Nonverbal communication includes all aspects of communication minus the words. Whenever you’re not using words, you’re communicating nonverbally. Nonverbal communication is of two types:
Also called paralanguage, the vocal part of nonverbal communication includes the conversational aspects of communication minus the actual words, such as:
- Voice pitch
- Voice tone
- Talking speed
Also called body language, the nonvocal part of nonverbal communication includes everything we do with our bodies to communicate a message such as:
- Eye contact
- Facial expressions
Since verbal communication evolved much later than nonverbal communication, the latter comes to us more naturally. The majority of the meaning in communication is derived from nonverbal signals.1
We mostly give off nonverbal signals unconsciously, while most verbal communication is mostly deliberate. Therefore, nonverbal communication reveals the communicator’s actual emotional state because it’s difficult to fake.
Functions of nonverbal communication
Communication can be verbal, nonverbal, or a combination of both. Usually, it’s a combination of both.
This section will focus on the functions of nonverbal communication as a standalone and in combination with verbal communication.
Nonverbal communication can be used to complement verbal communication. What you say with words can be reinforced with nonverbal communication.
- Saying, “Get out!” while pointing at the door.
- Saying “Yes” while nodding head.
- Saying, “Please help me!” while folding hands.
If we remove the nonverbal aspects from the above messages, they may weaken. You’re more likely to believe that someone needs help when they fold their hands.
Sometimes nonverbal communication can be used to replace words. Some messages typically communicated using words can be transmitted solely via nonverbal signals.
- Winking at your crush instead of saying, “I like you.”
- Nodding head without saying “Yes”.
- Putting your index finger on your mouth instead of saying, “Keep quiet!”
Accenting is highlighting or emphasizing a part of the verbal message. This is usually done by changing how you say a word compared to other words in a sentence.
- Saying, “I LOVE it!” with a louder “love” shows that you genuinely love it.
- Saying “That’s brilliant!” in a sarcastic tone referring to something that isn’t brilliant.
- Using air quotes to emphasize part of the message you don’t like or disagree with.
Nonverbal signals can sometimes contradict verbal communication. Since we’re likely to believe a spoken message when nonverbal signals complement it, the contradictory nonverbal message gives us mixed signals.
This can lead to ambiguity and confusion. We tend to rely more on nonverbal signals to figure out the real meaning in these situations.2
- Saying “I’m okay” in an angry, passive-aggressive tone.
- Saying, “The presentation was fascinating” while yawning.
- Saying, “I’m confident this plan will work,” while crossing arms and looking down.
Nonverbal communication is used to regulate the flow of communication.
- Leaning forward to communicate interest and encourage the speaker to keep talking.
- Checking time or looking at the exit to communicate you want to leave the conversation.
- Nodding head quickly while the other person speaks, signaling them to hurry up or finish.
Words are powerful tools of influence, but so is nonverbal communication. Often, the way something is said is more important than what is said. And sometimes, not saying anything also carries meaning.
- Ignoring someone by not waving back at them when they wave to greet you.
- Deliberately concealing your nonverbal behavior so your emotions and intentions don’t leak out.
- Deceiving someone by faking nonverbal behavior like pretending to be sad by displaying sad facial expressions.
7. Communicating closeness
Through nonverbal behaviors, people communicate how close they are to others.
- Romantic partners who touch each other more have a closer relationship.
- Greeting others differently based on the closeness of the relationship. For instance, hugging family members while shaking hands with coworkers.
- Turning toward someone and making proper eye contact communicates closeness while turning away from them and avoiding eye contact shows emotional distance.
- Noller, P. (2006). Nonverbal Communication in Close Relationships.
- Hargie, O. (2021). Skilled interpersonal communication: Research, theory and practice. Routledge.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 400+ articles on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4.5 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.