6 Ch. 6: Nonverbal Communication


Ch. 6: Nonverbal Communication

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, readers should:

  • Define nonverbal communication, understanding the differences between verbal and nonverbal communication.
  • Describe the messages that nonverbal behavior communicates.
  • Explain various types of nonverbal behavior using appropriate terms.
  • Understand and observe cultural differences in nonverbal behavior.
  • Understand the potential for intercultural miscommunication due to nonverbal behavior.

Key Vocabulary

  • nonverbal messages

  • mixed messages

  • nonverbal communication codes

  • kinesics

  • facial expressions

  • oculesics

  • gestures

  • posture

  • Gestures

  • emblems

  • illustrators

  • regulators

  • adaptors

  • vocalics

  • proxemics

  • conversation distance

  • intimate space

  • social space

  • personal space

  • public space

  • territory

  • contact vs. noncontact

  • monochronic cultures

  • polychronic cultures

  • halo vs. horn effect

  • artifacts

  • cultural space

  • environment

You might have studied a second language for many years, and considered yourself fluent, but still find it difficult to communicate with others when you travel to a country where that second language is spoken.  Most of us have to live within a culture before we learn the nonverbal communication aspects of culture.  Learning nonverbal communication is important and challenging.  It’s important because much communication meaning is conveyed nonverbally, and challenging because nonverbal communication is often multi-channeled and culture-specific.

 Human beings all have the capacity to make the same gestures and expressions, but not all of those gestures and expressions have the same meaning across cultural boundaries.  Types of nonverbal communication vary considerably based on culture and country of origin.  Every culture interprets posture, gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, vocal noises, use of space, degree of territory, and time differently.

Principles of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is those aspects of communication, such as gestures and facial expressions, that do not involve verbal communication, but which may include nonverbal aspects of speech itself such as accent, tone of voice, and speed of speaking (Dictionary.com 3/3/19).  In other words, nonverbal communication is communication through means other than language.  A famous study by Albert Mehrabian (1971) found that 93% of communication meaning comes from nonverbal communication.  Mehrabian posited that 7% came from the words, 38% through vocal elements, and 55% from through other elements such as facial expressions, posture, gestures, etc.  More recent studies have indicated that determining the impact of nonverbal elements on communication meaning is extremely difficult, and results can vary from 60-93%.

In the bigger picture, the exact results don’t matter as much as the fact that nonverbal communication can contribute to well-over half of the emotional or relational meaning of any given message.  However you look at it, nonverbal elements are crucial to the study of communication. When comparing verbal and nonverbal communication, it’s important to remember that both are symbolic, and both communicate meaning, but other aspects differ greatly.

Two athletes who speak different languages communicate with hand gestures at a world championship.
Two rock climbers who speak different languages communicate non-verbally.

Nonverbal Communication Uses Multiple Channels

When we use verbal communication, we use words, and we transmit through one channel at a time.  We can speak words, read words, type words, or listen to words, but the channel is words.  Nonverbally, when I talk to a friend, I listen to my friend’s tone of voice, I watch my friend’s facial expressions, use of eye contact, and gestures, and possibly touch them (multiple channels) all while trying to make sense of the words (one channel).  Or to impress a possible romantic partner, I dress up in my most flattering clothes, put on cologne or perfume, fix my hair, and laugh at their jokes to indicate my interest in them.

Nonverbal Communication is More Ambiguous

Unlike most verbal communication, nonverbal communication and its meanings are primarily learned unconsciously.  A smile can express friendliness, comfort, nervousness, and sarcasm, just as catching someone’s eye can convey intimacy, humor, or a challenge, depending on the situation.  This ambiguity can pose difficulties for the interpretation of messages—especially across cultural boundaries.  Chances are you have had many experiences where words were misunderstood, or where the meaning of words was unclear. When it comes to nonverbal communication, meaning is even harder to discern. We can sometimes tell what people are communicating through their nonverbal communication, but there is no foolproof “dictionary” of how to interpret nonverbal messages.

Some nonverbal behaviors are learned as part of being socialized into a culture.  In the United States, we often shake hands when meeting someone new in a formal situation.  Words such as “hi, I’m Karen” along with a firm handshake are general expectations in business settings.  Or, “it was so nice to meet you” and another firm handshake at parting.

Nonverbal Communication Has Fewer Rules

 One reason that nonverbal communication is more ambiguous than verbal communication is because it is governed by fewer rules—and most of those will be informal norms.  Verbal communication has literally thousands of rules governing grammar, spelling, pronunciation, usage, meaning, and more.  Yes, your parents might tell you to “it’s not polite to stare at people,” but most of these declarations are considered models of good behavior and not something that dictates the meaning of a communication act.

Popular culture is filled with references to “body language” and promises that you can read your boss/lover/parent/friend like a book by the end of the article/tweet/video.  Because nonverbal communication is ambiguous, has fewer rules, and co-creates meaning with verbal communication, it would be impossible to teach a universal shorthand for interpreting how individuals express attitudes and emotions through their bodies.  There is not a universal code used that could be considered as a “language of the body” with conventionalized meanings which equate to the components that constitute spoken language (Haller & Peeters, retrieved 2/13/19).

Nonverbal Messages Communicate Emotions and Meaning

When we interact with others, we monitor many channels besides their words to determine meaning.  Where does a wink start and a nod end? Nonverbal communication involves the entire body, the space it occupies and dominates, the time it interacts, and not only what is not said, but how it is not said. Nonverbal action flows almost seamlessly from one to the next, creating an intention of meaning in the mind of the receiver.

Nonverbal communication often gives our thoughts and feelings away before we are even aware of what we are thinking or how we feel. People may see and hear more than you ever anticipated. Your nonverbal communication includes both intentional and unintentional messages, but since it all happens so fast, the unintentional ones can contradict what you know you are supposed to say or how you are supposed to react.

Our reliance on nonverbal communication becomes even more intense when people display mixed messages or verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey contradictory meanings (Burgoon & Hoobler, 2002).  In such cases, we almost always trust the nonverbal message over the verbal one as nonverbal behavior is believed to operate at the unconscious level.  Still, we often assign intentional motives to nonverbal communication when in fact their meaning is unintentional, and hard to interpret.

Nonverbal behavior also communicates status and power.  Touch, posture, gestures, use of space and territory, are good indicators of how power is distributed in the relationship, and the perks that status brings.  And although research indicates that deceptive behaviors are idiosyncratic to particular individual people, the interplay between verbal and nonverbal can help receivers determine deception.

Nonverbal Communication is Influenced by Culture

The close bond between culture and nonverbal communication makes true intercultural communication difficult to master.  Yes, some cues can be learned, but because nonverbal is ambiguous and has fewer rules, it takes most people many years of immersion within a culture before they can fully understand the subtle meanings encompassed within that culture’s nonverbal communication (Chen & Starosta, 2005).

In a 2009 meeting with the emperor of Japan, then president Barak Obama, bowed rather deeply in greeting.  US conservative commentators called the bow ‘treasonous’ while former vice-president, Dick Cheney, believed that “there was no reason for an American president to bow to anyone” (Slate, retrieved 3/8/19).  The Japanese press, on the other hand, acknowledged the bow as a sign of respect, but believed the 45 degree bend or ‘seikeirei’ bow to be much more exaggerated than it needed to be.

Nonverbal and Verbal Communication Work Together to Create Communication

Despite the differences between verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, and the importance of nonverbal noted by Mehrabian and others, both forms are essential.  They both work together to create meaning (Jones & LeBaron, 2002).  As communicators, we do not experience or express them separately, but rather jointly to create meaning (Birdwhistell, 1973).  We need both to communicate competently.  Nonverbal communication can reinforce, substitute for, and contradict verbal communication, but it can never be the words—and we need the words as that tip of the iceberg to have a focus for the meaning and feelings that are being displayed.

Types of Nonverbal Behaviors or Codes

One reason that nonverbal communication is so rich with information is that humans use so many different aspects of behavior, appearance, and environment to convey meaning.  Scholars call the different means used for transmitting information nonverbal communication codes (Burgoon & Hoobler, 2002).  The seven general codes for nonverbal communication are:  kinesics, vocalics, proxemics, haptics, chronemics, physical appearance, artifacts, and environment.

The cultural patterns embedded in nonverbal codes should be used not as stereotypes for all members of particular cultures, but rather as tentative guidelines or examples to help you understand the great variation of nonverbal behavior in humans.  Bodenhausen, Todd & Richeson (2009) remind us that prejudice is often based on certain aspects of nonverbal behavior such as appearance.  Reread chapter XXX for a reminder how prejudice can hinder the communication process.

  • Kinesics is thought by some to be the richest nonverbal code in terms of its power to communicate meaning, kinesics includes most of the behaviors we usually associate with nonverbal communication.  The word kinesics comes from the Greek word, kinesis, meaning “movement,” and includes facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, and posture.
  • Facial Expressions communicate an endless stream of emotions, and we make judgements about what others are feeling by assessing their faces.  Our use of emoticons to communicate attitudes and emotions in electronic media testifies to the importance of this type of kinesics.  In fact, some scholars argue that facial expressions rank first among all forms of communication (Knapp & Hall, 2002).  Cultural rules often regulate facial expressions.  You might have been taught that smiles are universal, but that simply is not true.  Most human beings can smile, but cultures value and interpret smiles in different ways.  In other words, the meaning behind a smile is not universal.  For example, in Russian, people do not smile because it implies that you are foolish, or possibly sneaky and manipulative.  Even family photos, adults often appear with flat or scowling faces.  Many Hispanic cultures prefer a proud and elegant facial appearance, which does not include smiling.  In Japan, smiling is a way to show respect or to hide what you are actually feeling.  In the United States, we smile to show a pleasant face to the people around us, to express happiness, gratitude, and even when we are nervous.  We often tend to smile for the purposes of getting along with others (Solomon, 2017).
  • Eye contact, or Oculesics, serves many purposes.  We use our eyes to express emotions, regulate a conversation, indicate listening behavior, show interest in others, respect, status, hostility, and aggression (Burgoon, Buller & Woodall, 1996).  Patterns of eye contact vary significantly by culture. Generally, eye contact is considered a good thing in the United States.  It can mean that you are interested, confident, and bold (a good thing), but people often avoid eye contact in crowded, impersonal situations such as walking down a busy street or riding a crowded bus.  In France, however, someone may feel free to watch someone interesting on the street and consciously make eye contact to indicate interest.  In the Middle East, direct eye contact is less common and generally less appropriate, whereas lack of eye contact in Asia is often a sign of respect and considered polite.
  • Gestures are arm and hand movements used for communicationThere are at least four different kinds of gestures that we should consider:  emblems, illustrators, regulators, and adaptors.  The type of gesture known as emblems represent a specific verbal meaning and can replace or reinforce words (Ekman, 1976).  If you are driving down a busy highway in the United States, and another driver quickly changes lanes in front of your car, making you hit the brakes, you can flip them off to easily convey meaning without using any words at all.  With emblems, gestures and its verbal meaning are interchangeable, but they are also very culturally specific.  If the person who changed lanes abruptly is from another culture, they may have no idea what your emblem means.
  • Illustrators, or emblematic nonverbal communications, are a nonverbal gesture used to communicate our message effectively and reinforce our point. Your grandfather may describe the fish he just caught and hold up his two hands 36 inches apart to illustrate exactly how big the fish was.
  • Regulators are nonverbal messages which control, maintain or discourage interaction. (McLean, 2003). For example, if someone is telling you a message that is confusing or upsetting, you may hold up your hand, a commonly recognized regulator that asks the speaker to stop talking.
  • Adaptors help us feel comfortable or indicate emotions or moods.  An adaptor could involve you meeting your need for security, by playing with your hair for example, or hugging yourself for warmth.
  • Posture is the last item in our list of kinesics.  Humans can stand up straight or slouch, lean forward or backward, round or slump our shoulders, and tilt our heads.  Mehrabian (1972) believed that posture communicates immediacy and power.  Immediacy is the degree to which you find someone interesting and attractive.  Typically, when someone from the United States finds someone attractive, they face the person when talking, hold their head up, and lean in.  Whereas a reaction to someone they don’t like might have them look away and lean back. Power is the ability to influence people or events.  In the United States, high-status communicators typically use relaxed postures (Burgoon et al., 1996), but in Japan, the opposite is true.  Japanese display power through erect posture with feel planted firmly on the floor.


Vocal characteristics we use to communicate nonverbal messages are called vocalics or paralanguage (with-language)Vocalics involves verbal and nonverbal aspects of speech that influence meaning, including rate, pitch, tone, volume, intensity, pausing, and even silence.  As previously discussed, silence or vocal pauses can communicate hesitation, indicate the need to gather thought, or serve as a sign of respect. Sometimes we learn just as much, or even more, from what a person does not say as what they do say.


Coming from the Latin proximus, meaning “near,” proxemics refers to communication through the use of physical distance or space.  When we discuss space in a nonverbal context, we mean the space between objects and people. Space is often associated with social rank and is an important part of communication. Who gets the corner office? Who sits at the head of the table and why?

People from diverse cultures may have different normative space expectations. If you are from a large urban area, having people stand close to you may be normal. If you are from a culture where people expect more space, someone may be standing “too close” for comfort and not know it.

Edward T. Hall, serving in the European and South Pacific Regions in the Corps of Engineers during World War II, traveled around the globe. As he moved from one place to another, he noticed that people in different countries kept different distances from each other. In France, they stood closer to each other than they did in England. Hall (1963) wondered why that was and came up with a theory on spatial relations and boundaries.

The first aspect, Hall called “territory” and it is related to control. As a way of establishing control over your own room, maybe you painted it your favorite color, or put up posters that represent your interests or things you consider unique about yourself. Territory means the space you claim as your own, are responsible for, or are willing to defend.

The second aspect Hall highlights is conversation distance, or the “bubble” of space surrounding each individual.  We recognize the basic need for personal space, but the normative expectations for space vary greatly by culture. In the United States, intimate space ranges from 0-18 inches.  Personal space is the distance we occupy during encounters with friends and ranges from 18 inches to 4 feet.  Many people use social space in social situations or with strangers, and ranges from 4 to 12 feet.  In public space, the distance ranges from 12 feet and beyond.  North American use of space tends to be much larger than most other cultures, especially people from Latin America and the Middle East where such vast use of personal space will make you seem aloof or distant.


Touch in communication interaction is called haptics, from the ancient Greek word “haptien.”  Touch can vary based on its duration, the part of the body being touched, and the strength of the contact (Floyd, 1999).

Cultural norms have a strong impact on how people use and perceive touch.  For example, Hispanic cultures tend to hug more than do Europeans.  Researchers in a study at outdoor cafes in London, England and San Juan, Puerto Rico found that Puerto Ricans touched each other an average of 180 times per hour whereas the British average was zero (EPA, 2002).

Hall (1963) suggests that the use of proxemics and haptics merge within a culture to create what researchers now call contact and noncontact cultures. In contact cultures, people stand closer together while talking, make more direct eye contact, touch more frequently, and speak in louder voices.  Some examples of contact cultures would be South America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe with the Middle East being the highest contact.

In noncontact cultures, people stand farther apart while talking, maintain less eye contact, and touch less.  Some examples of noncontact cultures would be Great Britain, the United States, and Japan.


Chronemics is the study of how we refer to and perceive time. Cultures vary widely in their time orientation, although context can also play a major role as well.  “Time is money” is a common saying across cultures that display a high value for time. In social contexts, time often reveals social status and power. Who are you willing to wait for? A doctor for an office visit when you are sick? A potential employer for a job interview? Your significant other or children?

Some Mexican American friends may invite you to a barbecue at 8 p.m., but when you arrive you are the first guest, because it is understood that the gathering actually doesn’t start until after 9 p.m. Similarly in France, an 8 p.m. party invitation would be understood to indicate you should arrive around 8:30, but in Sweden 8 p.m. means 8 p.m., and latecomers may not be welcome.

In the United States, we perceive time as linear, flowing along in a straight line. We did one task, we’re doing another task now, and we are planning on doing something else later. In monochronic time orientation, time is a commodity.  Being punctual, completing tasks, and keeping schedules is valued, and may be more important than building or maintaining personal relationships.

In polychronic time orientation, time is more holistic and circular.  It is expected that many events happen at once, and things get done because of personal relationships, not in spite of personal relationships.  The Euro Railways trains in Germany are famous for departing and arriving according to the schedule no matter what. In contrast, if you take the train in Argentina, you’ll find that the schedule is more of an approximation of when the train will leave or arrive.  Engineers, conductors, and even passengers influence the schedule, not a clock.

Physical Appearance

Visible attributes such as hair, clothing, body type, personal grooming, jewelry, glasses, backpacks, briefcases, and purses profoundly influence our communication encounters.  In other words, how you look conveys as much about you as what you say.  Across cultures, people credit individuals they find physically attractive with higher levels of intelligence, persuasiveness, poise, sociability, warmth, power, and employment success than they credit to unattractive individuals (Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986).  Communication researchers call this tendency to make a blanket judgement of a person based on one trait the halo (positive) or horns (negative) effect.    As physical attractiveness is variable across cultures, and constantly being redefined, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


Artifacts are the things we possess that influence how we see ourselves and that we use to express our identity to others.  They can include rings and tattoos, but may also include brand names and logos. From clothes to cars, watches, briefcases, purses, and even eyeglasses, what we choose to surround ourselves with communicates something about our sense of self. They may project gender, role or position, class or status, personality, and group membership or affiliation.


A final way in which we communicate nonverbally is through our environment.  The environment involves the physical aspects of our surroundings. More than the tables and chairs in an office, environment is an important part of the dynamic communication process. The perception of one’s environment influences one’s reaction to it. For example, Google is famous for its work environment, with spaces created for physical activity and even in-house food service around the clock. The expense is no doubt considerable, but Google’s actions speak volumes. The results produced in the environment, designed to facilitate creativity, interaction, and collaboration, are worth the effort.

Cultural Space

Although, the idea of cultural space doesn’t fit neatly into the category of nonverbal behaviors, many intercultural communication researchers find significance in the idea as it merges culture, environment and identity.  The seed originates in the writings of French philosopher and social theorist, Michel Foucault (1970).  The argument is that culture is dynamic and redefines itself from one generation to the next so many scholars are now referring to this broad area of research by the metaphor of cultural space.  Cultural space is the social and cultural contexts in which our identities are formed.

One of the earliest cultural spaces that humans experience is home.  Home can be a tremendous source of identification.  It often communicates social class and norms, as well as safety and security.  Home is not the same as the physical location it occupies, but rather the feelings invoked.  Home can be a specific address, cities, states, regions, and even nations.

A neighborhood is an area defined by its own cultural identity.  This area can revolve around race and ethnicity, and certain cultural groups can define who gets to live where by dictating the rules by which other groups must live.  Historical forces and power relations have led to different settlement patterns of cultural groups in the United States and around the world.

Many people identify strongly with particular regions.  Regionalism is loyalty to an area that holds cultural meaning.  This loyalty can be expressed symbolically by flying regional flags, wearing special clothing, celebrating regional holidays, and participating in other cultural activities.  This loyalty can also be expressed through protests or armed conflict.

Social media has added a new dimension to cultural spaces by pushing definitions and boundaries. This notion of fluid cultural space is in contrast with previous notions of space which were rooted in landownership & occupation, along with borders, colonies, and territories.  We will explore this idea more in our social media and popular culture chapter.

Cultural space influences how we think about ourselves and others therefore, changing cultural space is not easy to do.  Travel raises important issues related to changing how we interact and communicate with others and is often associated with transformation of the traveler.  Migration involves a more permanent kind of change than traveling, and is also an impetus of cultural space change.

Wrapping Up

 People may not understand your words, but they will certainly interpret your nonverbal communication according to their accepted norms. Notice the word their. It is their perceptions that will count when you are trying to communicate, and it’s important to understand that those perceptions will be based on the teachings and experiences of their culture—not yours.

The ideas and theories presented in the previous sections note how we look at the structures of cultures, values, and communication. They also provide a framework for talking about and comparing cultures, but it’s always important to remember that cultures are heterogeneous, and constantly changing.  One size does not fit all and nonverbal communication is ambiguous even in the best of times.


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