Meaning and importance of non-verbal communication

Verbal media can be used to communication almost any thought, feeling or idea, but the non-verbal media has comparatively very limited range. Especially, it communicates feelings of likings and disliking and reinforces the feelings expressed through verbal media. Occasionally, it contradicts those feelings, which are expressed verbally by the communicator. The following are the types of non-verbal communication:

  • Facial behavior
  • Kinesics or body movement
  • Posture and gestures
  • Personal appearance
  • Clothing
  • Proxemics
  • Paralanguage

Often we think that communication means only words. This is because mostly we use words while communicating. Written communication occurs through printed or written words. And oral communication occurs through words spoken ‘out loud’. But all communication does use words. Sounds unbelievable! Albert Mehrabian, expert on body language and author of books like silent messages, found out that the total impact of oral message is only about 7% verbal, 38% vocal and 55% non verbal.

What constitutes nonverbal communication?

Everything from the simple shrug of the shoulder, the V-sign, the OK ring, the thumbs up gesture, eye movements, facial expressions, body postures, gestures, gait, clothing to the tone of voice, the accent. Nonverbal components of communication also involve the use of space, of touch and smell and paralanguage.

Types of non-verbal communication

We use our body and its different parts to communicate a lot of things. This communication through our body and its various parts is called ‘body language’. Often people consider body language to be the only form of nonverbal communication. However, non-verbal communication includes body language and much more. These include the way we dress up for different occasions, the way we greet people, the way we use our hands while talking, the way we use space etc.

Facial expressions: Faces, it is said, is the mirror of the mind. It is the most obvious vehicle for nonverbal communication. It is a constant source of information to the people around us. Our faces reveal how we are feeling inside while we might be trying to present a different emotion. For example, while telling a lie, a child tries to cover his or her mouth with both the hands. A teenager tries to cover her mouth with one hand. These gestures are called the ‘mouth guard’ gestures. Also, the colors of one’s face, the wrinkles, presence or absence of facial hair, etc. reveal a lot about a person’s personality. For example, people with dark tans supposedly spend a lot of time outdoors. Hairstyles and make up provide insight into one’s economic status, interest in fashion, etc.

Eye behavior: Eyes and their effect on human behavior are as important to poets and painters as to the students of nonverbal communication. This is because one can communicate a lot just with the help of the eyes. From winking, seeing, glaring, staring eyes can perform many functions. The size of the eye, particularly the size of the pupil, is indicative of a person’s mood when one is happy, the pupil dilates or grows larger. When we are angry, our pupils constrict or grow smaller. Eye contact is another important facet of eye behavior. When one maintains eye contact with the audience, he or she is perceived as sincere, friendly, and relaxed. Those who don’t maintain eye contact while talking to others are perceived as nervous. In fact, effective orators and communicators use periodic eye checks to find out if the audience members are being attentive or not. Another important function of eyes is expressing intimacy. Eyes help us create ‘connections’ with others. In fact, eyes have been described as ‘windows to the soul’. We communicate important information and feelings through the eyes in addition to oral communication. Eyes also help us encourage or discourage others. For example, a simple glare may stop students from talking, while a warm glance and an encouraging smile often win many friends.

Kinesics and body movement: Ray Birdwhistell, an expert in the field of nonverbal communication, coined the term ‘kinesics’ for the different body expressions. ‘Kinesics’ means study of body movements. Five categories of specific body expressions are:

  • Emblems
  • Illustrators
  • Regulators
  • Affect displays and
  • Body manipulators

Emblems are commonly recognized signs that are used very frequently. These include the OK ring, touching the temple, putting a finger to the lips (asking for silence), the V-sign, the thumbs up sign, etc. Illustrators are signs that are directly related to the verbal messages. For example, spreading the palms often illustrates the size or length while we talk about something. Illustrators help emphasize the verbal message. Regulators include signs like gazes, nods, raised eyebrows, etc. these signs help us regulate or control verbal communication. Facial expression like angry stares, wide eyes (fear), trembling hard or knocking knees, indicate one’s internal emotional states. These are called affect displays.

Posture and Gait: The way we stand or sit and the way we walk (gait) are strong indicators of our physical and emotional states. When we are aggressive we sit or stand straight and in an alert manner. When we are defensive we usually sink into our chair or stand with our head, shoulders hanging. When confident we walk with our chin raised, chest puffed, and arms swinging freely. Our legs are often little stiff and our walk has a ‘bounce’ when we are confident. A standing posture with ‘hands on hips’ indicates an aggressive frame of mind.

Personal appearance: Physical appearance is one of the most important factors that influence the effectiveness of our interpersonal and group communication. In fact, one’s personal appearance is very crucial as it makes the all- important ‘first impression’. This is particularly important as advertisements shape our minds day in and day out through all those beautiful people who endorse everything from hairpins to aero planes. So we manipulate our personal appearance to look good. We try to accentuate or highlight our best features while hiding and underplaying the others.

Clothing: Our clothes provide the visual clue to our personality. Clothes also indicate about one’s age, interests, and attitudes. Information about one’s status can be judged from the clothes’ age, condition, and fashion. Clothes are used as means of keeping up with the latest social changes. Also clothes are means of decoration and self-expression. Clothing also indicates about a person’s confidence, character, and sociability. These are the reasons why it’s said that ‘clothes make a person’.

Touching: It is the most common form of physical contact between human and animals. In fact animals use touching much more frequently and to great effects. Human beings use touching to emphasize a point, interrupt, as a calming gesture, to reassure. Also, touching is very important to healthy development of children.

Proxemics: This is an addition way of communicating by use of ‘space’. Often we place ourselves in certain special relationships with other people and objects. The study of these special factors is called ‘proxemics’. Intimate distance ranges from actual contact to about 18 inches. We allow only intimate persons within this range. Of course, there is forced closeness as in the case of a crowded lift. Social distance is maintained with people with whom we are meeting for the first time. This distance ranges from 4feet to 12 feet.

Para language: Oral communication does not just occur through words uttered. The words are supplemented by a lot of other factors, particularly related to the voice. The pitch, tempo, range, resonance, and quality of voice add a lot of flesh and blood to the words. These vocal characteristics and vocal sounds constitute ‘paralanguage’. Speaking without pitch variation makes the speech monotonous. ‘Pitch’ is the raising or lowering of our voice. ‘Resonance’ on the other hand is the variation of volume from a quite and thin voice to loud, booming voice. Speaking too fast or too slow is a variation of ‘tempo’. Para language gives us clues about age, sex, emotional states, personality, etc.

Smell and taste: We receive a lot of information about our environment through the sense of smell. Like a particular fragrance announces the arrival of a particular person. Body odors also provide clues about a person’s hygienic state. We also send out a lot of information through smell. We use deodorants, body sprays, hanky sprays, etc. To hide smell of onion or garlic we brush our teeth and gargle with mouthwash. Like smell, taste is also a silent sense that receives and sends messages.

Environmental factors: Architectural arrangement of objects, interior decoration, colors, time, music, etc are the environmental factors that provide a lot of nonverbal cues and clues. Dim lighting, quite atmosphere, and soft music leads to greater intimacy and has a soothing affect. Similarly, colors also have wide-ranging associations. For example, one turns pink when embarrassed and one sees red when angry.

Functions of Nonverbal communication

Non- verbal communication plays an important role in any communication situation. If often plays a supplementary role to the verbal content delivered orally. Some other times, nonverbal symbols communicate on their own. More specifically, nonverbal communication serves the following functions:

  • Repeating verbal messages
  • Substituting verbal messages
  • Complementing verbal messages
  • Regulating or accenting verbal message and Deception.