ‘honest’ language, because it reveals what people sometimes try to hide or lie about. For example, even if someone might express confidence about doing something, the tone of the voice, or a trembling of the voice might show that he or she is afraid. However, Wood (124) argues that nonverbal communication only seems to be more trustworthy, because in fact people may control it quite easily.
The specialized literature identifies different types of nonverbal communication. Steinberg (60) talks about the following categories: kinesics, proxemics, haptics, chronemics, personal appearance, and paralanguage. Kinesics refers to physical behavior that can be connected with the spoken aspect of language such as facial expression, eye contact, posture and gesture (Steinberg 60). Proxemics is the amount of distance between two persons, which depends on culture, the relationship between persons or on the social context. For example, in a casual conversation between friends, the distance may smaller than in the case of a business conversation. Haptics convers the communication which occurs by means of touch. Wood (131) explains that for women, touching is a way of expressing intimacy and liking, whereas for men, touch expresses power and control. Chronemics refers to the use of time to express messages. For example, being late may have different significances depending on the context. Personal appearance transmits messages concerning one’s position in the society, personality and values. Finally, paralanguage designates the tone, the pitch, the rate, the volume and the quality of the voice, namely how pleasant or unpleasant the voice sounds.
Nonverbal communication is language that is learned, similar to verbal communication. Even though we learn it unconsciously beginning with infancy, we can always improve our nonverbal communication skills consciously in order to interpret correctly people’s messages.
Steinberg, S. Introduction to Communication. 4th ed. 2006. Cape Town: Juta &Co.
Wood, Julia. Communication in Our Lives. 6th ed. 2012.Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.