What Is Non-Verbal Communication?

body-languageEven though the importance of non-verbal communication has grown rapidly over the last few decades and it is now widely used in media, business, interpersonal relationships, education and politics many people still pay little attention to non-verbal messages and body signals, concentrating mostly on words.

It is one of the biggest misconceptions to think that what is being said is more important than how it is being said. In reality only 7% of information is sent through words, the remaining 93% of communication is non-verbal. If you fail to read and de-code non-verbal messages you set yourself up for constant misunderstandings and various communication problems.

I am sure that you have heard the expression, “Their actions speak louder than words” before. This is very true, because:

  • In many situations people tend to hide their feelings behind carefully chosen words. A non-verbal message is a subconscious response of the body. Therefore, it can not be easily controlled and is likely to be more genuine.
  • As words have limitations, non-verbal communication is more effective in situations where a person has to explain shapes, directions, inner feelings and personalities.
  • Non-verbal signals serve to make the message more powerful and convincing. Try to convince or motivate another person into doing a certain task while keeping your face expression, gestures and tone of voice unanimated. No matter what you say, you will not be able to sound convincing, or motivating.
  • If a message is too emotional or too complex a separate non-verbal communication channel is needed to transmit this message correctly.
  • Non-verbal communication helps to clarify misunderstanding and avoid possible communication barriers.

Non-verbal communication is not just body language, gestures or facial expressions as many people mistakenly think. It also includes eye contact, touch, spatial distance between two or more people or positioning within a group, kinesics or body movements, appearance, smell, tone of voice and even silence!

Body language is one of the most important and complicated parts of non-verbal communication. Although many books have been written on this topic, body language is still hard to decode, because it must be interpreted in the context of a person’s lifestyle, cultural background, family, education, physical health, and other factors that may be obscure.

Gestures are used to express emotions and signify certain feelings. One of the most frequently observed is hand movements, as people often gesticulate with their hands while talking.

Facial expressions.

Our face is a highly developed organ that can create more than 7,000 facial expressions. Facial expression continually change during interaction and should be constantly monitored by the recipient.

Even though the meanings of facial expressions may vary in different countries, there are six main types that are the same in all cultures:

  • Happiness (sincere broad smile, raised cheeks, round eyes)
  • Anger (lowered eyebrow, tightly pursed lips, intensive stare)
  • Surprise (wide open eyes, open mouth, raised eyebrows)
  • Fear (open mouth, round eyes, pale face)
  • Disgust (wrinkled nose, raised upper lip, lowered eyelids)
  • Sadness (lowered corners of mouth, sad eyes)

Eye contact is an important feature of social communication. In many cultures it is believed, that even if you can control your facial expressions and body movements, eyes can never lie. This is why in business cultures a fair degree of eye contact is viewed as a sign of a person’s openness, honesty and trust.

Often, just by eye contact we can signal to another person when to talk or to finish. In interpersonal relationships looking away is often perceived as deviousness and avoidance, while gaze holding, decreased blinking rate and dilated eye pupils show our interest in a partner. Also frequency of eye contact may indicate either interest or boredom.


“Haptics” is a nonverbal communication study of touch. The way one person touches another can tell a great deal of information. Even a handshake can tell a lot about the individual’s character and social position. In most interpersonal relationships touching can (arm pat) expresse tenderness, give encouragement and show emotional support.

Such physical contacts as embracing, pushing, grabbing, holding another person on the shoulder, patting on the back, ruffling thier hair may reflect elements of intimacy, lack of attraction, patronizing or gentleness.

The meaning of touch depends highly on the situation, sex, age, culture and your character. If used improperly it can become a cause of aggravation, communication barriers and mistrust.

Distance and Personal space.

There are two main types of distance: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal distance determines the distance, which people intuitively feel comfortable with when approaching other and having others approach them. There are four horizontal distance zones:

  • Intimate distance – from actual touching to 18 inches. It is assigned for intimate relationships and mother- baby relationships. At this distance the physical presence of another is overwhelming. Violation of “our territory”, depending on the seriousness may provoke such feelings as discomfort, irritation, anxiety and even anger and aggression.
  • Personal distance – from 18 inches to 4 feet. This zone is reserved for interactions with good friends, when discussing personal and casual matters.
  • Social distance – from 4 to 12 feet. This is an appropriate distance for impersonal, social gatherings and business communication.
  • Public distance – more than 12 feet. At this distance a speaker becomes formal. It is reserved for public speaking and interaction in public places (like parks, supermarkets, or on the street)

The more we get to know the person and the more we like them, the closer we permit them into our personal space.

Vertical distance often indicates a degree of dominance and subordinance in the relationship.


Kinetics (or a study of body movements in space) helps a person to transmit information as well as affecting the feelings of the person doing the moving. Body movements are widely used:

  • As emblems or gestures that have a direct translation to words (e.g. “OK” sign or a thumb up, meaning “great!”)
  • To reinforce or emphasize words ( e.g. “He is THIS tall”, “ The fish was THIS big!”)
  • To show strong feelings through body motions ( e.g. jumping and clapping hands from joy, tiptoeing from impatience or anxiety)
  • To control the flow of conversation ( e.g. showing with body movements to another person when to start or to stop talking)

Usually people with a more relaxed posture, an open arm and body position and the body leaning slightly forward in the conversation are perceived as more likable, attentive and trustful.


“Chronemics” is the study of the use of time in non-verbal communication.  Time perception greatly affects our lifestyle, movements, speed of speech, and the amount of time set for listening.

It is also closely linked to a person’s social status. The higher the status, the more control the person has over his time.  For example, a boss can talk to an employee whenever he chooses to do so, while the employee has to make an appointment to see the boss.

In business communication it is very important to remember that various cultures have different perception of time. For example, in North America, Germany or Switzerland, you often hear statements such as, “Time is money”, “We’re running out of time”, “The deadline for the project is tomorrow”. In South America or Arabian countries people believe that they have “all the time in the world” and the word “deadline” does not exist in their language.


“Olfactics” is a non-verbal communication study of smell. We tend to react to people based on their smell. For both men and women body smell is one of the most important subconscious factors of choosing a life mate. During interaction body odor or too much perfume can make even the most attractive person seem repulsive.


Appearance plays an important role in non-verbal communication. Clothes, makeup, accessories, hairstyle, choice of colors and uniforms usually offer signals relating to person’s individuality, status, wealth, occupation and even attractiveness.

People we find attractive are perceived as more credible, sociable, successful, interesting, sensitive, kind and popular. However you have to remember that forming stereotypes based on other people’s physical characteristics and attractiveness may lead to false assumptions and communication barriers.


Paralanguage is a non-verbal element of communication that includes rate (speed), pitch (highness or lowness of voice), volume (loudness), and enunciation of vocal speech.

A person’s character, emotional condition and ability to get a message correctly to a receiver can be revealed by vocal cues.

Experimental findings suggest that people tend to listen more attentively to men with deep, low voices and resonant tones as these vocal cues are associated with strength, sexiness and self-confidence.

High pitch voices are associated with rage, nervousness and helplessness, while despair and depression is often vocalized by a lower pitch and slower word pace. People who speak very loud are often perceived by others as aggressive, overbearing and uncompromising. Soft spoken people are viewed as timid, polite and unsure of themselves.

When a vocal message contradicts a verbal one it is considered an indication of sarcasm. For example, a phrase, “Great job” can either mean a sincere praise or if intoned sarcastically, it has the opposite meaning.


Silence is also viewed as a part of non-verbal communication that depending on the situation and usage can influence conversation in a positive or negative way. On one hand silence may create tension and uneasiness, while on the other it may give another person time to collect his thoughts and calm down. Silence can also be an indicator of agreement or disagreement, depending on other non-verbal aspects such as facial expression, body language or eye contact.

By learning to observe and understand the non-verbal communication process, you can noticeably improve your communication and persuasion skills. You will be able to immediately identify what another person really thinks and change their point of view if necessary.

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