Nonverbal communication definition

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Nonverbal communication is when people understand each other by sending signals to each other without using words.

Although we usually think of communication as ‘talking to someone’, we use nonverbal communication a lot in our everyday lives. In fact, nonverbal communication could represent up to two-thirds of all communication and is extremely important! What you’re doing with your body, your face, your eyes and your hands (whether consciously or subconsciously) could support or completely change what you’re saying with words.

Nonverbal or non-verbal?

Both the hyphenated (non-verbal) and non-hyphenated (nonverbal) forms of the word are correct.

The difference between Verbal and nonverbal communication

Verbal communication is communication using words.

  • Person 1: “Do you want to go to the beach later?”
  • Person 2: “Yes.”

Nonverbal communication is any communication that doesn’t use words.

  • Person 1: “Do you want to go to the beach later?”
  • Person 2: * shrugs and shakes their head sadly *

When written down, for example in scripts, nonverbal communication is often written in italics, between asterisks (*) or in brackets (). That’s how you know it’s an action, rather than something to be said.

However, even within what you might initially consider to be verbal communication, there are lots of nonverbal factors in the way the person says what they’re saying. The following examples show how nonverbal communication can change verbal communication.

  1. If person 2 is very excited about the idea:
  • Person 1: “Do you want to go to the beach later?”
  • Person 2: “Yes!!!”
  1. If person 2 is not very excited about the idea:
  • Person 1: “Do you want to go to the beach later?”
  • Person 2: * shrugs * “Yes.”
  1. If person 2 is nervous about the idea:
  • Person 1: “Do you want to go to the beach later?”
  • Person 2 looks away, avoiding making eye contact with person 1: “Yes.”

Types of nonverbal communication

There are lots of different types of nonverbal communication; after all, we’re talking about all the ways you communicate without speaking! However, the main ones are contained within what we often call ‘body language’.

Body language

Body language is the messages your body is sending to someone else. Often when we talk about ‘reading someone’s body language’ when we want to find out what they’re thinking. Examples are:

If you want to find out if someone is interested in you, romantically

If they are interested, you might notice:

  • Their pupils are dilated

and they:

  • initiate physical contact with you
  • smile/laugh a lot around you
  • lean towards you when you’re talking
  • blush when you look at them
  • play with their hair / touch their face/mouth

If you want to see if someone is paying attention / interested in what you’re saying

If they are interested, they might:

  • Tilt their head to the side – it means they’re listening
  • React to what you’re saying, nodding or shaking their head
  • Lean towards you to hear you better

If they’re not interested, they might:

  • Not keeping eye contact with you / look away
  • Cross their arms and/or legs
  • Speak over you

There are many forms of nonverbal communication. Some of them are easy to control consciously; others are much harder (and are subconscious).

Facial expressions

Your facial expression is a pretty standard way in which you communicate with other people, especially when it comes to communicating your feelings. Your face will often give away if you’re feeling:

  • Happy or sad
  • Confused
  • Angry
  • Lost
  • Embarrassed

Body posture

Your body posture is what position you hold yourself in. This includes which way you face when you’re talking to someone, what you do with your arms, your legs and your feet.

  • If your feet are pointing towards the person you’re talking to, you’re generally interested in what they’re saying. However, if you’re in a boring meeting you can’t wait to leave, your feet might be one step ahead of you and already be pointing at the door!
  • If your arms are crossed in front of you, you’re showing anyone talking to you that you’re not receptive to any new ideas.
  • If you’re standing up tall and not slouching you will look more confident and powerful (and might also feel it!)

Gestures

Gestures are actions you make with your hands to explain something to someone else. Some people use a lot of gestures when they’re speaking, and some cultures are particularly known for using lots of gestures, for example Italians.

Examples of when you might use gestures are:

  • You might beckon someone to come closer to you if you want to speak to him or her.
  • To ask for the bill at a restaurant you might make a sign to the waiter like you’re signing something.
  • To ask for 2 drinks at a bar you might hold up 2 fingers to the bar person.
  • You might use gestures to give directions, pointing the way they should go.

Gestures are very often very culturally-specific and could mean nothing at all, or something completely different in a different culture, for example:

  • It’s common to show the number 2 using your index and middle finger in lots of countries (like a backwards peace sign). However, showing someone these two fingers in the UK is the same as showing them your middle finger!

Eye movement

Eye movement is a very difficult type of nonverbal communication to control, so it could tell you a lot about what the person you’re looking at is thinking. Examples are if:

  • they’re staring fixedly at something, for example food, it often means they want it.
  • their eyes are changing direction quickly, it could mean the person could make an impulsive decision
  • someone’s eyes are moving slowly it could mean they’re very tired

 Eye contact is a type of eye movement that also tells you what a person is thinking. If they’re keeping eye contact with you, it often means they’re interested in what you’re saying, or interested in you romantically. If they’re avoiding eye contact with you it could mean they’re lying to you or trying to hide something. However, the norms for eye contact vary a lot depending on the culture, so do bear that in mind!

Touch

Touch is a very important form of nonverbal communication, and it might be the form of nonverbal communication that varies the most across cultures, particularly in the way people greet each other, whether it’s with:

  • a handshake
  • a kiss on the cheek
  • two or even three kisses
  • a hug
  • a high five

This also varies depending on the context – whether it’s professional, social or romantic.

Voice

Although voice might not be the first type of nonverbal communication you think of, it’s also a very important example! Not what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it. Think about how animals understand us – not by the words we’re using but by our:

  • Tone of voice
  • Volume

These aspects of our voice influence how we communicate with people, as well as the words we’re actually saying.

Nonverbal communication examples

Nonverbal communication is often described in written form to describe how a person is feeling. Examples are:

Determined:

  • She set her shoulders
  • He squared his shoulders

Amused:

  • He threw his head back and laughed loudly
  • They slapped their thighs

Annoyed:

  • The teacher pressed her lips together
  • He sighed

 Suspicious:

  • He narrowed his eyes at her
  • She shook her head

Anxious:

  • She chewed on her nails
  • He paced up and down

Confused:

  • He tilted his head
  • He stared blankly
  • She furrowed her brow
  • She shrugged her shoulders

Angry:

  • She clenched her fists
  • She shook with anger

Disgusted:

  • He crinkled his nose
  • She covered her nose

 Embarrassed:

  • He blushed
  • She stammered
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