Paralanguage is the area of non-verbal communication that emphasizes body language and voice nuances as means of expressing thoughts and feelings. People normally use paralanguage multiple times per day and are sometimes not even aware they are doing so. The ability to interpret this kind of human communication correctly is considered an important competency in both personal and professional settings. Body language often conveys just as much meaning as spoken words. Good communicators also have the ability to gauge how their own paralanguage affects others and to alter it so as to gain others' trust and to project confidence.
Various aspects of paralanguage include posture, eye contact, hand gestures, and tone of voice. Vocal qualities such as volume and tempo are also part of non-verbal communication. If a speaker changes even one of these aspects, the resulting meaning can be quite different to listeners. People who are able to adjust their non-verbal language to the needs of various situations are generally better at diffusing troublesome interactions such as arguments. This type of communication skill is known as metacommunicative competence.
Some areas of paralanguage can be obvious in their meaning, while others are more subtle. Curved back posture and rounded shoulders often convey emotional insecurity for instance. A cracking voice usually indicates a high degree of emotion while speaking, whether it is laughter, anger, or sadness. Many cultures also have their own practices and assigned meanings of body language according to established ideologies and belief systems. The ability to recognize and respond appropriately to these differences is known as intercultural competence.
Intercultural competence allows people from diverse cultural backgrounds to communicate effectively and productively. Correctly recognizing different cultures' paralanguage is particularly important in international business. Voice volume levels and certain gestures may be acceptable in one culture but can sometimes be viewed as offensive in another. The owners of companies that engage in global trade usually invest some time and effort into teaching their employees the meanings and behaviors related to this kind of communication.
Body language and non-verbal communication are normally not taught in schools, so most people learn these competencies naturally in social settings. A noticeable inability to perceive and respond to paralanguage is called dyssemia, which is common in people who have autism spectrum disorders. These people may encounter difficulties in responding to others' non-verbal cues, though many of them benefit from extra training and education in this communication area.