Nonverbal communication

What is nonverbal communication?

It fits within the three-part breakdown Albert Mehrabian [Nonverbal Communication (Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1972)] found in his research. Mehrabian found that only about 7 percent of the emotional meaning of a message is communicated through explicit verbal channels. About 38 percent is communicated by paralanguage, which is basically the use of the voice. About 55 percent comes through nonverbal, which includes such things as gesture, posture, facial expression, etc. It is behavior other than spoken or written communication that creates or represents meaning.

Update: In the years so I first wrote this, I've become aware of the above statistic as being, perhaps, the most misquoted bit of research in social science. While it is true that, in general, nonverbal communication (paralanguage and "body language" taken together) comprises as much as 80 percent of the average face-to-face interaction, claiming that Dr. Mehrabian's research "proves" that 93 percent of communication is nonverbal isn't fair to his research. He never made such a general claim. Rather, such claims result from extrapolating the results of a couple of experiments done under very specific conditions. For some further insight, see Dr. Mehrabian's page for ordering Silent Messages, the first book in which one of these experiments was reported.

Why do we study nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal messages communicate emotions

As we pointed out, it forms the bulk of our communication. Most of that communication is about emotional information, which in turn is a powerful motivator in human behavior. We base our feelings and emotional responses not so much upon what another person says, but upon what another person does.

Nonverbal messages are seen as more reliable

Old folk saying: actions speak louder than words. Research bears this out. When verbal and nonverbal contradict, we tend to believe the nonverbal. For one thing, it is seen as being more difficult to fake. An experiment reported by Zuckerman, DePaulo, and Rosenthal ["Verbal and Nonverbal Communication of Deception," Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 14 (1981): 1-59] showed that virtually everything we use to discern if someone else is lying comes from the nonverbal realm or the paralanguage realm, with the bulk falling in nonverbal.

Because of nonverbal communication, you cannot not communicate

The very attempt to mask one's communication communicates something in and of itself. If you are playing poker with someone who has been talking normally, but who suddenly stops talking and goes "stone-faced," that person has communicated something. It may be a very good hand, or a very bad hand, but at the least the poker player has communicated a desire to hide what is there. Long periods of silence at the supper table communicate as clearly as any words that something may be wrong.

Nonverbal communication is strongly related to verbal communication

Nonverbal cues substitute for, contradict, emphasize, or regulate verbal messages.

For instance, if someone asks us which way the restroom is, we may simply point down the hall. We may compliment someone's new haircut while our faces give away the real feeling of dismay we have. We may describe a fish we caught with a motion of our hands to emphasize the monster-like proportions. And most certainly we regulate the flow of conversation nonverbally by raising an index finger, nodding and leaning forward, raising eyebrows, and/or changing eye contact.

Problems of studying nonverbal communication

Studying nonverbal communication presents a whole range of challenges that are unique to its nature. They include:

Nonverbal cues can be ambiguous

No dictionary can accurately classify them. Their meaning varies not only by culture and context, but by degree of intention, i.e., you may not be intending to communicate (in the absence of nerve disorders, people seldom talk out loud when they don't intend to). A random gesture may be assumed to have meaning when none at all was intended. Plus, some people who may feel emotion strongly nevertheless find that their bodies simply do not respond appropriately, i.e., someone who is feeling happy may not necessarily smile.

Nonverbal cues are continuous

This is practically related to the last point. It is possible to stop talking, but it is generally not possible to stop nonverbal cues. Also, spoken language has a structure that makes it easier to tell when a subject has changed, for instance, or to analyze its grammar. Nonverbal does not lend itself to this kind of analysis.

Nonverbal cues are multichannel

While watching someone's eyes, you may miss something significant in a hand gesture. Everything is happening at once, and therefore it may be confusing to try to keep up with everything. Most of us simply do not do so, at least not consciously. This has both advantages and disadvantages. Because we interpret nonverbal cues subconsciously and in a "right-brained", holistic fashion, it can happen quickly and fairly accurately. However, because it is not conscious and more "right-brained" it is difficult to put one's finger on exactly why one got a certain impression from someone, or even to put it into "left-brained" wording.

Nonverbal cues are culture-bound

Evidence suggests that humans of all cultures smile when happy and frown when unhappy [M. Argyle, Bodily Communication (New York: Methuen & Company, 1988)]. A few other gestures seem to be universal. However, most nonverbal symbols seem to be even further disconnected from any "essential meaning" than verbal symbols. Gestures seen as positive in one culture (like the thumbs-up gesture in the USA) may be seen as obscene in another culture.

Interpreting nonverbal cues

Mehrabian identified three primary dimensions for interpreting nonverbal cues.


Immediacy cues communicate liking and pleasure. We move toward persons and things we like and avoid or move away from those we dislike. Generally, we instinctively decide whether we like someone or not and then later find "reasons" to back up our feelings. We can summarize the nonverbal behaviors then by saying that cues that move or lean or otherwise open up or go toward the other person communicate liking.

Cues that fall in this dimension include eye contact, mutual eye contact, touching, leaning forward, and touching.


The label does not indicate anything sexual, although arguably such could be included in this dimension. Arousal in this usage is similar to animation. That is, when we are interested in communicating with someone else, we tend to be more animated. A flat tone of voice and very little movement indicate a lack of interest.

Cues that fall in this dimension include eye contact, varied vocal cues, animated facial expressions, leaning forward, movement in general.


These cues indicate something about the balance of power in a relationship. They communicate information about relative or perceived status, position, and importance.

For instance, a person of high status tends to have a relaxed body posture when interacting with a person of lower status. High-status people tend to have more space around them, such as bigger offices, and more "barriers" such as more hallways, doors, and gatekeepers such as secretaries.

Furniture, clothing, and location also tend to communicate in this dimension.

Improving nonverbal communiction

Check context

Don't try to interpret cues isolated from other such cues, from the verbal communication, or from the physical or emotional context. As we've said in class, someone's arms being crossed may indicate nothing more than physical discomfort from a cold room.

Look for clusters

This is the nonverbal context itself. See if the arms being crossed are accompanied by a resistance to eye contact and a flat tone of voice.

Consider past experience

We can more accurately interpret the behavior of people we know. For one thing, we notice changes in behavior more than the behavior itself. Unless we know someone, we can't know that something has changed. For another thing, we interpret patterns of behavior. Your mother may always cry when you come home from school with an A, and so you learn that this represent happiness in that particular situation.

Practice perception checking

This is basically the art of asking questions. For instance, you come home and announce to your significant other that you have received a great promotion that requires you to move to another state. Your announcement is met with silence. Rather than assume that s/he is upset, ask, "Does your silence mean that you're opposed to the move?" You may find out that s/he is simply stunned at the opportunity. Recognize that you are interpreting observed behavior, not reading a mind, and check out your observation.

For some insight into the way gender differences affect nonverbal communication, check Nonverbal Communication, Part 2.

Copyright © 1997 by Donnell King.

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