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Nonverbal Communication

Paul A. Soukup, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Feb 21st 2020

Human communication inevitably and inseparably combines nonverbal and verbal elements. Most people intuitively understand this and, even if they take the processes for granted, they seldom have any difficulty communicating. However, the study of the nonverbal part of communication struggles with two problems of definition. People tend to define it negatively: either as “communication without words” or as “body language,” that is, communication performed by the body without grammar or vocabulary. A recent handbook settles for this definition: nonverbal communication “encompasses almost all of human communication except the spoken or written word . . . [W]e define [nonverbal communication] as ‘the transfer and exchange of messages in any and all modalities that do not involve words.’”[1]

Scholars and researchers have long noted this dual nature of human communication. In the mid-19th century, Charles Darwin suggested an animal origin, comparing human expressions of emotion to animal signals; a few decades later, Sigmund Freud speculated on the unconscious expression of meaning, as people often remained unaware of their own gestures or expressions or even of how they notice the expressions of others.

Though communication studies explicitly claim nonverbal communication, the area itself has an academic heritage that includes linguistics, sociology, psychology, ethnography, and cultural studies. Each of these disciplines attempts to untangle the complexities of communication.[2]

By the 1950s and 1960s scholars from the different disciplines began the systematic description of one or other aspect. Edward T. Hall explored the cultural difference in the use of space (“proxemics”); Ray Birdwhistell provided a catalogue of gestures common to different groups; Paul Ekman and his colleagues attended to facial expressions; Michael Argyle and his colleagues studied gaze. All of these early studies tended to address just one communication channel, partly due to the difficulty in recording communication in real time. Such approaches by channels allowed researchers to carefully observe human communication by breaking down its component parts and guided others to develop explanatory theories.

In the 1970s, Mark Knapp, a communication scholar, drew the various strands together in a textbook on nonverbal communication. He organized the work largely in terms of the different “channels” of communication humans use to send messages. These include the environment (both how people arrange their environments though activities such as building or decoration and how people adjust their behaviors to surroundings), personal space and territory, physical appearance (body type, clothing, body decoration, and so on), facial expression, voice and vocal characteristics (“paralinguistic” expression such as volume, pitch, speed, fluency, laughter, etc.), gestures, touch, gaze, smell, posture and gait.

The close observation of communication behaviors supported a number of theoretical perspectives. These ranged from evolutionary explanations (facial expressions signaled emotions that functioned as warnings and helped promote group survival) and developmental theories (babies imitating family behaviors) to theories of language (with nonverbal channels leading to or complementary to verbal expression) to functional theories (explaining what nonverbal communication accomplishes).

Research over the last 10 years has addressed both channels of communication and contexts for that communication. Without citing all the studies, this summary will highlight some of the key themes.[3] Let us consider the various channels first, then some different contexts, some functions of nonverbal behaviors, and finally some methods of research.

Channels of Communication

The human face and eyes offer information that people use to manage interactions, express emotion, signal agreement or disagreement, draw attention, and infer the emotions or intentions of others. Facial expression and eye behavior can indicate dominance or submission, make a person seem more attractive, provide emphasis to aspects of conversation, and establish empathy by imitating the expressions of others.

Some researchers have pointed out six “universal expressions of emotion” conveyed by the face: happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise.[4] But people vary in their abilities both to understand and to encode information through facial expression. Several factors can interfere with one’s ability to interpret expressions: mood, power, culture and personal bias. Others influence how well people express themselves: age, ambiguity of emotion and mental health.

While some people regard gestures as synonymous with nonverbal communication and at times as easy to interpret as spoken language, scholars debate the validity of a “gestural theory of language,” questioning whether spoken language arose out of gestural exchanges. Current research, however, sees gestures as one kind of communication, synchronized with other channels to moderate the other channels or to substitute for them. In linguistic terms, a gesture can function as an index (whose meaning connects to a specific thing: moving one’s hand from a position away from the body to one closer to the body as a way to invite someone to come closer) or as a symbol (with arbitrary meaning: rubbing one’s thumb against one’s fingers to signify money)—this latter type varies with culture.

Recent studies have examined the variety and origins of contemporary gestures, from hailing a taxi to coordinating sporting activities to translating gestures into the world of social media through the use of “emoticons” (that is, graphic signs such as a smiling face). Other studies focus only on those gestures that complement verbal expression: coordinating gesture with gaze, timing gestures to speech, indicating motion during talk, and emphasizing points.[5]

Some researchers have employed neuroimaging to see how the brain processes co-speech gesture or how gestures might help people to think—people tend to gesture more when they describe more difficult concepts.

Other scholars have found that the brain cannot ignore even irrelevant gestures they register at some level of perception and consciousness.  Personal familiarity affects gesture: the more people know one another, the fewer gestures they use. Gestures help to recall narratives and to manage conversations.

Touch constitutes a very powerful communication channel and can occur alongside almost any other kind of nonverbal communication. While cultural differences certainly play a role in all things relating to touch, research has shown that touching increases the likelihood of having a request fulfilled. Similarly, individuals differ in their preference for touch: people judge touch differently depending on whether they initiate or receive a touch. Gender matters too: Men often associated touch by women with courtship behavior; men also liked people who imitated their handshakes (angle, speed, pressure, etc.) while women did not.

Paralinguistics refers to that channel of communication that accompanies speech, but is not speech: tone, volume, pitch, speed, fluency, silence, and so on.[6] While many of these things vary by language, researchers have found that the major types of vocal expression are consistent over a number of languages. However, the incidence of vocal intonations can complicate second language learning.

Vocal qualities signal emotion and usually express the same thing as the verbal message, but people can send incongruous messages, forcing their interlocutors to decide which channel matters more. Those performative and interpretive skills increase with age.

A relatively new area of study focuses on paralinguistic cues in written texts—the use of different colors, fonts, type sizes, or even symbols to modify the content or emotional tone.

Finally, the body itself offers a channel for communication, with researchers examining body shape, postures and movements. Recent experiments indicate that people infer similarities of attitude and behavior from the body and that the torso plays a role in early-stage person perception.[7]

Contexts of Communication

In addition to research on channels of nonverbal communication, scholars have studied it in many contexts: interpersonal interaction, gender, health, children, education, intercultural interaction, translation, politics, journalism, the workplace, marketing, and computer-mediated communication.

People both define and manage interpersonal relationships by means of nonverbal behaviors, signaling interest, managing conflicts, coordinating interactions and moods, and so on.[8] The kinds of nonverbal signals differ at different stages of a relationship and in different kinds of relationships. For example, people mimic others’ expressions as a way to maintain good working relationships; at other times, smiles and gestures indicate courtship.

Even if individuals remain unaware of the nonverbal signals, those signals help to build relationship satisfaction. Researchers have noted gender differences: men often decode women’s cues differently than other women do, something that occurs across cultures. Some theorize that these differences result not from perception but from interpretation, from power hierarchies, or from cultural norms.

Nonverbal communication plays an important role in health communication (that is, communication between medical staff and patients) and in medical diagnosis.[9] Nonverbal signals help to establish greater immediacy and rapport between doctor and patient, something particularly important when clinicians must convey bad news. Some research indicates that better nonverbal sensitivity on the part of medical staff leads to better care outcomes and better patient satisfaction with care.

Other studies have shown that patients can better describe pain when they perceive supportive nonverbal behaviors. Sometimes they show increased tolerance of pain when they perceive supportive nonverbal behaviors. Better nonverbal immediacy also leads to family members’ willingness to agree to organ donation or to people’s willingness to participate in medical research. Clinicians’ greater attention to nonverbal signals also aids in diagnosis. In cases of aphasia, for instance, much of the caregiver-patient interaction must take place nonverbally.

Other studies have used brain imaging to explore how different areas of the brain control the links between verbal and nonverbal communication. Children form a special category in nonverbal studies since they gradually master nonverbal communication, just as they do verbal communication; in fact, they simultaneously learn to communicate through all channels.[10] Medical researchers have examined children with “specific language impairment,” a term describing conditions in which language development trails nonverbal abilities. Others have investigated the verbal and nonverbal development of autistic children, in order to develop both diagnostic tests and treatment regimens.

In order to determine a baseline, some researchers have documented the normal developmental profiles of children, noting that gesture and speech develop separately and then come together in co-speech gestures. These researchers have found that early child gesture (at 14 months of age) predicts language and vocabulary at 42 months. Gestural abilities in young children can also help in diagnosing various language deficits, as might arise in children with Down Syndrome or Williams Syndrome.

Other groups of researchers have examined parent-child interactions to show how children learn to interpret facial expression, emotions and task directions.

Educational researchers also study nonverbal behavior, most often in the context of university or college courses. They note that teacher immediacy (behaviors that reduce psychological distance, often attributed to nonverbal factors such as tone of voice, gesture, posture, facial expression, and so on) strongly correlates with student engagement in classes,[11] a finding replicated in several countries. Teacher immediacy also correlates with both students’ cognitive and affective learning; it also related to the clarity of the teachers’ presentations. Immediacy also plays a role in online classes where nonverbal signals like emoticons, color, visual imagery, length of time for a response, and the length of the response all predicted student engagement and learning. While students identify different nonverbal behaviors for men and women, these do not affect student outcomes in most cases. Where they do, the differences appear in those behaviors that cause discomfort.

The results of these and other studies have led several groups to develop, on the one hand,  teacher training sessions that focus on the use of gestures to improve pedagogical practice and, on the other, sessions to alert teachers to show more sensitivity to student nonverbal expression.

The findings have also led individual instructors to prepare teaching materials for college-level communication classes that address attention to nonverbal cues. These focus on areas ranging from understanding emotional expression to recognizing cultural differences, to an awareness of gait, to better implementation of co-speech gestures.

Many of the studies already mentioned attend to cultural differences in nonverbal expression, an undeniable reality, which anyone in an intercultural situation will acknowledge, particularly when things go wrong. Some historians have traced evidence of observations of nonverbal behavior in texts dating from 300 B.C. and as significant as records of first contact between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.[12]

A number of the more recent studies focus on nonverbal behaviors in Asia and South Asia, contrasting the nonverbal elements of different language families. Similar studies look at African languages. Many of these, usually observational studies, seek to refine teaching of second languages, since full fluency includes the appropriate use of paralanguage and gestural features.

Those involved in translation studies have also paid greater attention to nonverbal expression, particularly paralinguistic cues, gaze, head nods and facial expression. One study has called attention to the translation of these communication features in evidentiary hearings in legal proceedings where a verbal-only translation can change the meaning of a witness’s testimony.

At least from the time of the first televised U.S. presidential debates (between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960), scholars have paid attention to nonverbal cues in political discourse. In the debates, those hearing them on radio felt that Nixon had the advantage, whereas those watching them on television felt that Kennedy had won. Analysts attributed the difference to the nonverbal cues exhibited by the candidates.1[13]3 More recently, scholars have proposed different theories to explain the impact of nonverbal behaviors in politics, from persuasion theories that classify how the brain processes stimuli to news framing of images to the attribution of ideologies from facial expression. Though research has established that voters (like students with their teachers) make quick judgments, it also notes the complexity of the political realm that includes additional factors such as political affiliation, issue relevance, branding, and even consumer culture.

News presenters unconsciously influence their audiences by their nonverbal behaviors (visual and paralinguistic in the case of television and paralinguistic only in the case of radio). Scholars have experimented with ways to counteract this effect on television interviews, balancing cognitive strategies and images of a relaxed interview subject. The strategies show consistent positive results across cultures, indicating that people will attend primarily to the verbal channel once interviewers direct attention to the ideas discussed.

An attention to nonverbal cues leads to greater workplace satisfaction, something reflected in both academic studies and in a plethora of popular writing that promises instruction in “how to read your boss like a book.” The key feature appears to be a greater attention to emotional expression, which provides greater context for other workplace communication. Research has shown that both superiors and subordinates benefit from greater nonverbal immediacy.

The same effects appear with customers. Components of interaction—facial expression, eye contact, perceived similarity—all play a role in making customers feel comfortable; in addition, the more sales personnel recognize customer expressions, the more trust they establish.

Other studies have examined the impact of “atmospherics” in stores: colors, brightness, music tempo and volume, the ability to touch merchandise, scents, and, where appropriate, taste samples—all play a role in the successful customer experience.

A newer area of research into nonverbal behavior addresses computer-mediated communication.[14] A growing segment of computer-mediated communication employs nonverbal elements (images, avatars, typographic symbols such as emoticons) and more and more users of social media seek ways to both incorporate and interpret online emotional cues. Researchers have found that combinations of photos and text can evoke emotion, though these responses are mediated by personal characteristics; photo content (neutral expression vs. smiling; people touching vs. people alone) also makes an impact.

Other research has established the importance of typography (font, size, color), explaining that these features as well as the emoticons carry an “illocutionary force” (that is, indicating the speaker’s intentions, such as warning, promising, praising, and so on). Game designers and online shopping have drawn on nonverbal communication studies to improve the experience of their users.

Other designers have tested electro-mechanical devices to mimic human touch or even handshake pressure, all as ways of making computers more nonverbally competent. Some researchers have designed computer systems to detect boredom, delight and frustration in the users.

Some Functions of Nonverbal Communication

As many of the studies summarized above show, nonverbal behaviors play a number of roles in human interaction. One of the most important concerns the expression of emotion or the emotional state of a communicator.[15] People often do not explicitly speak about emotions, but constantly signal them through facial expression, posture, vocal intonation, and so on.

Recent research has explored a theory that people understand the emotions of others through facial mimicry, that is, that the perception of another person’s facial expression triggers (an often unconscious) activation of similar facial muscles in the observer, which the observer uses to recreate the emotion.  Whatever the explanation, people show a remarkable ability to both recognize emotion and to recreate it. This emotional expression and sensitivity varies with age, gender, and culture.

Another well-studied function of nonverbal behavior has to do with detecting deception.[16] People have long suspected that they can tell whether others are lying to them. Recent summaries of the research have focused on behaviors that arouse suspicion, though these vary with circumstance. For example, one research study found that deceivers used fewer iconic gestures in narrating a story; in other situations, deceivers’ gestures did not correspond to semantic information.  Competent deceivers can mask the cues tied to emotion (“emotional leakage”), but signs of that leakage do appear in high speed photography.

A third key function of nonverbal behavior is the regulation of conversation. People constantly signal one another nonverbally to manage turn-taking; they also provide feedback to indicate agreement or disagreement with what another says. People use eye contact to manage the relationship among speakers and with audiences. Co-speech gestures clarify meaning and keep conversations progressing smoothly.

Research Methods

Finally, recent research in nonverbal communication has benefitted from major advances in research methodologies.[17] Where earlier research depended on close observation of a single channel by trained assistants or the study of multiple channels through the use of intrusive recording equipment, more recent work takes advantage of audio and video recorders that allow for more precise observation and careful study of the recordings.

A second improvement affecting nonverbal communication study comes from improved coding descriptions: multimodal databases that combine language and nonverbal behaviors; lists of more detailed descriptions of categories of significance in each channel; and the development of standardized sets of nonverbal performances by actors, used to train observers.

Another valuable tool comes from computer-assisted coding, a technique that allows for frame-by-frame display of behavior with spaces to add annotations.

A different contribution to the interpretation of nonverbal communication is the use of standardized scales that guide clinicians; for example, in assessing behaviors. Such scales include the Communication Profile for the Hearing Impaired, the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scale—Development Profile (for assessing children’s nonverbal behaviors); the Patient Emotion Cue Test (to train medical personnel to recognize nonverbal behaviors in their patients), and the Relational Communication Scale for Observational Measurement.

Recent research on nonverbal communication has continued in interdisciplinary fashion, drawing on psychology, linguistics, anthropology and health, as well as communication studies.

The new methodologies suggest an area of research into how seemingly hidden nonverbal behavior influences human behavior in general. How can we assert that things not even noticed by many individuals affect their behavior? Indeed, the measurement and description of individual activities—whether minute changes in facial expression, the influence of odors, the detection of slight changes in tone, or a level of tension in posture—do indicate that these affect us. What is it in human communication and behavior that allows these individually unnoticed factors to have any impact on a person’s behavior? Does bringing these behaviors under conscious control change their impact? Will attention to nonverbal actions improve medical diagnostics? Teaching? Interpersonal relationships? Workplaces? Much remains to be done.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 02 art. 3, 0220: 10.32009/22072446.0220.3

[1]1 D. Matsumoto – H. C. Hwang – M. G. Frank (eds), APA Handbook of Nonverbal Communication, Washington D.C., American Psychological Association, 4.

[2]2 Cf. V. Manusov, “A History of Research on Nonverbal Communication: Our Divergent Pasts and Their Contemporary Legacies” in D. Matsumoto – H. C. Hwang – M. G. Rank (eds), op. cit., 3–16.

[3]3 For a complete overview, see P. A. Soukup, “Nonverbal Communication” in Communication Research Trends 38 (2019), 3–47.

[4]4 Cf. F. W. Smith – P. G. Schyns, “Smile Through Your Fear and Sadness: Transmitting and Identifying Facial Expression Signals Over a Range of Viewing Distances” in Psychological Science 30 (2009) 1202–1208.

[5]5 Cf. P. Wagner – Z. Malisz – S. Kopp, “Gesture and Speech in Interaction: An Overview” in Speech Communication 57, 209–232.

[6]6 Cf. K. Acheson, “Silence as Gesture: Rethinking the Nature of Communicative Silences” in Communication Theory 18 (2008), 535–555; V. Jõemets, “Human Voice: Its Meaning and Textuality Outside the Verbal and the Musical” in Semiotica N. 198, 2014, 305–320.

[7]7 Cf. A. Bahns et al, “Nonverbal Communication of Similarity Via the Torso: It’s in the Bag” in Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 40 (2016) 151–170.

[8]8  J. Burgoon et al, Social Signal Processing, Cambridge – New York, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

[9]9 M. P. Pagano, Health Communication for Health Care Professionals: An Applied Approach. New York, Springer, 2016.

[10]10 Cf. H. Sowden – M. Perkins – J. Clegg, “The Co-Development of Speech and Gesture in Children with Autism” in Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics 22 (2008) 804–813.

[11]11 C. C. Malachowski – M. M. Martin, “Instructors’ Perception of Teaching Behaviors, Communication Apprehension, and Student Nonverbal Responsiveness in the Classroom” in Communication Research Reports 28 (2011), 141–150; M. D. Dixson et al., “Nonverbal Immediacy Behaviors and Online Student Engagement: Bringing Past Instructional Research into the Present Virtual Classroom” in Communication Education 66 (2017), 37–53.

[12]12 Cf. J. D. Bonvillian – V. L. Ingram – B. M. McCleary, “Observations on the Use of Manual Signs and Gestures in the Communicative Interactions between Native Americans and Spanish Explorers of North America: The Accounts of Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca” in Sign Language Studies 9 (2009) 132–165.

[13]13 Cf. M. A. Kopacz, “Nonverbal Communication as a Persuasion Tool: Current Status and Future Directions” in Rocky Mountain Communication Review 3 (2006), 1–19.

[14]14 Cf. J. M. Montepare, “Nonverbal Behavior in the Digital Age: Explorations in Internet Social Communication” in Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 38 (2014), 409–411.

[15]15 Cf. A. Kever et al., “The Body Language: The Spontaneous Influence of Congruent Bodily Arousal on the Awareness of Emotional Words” in Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception & Performance 41 (2015) 582–589.

[16]16 E. Novotny et al., “How People Really Suspect and Discover Lies” in Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 42 (2018) 41–52.

[17]17 Cf. D. Matsumoto – H. C. Hwang – M. G. Frank (eds), APA Handbook of Nonverbal Communication, op. cit.

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