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What is Nonverbal Communication?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Feb 15, 2024
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Nonverbal communication is a broad term used to describe any method of transferring information without words. It may be intentional, it may be based on societal cues, or it may be completely unconscious. Common forms of nonverbal communication include body language and facial cues, fashion and personal grooming, hand gestures, and graphical signs and design.

It is important to note that nonverbal communication is really about a lack of words, rather than a lack of vocalization. Therefore, most writing would not be considered a nonverbal means of communication, although elements like handwriting style could be considered nonverbal signifiers. By the same token, sounds like grunts are still considered nonverbal, even though they are oral sounds.

Nonverbal communication can be broadly divided into relatively universal forms and culturally dependent forms. Many facial expressions, for example, are relatively universal, with most cultures able to identify expressions of fear, joy, or anger. On the other hand, nonverbal cues like bowing, shaking hands, or flashing a peace sign are culturally defined, and therefore have little meaning outside of cultures that understand them.

Body language is one of the most studied forms of nonverbal communication, and deals with how the body rests, how it is situated in relation to other bodies, and the spatial distance between bodies. For example, turning towards a person when seated and speaking to them is a nonverbal cue demonstrating interest, while turning away demonstrates a lack of interest. Tilting your head slightly is a form of nonverbal communication to show curiosity or express that you are listening closely or what they are saying, while constantly looking away would show a lack of attention. Positioning yourself far away from whoever you’re talking to can show disinterest, disgust, or fear of the person, positioning yourself slightly closer can show interest, and positioning yourself extremely close can communicate either aggression or a very high level of interest, often sexual.

Fashion is another form of nonverbal communication, and in many modern cultures is a hugely important way in which people telegraph things about themselves. Clothing can communicate membership in a cultural subgroup, ranging from extreme examples like the Goth aesthetic or Buddhist monks in robes to more mundane examples like preppy clothing or sportswear. It also often acts as a marker for social class, with designer clothing or custom tailored suits or shoes denoting wealth. It can even act as a nonverbal cue for religion or politics, as with members of the Jewish faith who wear yarmulkes or Anarchists who embody a punk aesthetic.

Gestures also act as a form of nonverbal communication, although this should be differentiated from hand gestures used as a form of verbal communication, like sign language. A wide range of hand gestures can be found in most cultures, and in the west there are some almost universal gestures, such as a wave goodbye, a thumbs-up to demonstrate everything is okay, or hands outspread to signify offerings. Other gestures include a wink to show that something is being left unsaid, elbowing someone to indicate a camaraderie or bonding, or shrugging the shoulders to demonstrate unknowing.

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Discussion Comments

By anon282384 — On Jul 29, 2012

Please give me example of a nonverbal TV commercial.

By suntan12 — On Sep 18, 2010

Subway11- I agree with that. I wanted to say that

nonverbal communication in the workplace is critical.

Although a meeting may be boring, you have to appear alert and engaged in the meeting. Your posture should always remain upright and eye contact should be maintained at all times.

Avoiding eye contact is a sure sign that you have no interest in the meeting which can be detrimental to your career. You should always try to remain aware of your body language.

By subway11 — On Sep 18, 2010

Moldova- Nonverbal communication flirting usually involves intense eye contact along with a wink.

Also, touching someone on the forearm or on the leg suggests physical attraction.

Nonverbal communication is often very obvious more so than verbal communication because you’re facial expressions and posture really determine your interest in the subject or person that you are engaging with.

By Moldova — On Sep 18, 2010

Nonverbal communication training involves learning to make eye contact when someone is speaking to you and leaning inward to indicate interest in the conversation.

Both eye contact nonverbal communication and leaning inward help establish a rapport with the person that you are about to engage in a conversation with.

Maintaining positive facial expressions also allows the other person to continue their conversation with you.

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