Using Nonverbal Communication Effectively

Research suggests that communication is as much as 93 percent nonverbal. That is, communication relies far more heavily on what is unsaid, rather than the words used. Researchers have identified 10 areas of nonverbal communication. It's important to note that the messages embedded in most of these vary cross-culturally, while others are universal.

Facial displays are the facial expressions people make when sending their messages. These include furrowing and raising of the eyebrows, smiling, frowning, scowling, and others. Smiling and frowning are universal signs of happiness and irritation/sadness when used genuinely, though their intentional use for particular purposes can vary cross-culturally. Facial displays are important for identity, attraction, and emotion.

Coupled with facial displays, eye behaviors comprise a great deal of nonverbal messaging behaviors. This includes eye contact, as well as eye expressions. The degree to which eye behaviors contribute to nonverbal communication may be represented by the old proverb "the eyes are the windows to the soul."

Movement and gestures constitute all other body movements. This category includes the hand and arm gestures we make to accompany speech, or, at times, to replace speech. An example of this is the hostile gesture of "flipping the bird," which has a meaning unto itself and needs no words to accompany it for the recipient to fully understand the sender's intention. This category also includes posture, which can speak volumes about a person's self-image and degree of self-confidence.

The category of touch is known to researchers as "haptics." The amount and location of touch can provide indications to the degree of intimacy between two people, though such indications vary cross-culturally. For example, in the U.S., it is widely acceptable to touch someone on the shoulder in professional or other non-intimate contexts, though in some cultures the shoulder area is considered sacred and any touch there is considered highly intimate. Appropriate locations of touch also vary across co-cultures. For example, on the athletic field a pat on the derrière from the coach to a player is completely acceptable and means "good job," but the same touch in the classroom from a teacher to a student is highly inappropriate -- and can land that teacher in jail! Touch conveys affection, care giving, power and control, aggression, and ritual.

Nonverbal cues in the voice are known to researchers as "vocalics." These cues cover a wide range of categories, including volume (loud or quiet), pitch (high or low), inflection (variations in pitch), tone (reflecting emotion or mood), speed or rate, use of filler words (e.g. "like," "ya know," "um"), accent, articulation (clarity of speech), and use of silence to convey meaning. Most of these areas vary by the demands of the social context in which we find ourselves.

The study of smell as a nonverbal cue is known to researchers as "olfactics." Smells can influence our moods and our memories, thus affecting our communication behavior. Smells often accompany specific emotions and play a role in sexual attraction. We often intentionally manipulate our own smells, and those of our environments, with commercial products in an effort to communicate a more positive message of ourselves and our space.

"Proxemics" is the study of space. Each culture has its own defined expected space "bubble" for its inhabitants. In many Asian cultures, for example, where physical space is limited due to large populations in small land areas, the people are accustomed to -- and comfortable with -- a far smaller individual space "bubble" than are those of us in the West. That is, while in the West we are comfortable with a conversational distance of approximately two feet, people in the East are comfortable with a much shorter distance.The reverse is also true; in some Middle Eastern cultures, the comfortable conversational distance between mixed genders is much greater -- as much as five to six feet. As the amount of space between two people decreases or increases, that is an indication of the degree of intimacy between those two people. In close, highly intimate relationships, such as partners, family, and close friends, participants tend to be comfortable with very small space bubbles, while professional relationships or those between strangers demand much greater distance.

Whether intentional or not, we tend to place great value on personal appearance. More attractive people are perceived to possess many positive characteristics, including honesty and intelligence; and more attractive people tend to have higher self-esteem and date more frequently than their less attractive counterparts. We tend to place a high value on physical appearance when making assessments about others, whether we intend to or not. Appropriate attire for an occasion also fits within this category. If you wear a low-cut, sequined evening gown to a traditional job interview, you won't likely get the job!

"Chronemics" is the use of time, and sends important nonverbal messages. No matter what time you may arrive for an appointment, that says something about you. Are you 30 minutes early? Ten minutes early? Three minutes early? Exactly on time? Three minutes late? Ten minutes late? Thirty minutes late? Whatever time you arrive suggests two things: It sends messages of the value you place on the appointment and the person with whom you have the appointment, and your (perceived) position of power relative to the person you're meeting. You wait to see the doctor; the doctor doesn't wait to see you. Consider also the length of time between a first date and a phone call requesting a second date. What do you think of the man who calls a woman for a second date on his drive home from their first one? What do you think of him if he waits two weeks? Two months? When we consider the differences in the messages sent by each scenario, we can more clearly understand the importance of the nonverbal messages sent by our use of time.

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The use of artifacts is the final category for discussion of nonverbal communication, and includes the things we surround ourselves with. This is the car we drive (or don't), the home we live in, and its furnishings and decorations. We often make these decisions consciously, as intentional reflections of ourselves and our preferred tastes. What we may not consciously realize is that we're using these artifacts as nonverbal channels of self-expression. Color also falls under this category, as colors influence our moods and disposition. There is a reason prison walls are not painted red: Red promotes aggressiveness and there would be regular riots!

Nonverbal communication essentially falls within these 10 categories. It supplements our verbal communication, replaces it, or contradicts it. Nonverbal communication has several essential functions, which we will see in a moment.

Functions of Nonverbal Communication

Managing Conversations

The first function of nonverbal communication is in managing conversations. We invite conversation with our nonverbal communication cues. As an example of this, imagine you are at a party and see someone you wish to speak with. What do you do to let them know you'd like to engage in conversation? You may decrease the physical distance between you by moving closer. Perhaps you make eye contact, or perhaps you "accidentally" bump into her. Research suggests the three nonverbal cues especially relevant for inviting conversation are proxemics, personal appearance, and eye contact.

In addition to inviting conversation, we also manage conversation with nonverbal communication. We tend to use eye contact, gestures and tone of voice as turn-taking signals (a signal that you're wrapping up your speaking turn and turning the floor over to the other person, or that you wish to speak). For example, we might raise a finger to signal that we either would like to speak, or that we are not finished speaking. Research suggests we tend to use eye contact more when listening than when speaking, so when we're ready to give the other person a turn to speak, we might re-establish eye contact. Changes in tone of voice can signal changes in the conversation. For example, in English we tend to let the pitch of the last few words drop as an indication that we are finished with our speaking turn, or rise as an indication that we have posed a question.

We also use nonverbal cues when ending conversations. When we feel it's time to end a conversation, we might express it directly through the words we choose. Another option is to use leave-taking behaviors, which are nonverbal signals that you are ready to end the conversation. Research suggests these typically include changes in eye behavior and posture, most notably breaking eye contact. Since we tend to maintain eye contact when listening, breaking eye contact would be an indication that we are ready to stop listening. We also tend to angle our posture away from our conversation partner when we are ready to leave the conversation, and toward the direction we wish to go.

Expressing Emotions

Our emotions can influence our behavior in numerous ways. For example, when we're angry, we may be less patient than usual, and when we're nervous, we may tend to be more withdrawn or cautious. The ability to interpret another's emotions by his or her nonverbal cues can help us better interact with that person. The two most common nonverbal channels of emotional expression are facial expressions and vocalics. The face is where most of us "wear" our emotions. An important consideration is that emotional displays on the face vary little across cultures, making facial displays of emotion virtually universal. Another remarkably expressive channel of emotional expression is the voice. We can often "hear" a person's emotion --- not in what they say, but in how they say it. Research has shown that anger, surprise, happiness, fear, and affection tend to result in a higher-than-normal vocal pitch, while emotions of disgust, boredom, and extreme grief tend to lower the vocal pitch. Also, fear tends to markedly increase vocal speed, anger tends to slightly increase it, sadness tends to slightly decrease it, and disgust tends to markedly decrease our vocal speed. Our speech becomes faster when we're excited, but slower when we're content.

Other nonverbal channels also contribute to emotional expression. For example, hostile emotions such as anger, disgust, envy, and jealousy often result in door-slamming and teeth-gritting, as well as decreasing proximity and closing distance in an aggressive manner. These emotions also tend to lead us to distance ourselves in terms of time, staying away from the person for a while. Sadness and anxiety are often conveyed through slouched posture, slow movement, excessive fidgeting, and frequent head-scratching or picking lint off your shirt. Happiness and affection tend to lead us to wish to spend more time with others, to enhance our physical appearance, to give gifts, and to engage in mutual eye contact with those in our surroundings.

Maintaining Relationships

Communication plays an important role in relationship maintenance, and nonverbal communication is especially important for key features of relationships. These include attraction and affiliation, power and dominance, and arousal and relaxation.

Immediacy behaviors (e.g. flirting) convey attraction or affiliation. Flirting is often marked by increased eye contact, close proximity, playful touching, and expressive vocal tones to indicate interest. The role of nonverbal cues in established relationships continues to bear importance, and is often marked by hugs, kisses, hand holding, and softer and higher-pitched vocal tones. Whether with romantic partners, family, or friends, these behaviors help reinforce feelings of affiliation, intimacy, and love.

Power is the ability to affect another's behavior, and dominance is the actual exercise of that potential. Nonverbal cues are often used to mark a person's power and status. For example, supervisors touch subordinates far more often than subordinates touch supervisors, and a person in a position of power is far more likely to keep a less powerful person waiting, than vice versa. A certain look can convey dominance, such as that from a teacher to a student, or a parent to a child. Some people use silence as a way of silencing others. These are some examples of how nonverbal behavior can be used to control the behavior of others.

Arousal means the increase of energy, and can be primarily experienced either positively or negatively. Consider relating an exciting success or a real scare. When arousal is positive, it is experienced as excitement. This is marked nonverbally by increased eye contact, more laughter, faster speech, higher vocal pitch and volume, and closer proximity to others. When arousal is experienced negatively, it is anxiety. This is marked by fidgeting and random movement, nervous smiling and laughter, increased gestures, higher vocal pitch and speech rate, and more filler word usage.

Arousal's opposite is relaxation, which is decreased energy. When accompanied by positive emotion, it is contentment. This is marked by increased smiling, more relaxed posture, and increased eye contact and proximity with those around us. When accompanied by negative emotion, relaxation is depression, and is marked by decreased smiling, less frequent eye contact, and use of fewer gestures.

As you can see, nonverbal communication plays significant roles in our lives. Nonverbal cues convey meaning in a variety of contexts, and strongly help to define and manage our relationships with others. The roles of nonverbal communication are not limited to those mentioned in this sectioc. Rather, as we see in a later lesson, nonverbal communication cues have even farther-reaching use and are employed in additional circumstances.