4 Nonverbal Communication


When we think about communication, we most often focus on how we exchange information using words. While verbal communication is important, humans relied on nonverbal communication for thousands of years before we developed the capability to communicate with words. is a process of generating meaning using behavior other than words (Depaulo & Friedman, 1998). Rather than thinking of nonverbal communication as the opposite of or as separate from verbal communication, it’s more accurate to view them as operating side by side—as part of the same system.

The content and composition of verbal and nonverbal communication also differs. In terms of content, nonverbal communication tends to do the work of communicating emotions more than verbal. In terms of composition, although there are rules of grammar that structure our verbal communication, no such official guides govern our use of nonverbal signals. Likewise, there are not dictionaries and thesauruses of nonverbal communication like there are with verbal symbols. Finally, whereas we humans are unique in our capacity to abstract and transcend space and time using verbal symbols, we are not the only creatures that engage in nonverbal communication (Hargie, 2011).

These are just some of the characteristics that differentiate verbal communication from nonverbal, and in the remainder of this chapter, we will discuss in more detail the principles, functions, and types of nonverbal communication and conclude with some guidance on how to improve our nonverbal communication competence.

4.1 Principles and Functions of Nonverbal Communication

A channel is the sensory route on which a message travels. Verbal, or word-based, communication usually only relies on one channel, because spoken language is transmitted through sound and picked up by our ears, and text based communication is picked up by our eyes. All five of our senses, on the other hand, can take in nonverbal communication. Since most of our communication relies on visual and auditory channels, those will be the primary focus. But, we can also receive messages and generate meaning through touch, taste, and smell.To define further nonverbal communication, we need to distinguish between vocal and verbal aspects of communication. Verbal and nonverbal communication include both vocal and non-vocal elements. A vocal element of verbal communication is spoken words—for example, “Come back here.” A vocal element of nonverbal communication is (Qiang, 2013). Paralanguage is the vocalized but not verbal part of a spoken message, such as speaking rate, volume, and pitch. (In other words, paralanguage is everything that comes out of your throat as a sound, but is not a word.) Non-vocal elements of verbal communication include the use of unspoken symbols to convey meaning. Non-vocal elements of nonverbal communication include body language such as gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact. Gestures are non-vocal and nonverbal since most of them do not refer to a specific word like a written or signed symbol does.

Nonverbal Communication Conveys Important Information

You have probably heard that more meaning is generated from nonverbal communication than from verbal. Some studies have claimed that 90 percent of our meaning is derived from nonverbal signals, but more recent and reliable findings claim that it is closer to 65 percent (Guerrero & Floyd, 2006). We may rely more on nonverbal signals in situations where verbal and nonverbal messages conflict and in situations where emotional or relational communication is taking place (Hargie, 2011). For example, when someone asks a question and we are not sure about the “angle” they are taking, we may hone in on nonverbal cues to fill in the meaning. For example, the question “What are you doing tonight?” could mean any number of things, but we could rely on posture, tone of voice, and eye contact to see if the person is just curious, suspicious, or hinting that they would like company for the evening.

We also put more weight on nonverbal communication when determining a person’s credibility (Burgoon, Birk, & Pfau, 1990). For example, if a classmate delivers a speech in class and her verbal content seems well researched and unbiased, but her nonverbal communication is poor (her voice is monotone, she avoids eye contact, she fidgets), she will likely not be viewed as credible. Conversely, in some situations, verbal communication might carry more meaning than nonverbal. In interactions where information exchange is the focus, at a briefing at work, for example, verbal communication likely accounts for much more of the meaning generated. Despite this exception, a key principle of nonverbal communication is that it often takes on more meaning in interpersonal and/or emotional exchanges.

Nonverbal Communication Is More Involuntary than Verbal

We verbally communicate involuntarily in some instances (Porter, ten Brinke, & Wallace, 2012). These types of exclamations are often verbal responses to a surprising stimulus. For example, we say “owww!” when we stub our toe or scream “stop!” when we see someone heading toward danger. Involuntary nonverbal signals are much more common. Although most nonverbal communication is not completely involuntary, it is more below our consciousness than verbal communication. Therefore, it is more difficult to control.

The involuntary nature of much nonverbal communication makes it more difficult to control or “fake” (Porter, ten Brinke, & Wallace, 2012). For example, although you can consciously smile a little and shake hands with someone when you first see them, it is difficult to fake that you are “happy” to meet someone. Nonverbal communication leaks out in ways that expose our underlying thoughts or feelings. Spokespeople, lawyers, or other public representatives who are the “face” of a politician, celebrity, corporation, or organization must learn to control their facial expressions and other nonverbal communication so they can effectively convey the message of their employer or client without having their personal thoughts and feelings leak through. Poker players, therapists, police officers, doctors, teachers, and actors are also in professions that often require them to have more awareness of and control over their nonverbal communication.

Have you ever tried to conceal your surprise, suppress your anger, or act joyful even when you weren’t? Most people whose careers don’t involve conscious manipulation of nonverbal signals find it difficult to control or suppress them. While we can consciously decide to stop sending verbal messages, our nonverbal communication always has the potential of generating meaning for another person, whether we mean it to or not. The teenager who decides to shut out his dad and not communicate with him still sends a message with his “blank” stare (still a facial expression) and lack of movement (still a gesture). In this sense, nonverbal communication is “irrepressible” (Andersen, 1999).

Nonverbal Communication Is More Ambiguous

Man in a plaid shirt leaning against an outdoor post. He is winking.
Figure 4.1: Consider a wink as an example of ambiguous, nonverbal communication.

We know that the symbolic and abstract nature of language can lead to misunderstandings, but nonverbal communication is even more ambiguous (Neill, 2017). As with verbal communication, most of our nonverbal signals can be linked to multiple meanings, but unlike words, many nonverbal signals do not have any one specific meaning. If you have ever had someone wink at you and did not know why, you have probably experienced this uncertainty. Did they wink to express their affection for you, their pleasure with something you just did, or because you share some inside knowledge or joke?

Just as we look at context clues in a sentence or paragraph to derive meaning from a particular word, we can look for context clues in various sources of information like the physical environment, other nonverbal signals, or verbal communication to make sense of a particular nonverbal cue. Unlike verbal communication, however, nonverbal communication does not have explicit rules of grammar that bring structure, order, and agreed-on patterns of usage (Neill, 2017). Instead, we implicitly learn norms of nonverbal communication, which leads to greater variance. In general, we exhibit more idiosyncrasies in our usage of nonverbal communication than we do with verbal communication, which also increases the ambiguity of nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal Communication Is More Credible

Although we can rely on verbal communication to fill in the blanks sometimes left by nonverbal expressions, we often put more trust into what people do over what they say. This is especially true in times of stress or danger when our behaviors become more instinctual and we rely on older systems of thinking and acting that evolved before our ability to speak and write (Andersen, 1999). This innateness creates intuitive feelings about the genuineness of nonverbal communication, and this genuineness relates back to our earlier discussion about the sometimes involuntary and often subconscious nature of nonverbal communication. An example of the innateness of nonverbal signals can be found in children who have been blind since birth but still exhibit the same facial expressions as other children. In short, the involuntary or subconscious nature of nonverbal communication makes it less easy to fake, which makes it seem more honest and credible. We will learn more about the role that nonverbal communication plays in deception later in this chapter.

4.2 Functions of Nonverbal Communication

A primary function of nonverbal communication is to convey meaning by reinforcing, substituting for, or contradicting verbal communication. Nonverbal communication is also used to influence others and regulate conversational flow. Perhaps even more important are the ways in which nonverbal communication functions as a central part of relational communication and identity expression.

Nonverbal Communication Conveys Meaning

Nonverbal communication conveys meaning by reinforcing, substituting for, or contradicting verbal communication. As we’ve already learned, verbal and nonverbal communication are two parts of the same system that often work side by side, helping us generate meaning.

Photograph of a man holding a thumbs up gesture. Only his hand is in focus.
Figure 4.2: Hand gestures are helpful in reinforcing verbal communication.

In terms of reinforcing verbal communication, gestures can help describe a space or shape that another person is unfamiliar with in ways that words alone cannot. Gestures also reinforce basic meaning—for example, pointing to the door when you tell someone to leave. Facial expressions reinforce the emotional states we convey through verbal communication. For example, smiling while telling a funny story better conveys your emotions (Hargie, 2011). Vocal variation can help us emphasize a particular part of a message, which helps reinforce a word or sentence’s meaning. For example, saying, “How was your weekend?” conveys a different meaning than “How was your weekend?”

Nonverbal communication can substitute for verbal communication in a variety of ways. Nonverbal communication can convey a great deal of meaning when verbal communication is not effective because of language barriers. Language barriers are present when a person has not yet learned to speak or loses the ability to speak. For example, babies who have not yet developed language skills make facial expressions, at a few months old, that are similar to those of adults and therefore can generate meaning (Oster, Hegley, & Nagel, 1992). People who have developed language skills but cannot use them because they have temporarily or permanently lost them can still communicate nonverbally. Although it is always a good idea to learn some of the local language when you travel, gestures such as pointing or demonstrating the size or shape of something may suffice in basic interactions.

Nonverbal communication is also useful in a quiet situation where verbal communication would be disturbing; for example, you may use a gesture to signal to a friend that you are ready to leave the library. Crowded or loud places can also impede verbal communication and lead people to rely more on nonverbal messages (Krauss, Chen, & Chawla, 1996). Getting a server or bartender’s attention with a hand gesture is definitely more polite than yelling, “Hey you!” Finally, there are just times when we know it is better not to say something aloud. If you want to point out a person’s unusual outfit or signal to a friend that you think his or her date is a loser, you are probably more likely to do that nonverbally.

Last, nonverbal communication can convey meaning by contradicting verbal communication. As we learned earlier, we often perceive nonverbal communication to be more credible than verbal communication. This is especially true when we receive mixed messages, or messages in which verbal and nonverbal signals contradict each other. For example, a person may say, “You can’t do anything right!” in a mean tone but follow that up with a wink, which could indicate the person is teasing or joking. Mixed messages lead to uncertainty and confusion on the part of receivers, which leads us to look for more information to try to determine which message is more credible. If we are unable to resolve the discrepancy, we are likely to react negatively and potentially withdraw from the interaction (Hargie, 2011). Persistent mixed messages can lead to relational distress and hurt a person’s credibility in professional settings.

Nonverbal Communication Influences Others

Nonverbal communication can be used to influence people in a variety of ways, but the most common way is through deception (Vrij, Hartwig, & Granhag, 2019). Deception is typically thought of as the intentional act of altering information to influence another person, which means that it extends beyond lying to include concealing, omitting, or exaggerating information. While verbal communication is to blame for the content of the deception, nonverbal communication partners with the language through deceptive acts to be more convincing. Since most of us intuitively believe that nonverbal communication is more credible than verbal communication, we often intentionally try to control our nonverbal communication when we are engaging in deception. Likewise, we try to evaluate other people’s nonverbal communication to determine the veracity of their messages (Vrij, Hartwig, & Granhag, 2019). Students initially seem surprised when we discuss the prevalence of deception, but their surprise diminishes once they realize that deception is not always malevolent, mean, or hurtful. Deception obviously has negative connotations, but people engage in deception for many reasons (to excuse our own mistakes, be polite to others, or influence others’ behaviors or perceptions).

The fact that deception served an important evolutionary purpose helps explain its prevalence among humans today. Species that are capable of deception have a higher survival rate. Other animals engage in nonverbal deception that helps them attract mates, hide from predators, and trap prey (Andersen, 1999). To put it bluntly, the better at deception a creature is, the more likely it is to survive. So, over time, the humans that were better liars were the ones that got their genes passed on. However, the fact that lying played a part in our survival as a species does not give us a license to lie.

Aside from deception, we can use nonverbal communication to “take the edge off” a critical or unpleasant message in an attempt to influence the reaction of the other person. We can also use eye contact and proximity to get someone to move or leave an area. For example, hungry diners waiting to snag a first-come-first-serve table in a crowded restaurant send messages to the people who have already eaten and paid that it’s time to go. People on competition reality television shows like Survivor and Big Brother play what they have come to term a “social game.” The social aspects of the game involve the manipulation of verbal and nonverbal cues to send strategic messages about oneself in an attempt to influence others. Nonverbal cues such as length of conversational turn, volume, posture, touch, eye contact, and choices of clothing and accessories can become part of a player’s social game strategy. Although reality television is not a reflection of real life, people still engage in competition and strategically change their communication to influence others, making it important to be aware of how we nonverbally influence others and how they may try to influence us.

Nonverbal Communication Regulates Conversational Flow

Conversational interaction has been likened to a dance, where each person has to make moves and take turns without stepping on the other’s toes. Nonverbal communication helps us regulate our conversations so we do not end up constantly interrupting each other or waiting in awkward silences between speaker turns. Pitch, which is a part of vocalics, helps us cue others into our conversational intentions. A rising pitch typically indicates a question and a falling pitch indicates the end of a thought or the end of a conversational turn. We can also use a falling pitch to indicate closure, which can be very useful at the end of a speech to signal to the audience that you are finished, which cues the applause and prevents an awkward silence that the speaker ends up filling with “That’s it” or “Thank you.” We also signal our turn is coming to an end by stopping hand gestures and shifting our eye contact to the person who we think will speak next (Hargie, 2011). Conversely, we can “hold the floor” with nonverbal signals even when we are not exactly sure what we are going to say next. Repeating a hand gesture or using one or more verbal fillers can extend our turn even though we are not verbally communicating at the moment.

Nonverbal Communication Affects Relationships

To relate successfully to other people, we must possess some skill at encoding and decoding nonverbal communication. The nonverbal messages we send and receive influence our relationships in positive and negative ways and can work to bring people together or push them apart. Nonverbal communication in the form of tie signs, immediacy behaviors, and expressions of emotion are just three of many examples that illustrate how nonverbal communication affects our relationships.

Immediacy behaviors play a central role in bringing people together. Some scholars have identified them as the most important function of nonverbal communication (Andersen & Andersen, 2005). are verbal and nonverbal behaviors that lessen real or perceived physical and psychological distance between communicators and include things like smiling, nodding, making eye contact, and occasionally engaging in social, polite, or professional touch (Comadena, Hunt, & Simonds, 2007). Immediacy behaviors are a good way of creating rapport, or a friendly and positive connection between people. Skilled nonverbal communicators are more likely to be able to create rapport with others due to attention-getting expressiveness, warm initial greetings, and an ability to get “in tune” with others, which conveys empathy (Riggio, 1992). These skills are important to help initiate and maintain relationships.

While verbal communication is our primary tool for solving problems and providing detailed instructions, nonverbal communication is our primary tool for communicating emotions. This makes sense when we remember that nonverbal communication emerged before verbal communication and was the channel through which we expressed anger, fear, and love for thousands of years of human history (Andersen, 1999). Touch and facial expressions are two primary ways we express emotions nonverbally. Love is a primary emotion that we express nonverbally and that forms the basis of our close relationships. Although no single facial expression for love has been identified, it is expressed through prolonged eye contact, close interpersonal distances, increased touch, and increased time spent together, among other things. Given many people’s limited emotional vocabulary, nonverbal expressions of emotion are central to our relationships.

Nonverbal Communication Expresses Our Identities

Nonverbal communication expresses who we are. Our identities (the groups to which we belong, our cultures, our hobbies and interests, etc.) are conveyed nonverbally through the way we set up our living and working spaces, the clothes we wear, the way we carry ourselves, and the accents and tones of our voices (Canfield, 2002). Our physical bodies give others impressions about who we are, and some of these features are more under our control than others are. Height, for example, has been shown to influence how people are treated and perceived in various contexts. Our level of attractiveness also influences how we perceive ourselves and how people perceive us. Although we can temporarily alter our height or looks—for example, with different shoes or different color contact lenses—we can only permanently alter these features using more invasive and costly measures such as cosmetic surgery. We have more control over some other aspects of nonverbal communication in terms of how we communicate our identities. For example, the way we carry and present ourselves through posture, eye contact, and tone of voice can be altered to present ourselves as warm or distant depending on the context.

Aside from our physical body, , which are the objects and possessions that surround us, also communicate our identities. Examples of artifacts include our clothes, jewelry, and space decorations. In all the previous examples, implicit norms or explicit rules can affect how we nonverbally present ourselves. For example, in a particular workplace, it may be a norm (implicit) for people in management positions to dress casually, or it may be a rule (explicit) that different levels of employees wear different uniforms or follow particular dress codes. We can also use nonverbal communication to express identity characteristics that do not match up with who we actually think we are. Through changes to nonverbal signals, a capable person can try to appear helpless, a guilty person can try to appear innocent, or an uninformed person can try to appear credible.

4.3 Types of Nonverbal Communication

Just as verbal language is broken up into various categories, there are also different types of nonverbal communication. As we learn about each type of nonverbal signal, keep in mind that nonverbals often work in concert with each other, combining to repeat, modify, or contradict the verbal message being sent.


The word kinesics comes from the root word kinesis, which means “movement,” and refers to the study of hand, arm, body, and face movements (Harrigan, 2005). Specifically, this section will outline the use of gestures, head movements and posture, eye contact, and facial expressions as nonverbal communication.


There are three main types of gestures: adaptors, emblems, and illustrators (Andersen, 1999). are touching behaviors and movements that indicate internal states typically related to arousal or anxiety. Adaptors can be targeted toward the self, objects, or others. In regular social situations, adaptors result from uneasiness, anxiety, or a general sense that we are not in control of our surroundings. Many of us subconsciously click pens, shake our legs, or engage in other adaptors during classes, meetings, or while waiting as a way to do something with our excess energy. Public speaking students who watch video recordings of their speeches notice nonverbal adaptors that they did not know they used. In public speaking situations, people most commonly use self- or object-focused adaptors.

Photograph of a hand against a white background holding the OK hand sign.
Figure 4.3: The “OK” hand gesture is an example of an emblem.

are gestures that have a specific agreed-on meaning within a cultural context. A hitchhiker’s raised thumb, the “OK” sign with thumb and index finger connected in a circle with the other three fingers sticking up, and the raised middle finger are all examples of emblems that have an agreed-on meaning or meanings with a culture. Emblems can be still or in motion; for example, circling the index finger around at the side of your head says “He or she is crazy,” or rolling your hands repeatedly in front of you says “Move on.”

Head Movements and Posture

We group head movements and posture together because they are often both used to acknowledge others and communicate interest or attentiveness. In terms of head movements, a head nod is a universal sign of acknowledgement in cultures where the formal bow is no longer used as a greeting. In these cases, the head nod essentially serves as an abbreviated bow. An innate and universal head movement is the headshake back and forth to signal “no.” This nonverbal signal begins at birth, even before a baby has the ability to know that it has a corresponding meaning. Babies shake their head from side to side to reject their mother’s breast and later shake their head to reject attempts to spoon-feed (Pease & Pease, 2004). This biologically based movement then sticks with us to be a recognizable signal for “no.” We also move our head to indicate interest. For example, a head up typically indicates an engaged or neutral attitude, a head tilt indicates interest and is an innate submission gesture that exposes the neck and subconsciously makes people feel more trusting of us, and a head down signals a negative or aggressive attitude (Pease & Pease, 2004).

There are four general human postures: standing, sitting, squatting, and lying down (Hargie, 2011). Within each of these postures, there are many variations, and when combined with particular gestures or other nonverbal cues they can express many different meanings. Most of our communication occurs while we are standing or sitting. One interesting standing posture involves putting our hands on our hips and is a nonverbal cue that we use subconsciously to make us look bigger and show assertiveness. When the elbows are pointed out, this prevents others from getting past us as easily and is a sign of attempted dominance or a gesture that says we are ready for action. In terms of sitting, leaning back shows informality and indifference, straddling a chair is a sign of dominance (but also some insecurity because the person is protecting the vulnerable front part of his or her body), and leaning forward shows interest and attentiveness (Pease & Pease, 2004).

Eye Contact

We also communicate through eye behaviors, primarily eye contact (Glaeser & Paulus, 2015). While eye behaviors are often studied under the category of kinesics, they have their own branch of nonverbal studies called , which comes from the Latin word oculus, meaning “eye.” The face and eyes are the main point of focus during communication, and along with our ears, our eyes take in most of the communicative information around us. The saying “The eyes are the window to the soul” is actually accurate in terms of where people typically think others are “located,” which is right behind the eyes (Andersen, 1999). Certain eye behaviors have become tied to personality traits or emotional states, as illustrated in phrases like “hungry eyes,” “evil eyes,” and “bedroom eyes.”

Aside from regulating conversations, eye contact is also used to monitor interaction by taking in feedback and other nonverbal cues and to send information. Our eyes bring in the visual information we need to interpret people’s movements, gestures, and eye contact. A speaker can use his or her eye contact to determine if an audience is engaged, confused, or bored and then adapt his or her message accordingly. Our eyes also send information to others. People know not to interrupt when we are in deep thought because we naturally look away from others when we are processing information.

Making eye contact with others also communicates that we are paying attention and are interested in what another person is saying.

Facial Expressions

Our faces are the most expressive part of our bodies. Think of how photos are often intended to capture a particular expression “in a flash” to preserve for later viewing. Even though a photo is a snapshot in time, we can still interpret much meaning from a human face caught in a moment of expression, and basic facial expressions are recognizable by humans all over the world. Much research has supported the universality of a core group of facial expressions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. The first four are especially identifiable across cultures (Andersen, 1999). However, the triggers for these expressions and the cultural and social norms that influence their displays are still culturally diverse.

Since you are likely giving speeches in this class, let’s learn about the role of the face in public speaking. Facial expressions help set the emotional tone for a speech. In order to set a positive tone before you start speaking, briefly look at the audience and smile to communicate friendliness, openness, and confidence. Facial expressions communicate a range of emotions. They can be used to infer personality traits and make judgments about a speaker’s credibility and competence. Facial expressions can communicate that a speaker is tired, excited, angry, confused, frustrated, sad, confident, smug, shy, or bored. Even if you are not bored, for example, a slack face with little animation may lead an audience to think that you are bored with your own speech, which is not likely to motivate them to be interested. So make sure your facial expressions are communicating an emotion, mood, or personality trait that you think your audience will view favorably, and that will help you achieve your speech goals.


Think of how touch has the power to comfort someone in moment of sorrow when words alone cannot. This positive power of touch is countered by the potential for touch to be threatening because of its connection to sex and violence. To learn about the power of touch, we turn to , which refers to the study of communication by touch (Hannaford & Okamura, 2016). We probably get more explicit advice and instruction on how to use touch than any other form of nonverbal communication. A lack of nonverbal communication competence related to touch could have negative interpersonal consequences; for example, if we do not follow the advice we have been given about the importance of a firm handshake, a person might make negative judgments about our confidence or credibility. A lack of competence could have more dire negative consequences, including legal punishment, if we touch someone inappropriately (intentionally or unintentionally).

Touch is necessary for human social development, and it can be welcoming, threatening, or persuasive. Research projects have found that students evaluated a library and its staff more favorably if the librarian briefly touched the patron while returning his or her library card, that female restaurant servers received larger tips when they touched patrons, and that people were more likely to sign a petition when the petitioner touched them during their interaction (Andersen, 1999). Conversely, casual touching can be interpreted as demeaning or sexist, especially when crossing genders, generations or cultures.


We learned earlier that paralanguage refers to the vocalized but nonverbal parts of a message. is the study of paralanguage, which includes the vocal qualities that go along with verbal messages, such as pitch, volume, rate, vocal quality, and verbal fillers (Andersen, 1999).

Pitch helps convey meaning, regulate conversational flow, and communicate the intensity of a message. Even babies recognize a sentence with a higher pitched ending as a question. We also learn that greetings have a rising emphasis and farewells have falling emphasis. Of course, no one ever tells us these things explicitly; we learn them through observation and practice. We do not notice some more subtle and/or complex patterns of paralanguage involving pitch until we are older. Children, for example, have a difficult time perceiving sarcasm, which is usually conveyed through paralinguistic characteristics like pitch and tone rather than the actual words being spoken. Adults with lower than average intelligence and children have difficulty reading sarcasm in another person’s voice and instead may interpret literally what they say (Andersen, 1999).

Paralanguage provides important context for the verbal content of speech. For example, volume helps communicate intensity. A louder voice is usually thought of as more intense, although a soft voice combined with a certain tone and facial expression can be just as intense. We typically adjust our volume based on our setting, the distance between people, and the relationship. In our age of computer-mediated communication, TYPING IN ALL CAPS is equated with yelling. A voice at a low volume or a whisper can be very appropriate when sending a covert message or flirting with a romantic partner, but it would not enhance a person’s credibility if used during a professional presentation.

Speaking rate refers to how fast or slow a person speaks and can lead others to form impressions about our emotional state, credibility, and intelligence and is situated within cultures. As with volume, variations in speaking rate can interfere with the ability of others to receive and understand verbal messages. A slow speaker could bore others and lead their attention to wander. A fast speaker may be difficult to follow, and the fast delivery can actually distract from the message. Speaking a little faster than the normal 120–150 words a minute, however, can be beneficial, as people tend to find speakers whose rate is above average more credible and intelligent (Buller & Burgoon, 1986). When speaking at a faster-than-normal rate, it is important that a speaker also clearly articulate and pronounce his or her words. The following is a review of the various communicative functions of vocalics:

  • Repetition. Vocalic cues reinforce other verbal and nonverbal cues (e.g., saying, “I’m not sure” with an uncertain tone).
  • Complementing. Vocalic cues elaborate on or modify verbal and nonverbal meaning (e.g., the pitch and volume used to say “I love sweet potatoes” would add context to the meaning of the sentence, such as the degree to which the person loves sweet potatoes or the use of sarcasm).
  • Accenting. Vocalic cues allow us to emphasize particular parts of a message, which helps determine meaning (e.g., “She is my friend,” or “She is my friend,” or “She is my friend”).
  • Substituting. Vocalic cues can take the place of other verbal or nonverbal cues (e.g., saying, “uh huh” instead of “I am listening and understand what you’re saying”).
  • Regulating. Vocalic cues help regulate the flow of conversations (e.g., falling pitch and slowing rate of speaking usually indicate the end of a speaking turn).
  • Contradicting. Vocalic cues may contradict other verbal or nonverbal signals (e.g., a person could say, “I’m fine” in a quick, short tone that indicates otherwise).


refers to the study of how space and distance influence communication (Hall, 1968). We only need look at the ways in which space shows up in common metaphors to see that space, communication, and relationships are closely related. For example, when we are content with and attracted to someone, we say we are “close” to him or her. When we lose connection with someone, we may say he or she is “distant.” In general, space influences how people communicate and behave.

Proxemic Distances

We all have varying definitions of what our “personal space” is, and these definitions are contextual and depend on the situation and the relationship (Hall, 1968). Although our bubbles are invisible, people are socialized into the norms of personal space within their cultural group. Scholars have identified four zones for Americans.

Public Space

Graphic of two women 12+ feet apart. Titled public space.
Figure 4.4: Public space.

Public space starts about twelve feet from a person and extends out from there. It is formal and not intimate (Hall, 1968). This is the least personal of the four zones. It would typically be used when a person is engaging in a formal speech and is removed from the audience to allow the audience to see or when a high profile or powerful person like a celebrity or executive maintains such a distance as a sign of power or for safety and security reasons.

Social Space

Graphic of two women 4-12 feet apart. Titled social space.
Figure 4.5: Social space.

Communication that occurs in the social zone, which is four to twelve feet away from our body, is typically in the context of a professional or casual interaction, but not intimate or public (Hall, 1968). This distance is preferred in many professional settings because it reduces the suspicion of any impropriety. The expression “keep someone at an arm’s length” means that someone is kept out of the personal space and kept in the social/professional space. If two people held up their arms and stood so just the tips of their fingers were touching, they would be around four feet away from each other, which is perceived as a safe distance because the possibility for intentional or unintentional touching does not exist. It is also possible to have people in the outer portion of our social zone but not feel obligated to interact with them, but when people come much closer than six feet to us then we often feel obligated to acknowledge their presence.

Personal Space

Graphic of two women 0-4 feet apart. Titled personal space.
Figure 4.6: Personal space.

Personal and intimate zones refer to the space that starts at our physical body and extends four feet (Hall, 1968).These zones are reserved for friends, close acquaintances, and significant others. Much of our communication occurs in the personal zone, which is what we typically think of as our “personal space bubble” and extends from 1.5 feet to 4 feet away from our body. Even though we are getting closer to the physical body of another person, we may use verbal communication at this point to signal that our presence in this zone is friendly and not intimate. Even people who know each other could be uncomfortable spending too much time in this zone unnecessarily.

Intimate Space

Graphic of two women 0-1.5 feet apart. Titled intimate space.
Figure 4.7: Intimate space.

As we breach the invisible line that is 1.5 feet from our body, we enter the intimate zone, which is reserved for only the closest friends, family, and romantic/intimate partners (Hall, 1968). It is impossible to ignore completely people when they are in this space, even if we are trying to pretend that we are ignoring them. A breach of this space can be comforting in some contexts and annoying or frightening in others. We need regular human contact that is not just verbal but also physical. We have already discussed the importance of touch in nonverbal communication, and in order for that much-needed touch to occur, people have to enter our intimate space.

So what happens when our space is violated? Although these zones are well established in research for personal space preferences of Americans, individuals vary in terms of their reactions to people entering certain zones, and determining what constitutes a “violation” of space is subjective and contextual. For example, another person’s presence in our social or public zones does not typically arouse suspicion or negative physical or communicative reactions, but it could in some situations or with certain people. However, many situations lead to our personal and intimate space being breached by others against our will, and these breaches are more likely to be upsetting, even when they are expected.

We have all had to get into a crowded elevator or wait in a long line. In such situations, we may rely on some verbal communication to reduce immediacy and indicate that we are not interested in closeness and are aware that a breach has occurred. People make comments about the crowd, saying, “We’re really packed in here like sardines,” or use humor to indicate that they are pleasant and well-adjusted and uncomfortable with the breach like any “normal” person would be. Interestingly, as we will learn in our discussion of territoriality, we do not often use verbal communication to defend our personal space during regular interactions. Instead, we rely on nonverbal communication (like moving, crossing our arms, or avoiding eye contact) to deal with breaches of space.


refers to the study of how time affects communication. Personal time refers to the ways in which individuals experience time (Bruneau, 2011). The way we experience time varies based on our mood, our interest level, and other factors. Think about how quickly time passes when you are interested in and therefore engaged in something. People with past-time orientations may want to reminisce about the past, reunite with old friends, and put considerable time into preserving memories and keepsakes in scrapbooks and photo albums. People with future-time orientations may spend the same amount of time making career and personal plans, writing out to-do lists, or researching future vacations, potential retirement spots, or what book they are going to read next.

Physical time refers to the fixed cycles of days, years, and seasons. Physical time, especially seasons, can affect our mood and psychological states. Some people experience seasonal affective disorder that leads them to experience emotional distress and anxiety during the changes of seasons, primarily from warm and bright to dark and cold (summer to fall and winter).

Cultural time refers to how large groups of people view time. Polychronic people do not view time as a linear progression that needs to be divided into small units and scheduled in advance. Polychronic people keep schedules that are more flexible and may engage in several activities at once. Monochronic people tend to schedule their time more rigidly and do one thing at a time. A polychronic or monochronic orientation to time influences our social realities and how we interact with others.

Additionally, the way we use time depends in some ways on our status. For example, doctors can make their patients wait for extended periods of time, and executives and celebrities may run consistently behind schedule, making others wait for them. Promptness and the amount of time that is socially acceptable for lateness and waiting varies among individuals and contexts. Chronemics also covers the amount of time we spend talking. We have already learned that conversational turns and turn-taking patterns are influenced by social norms and help our conversations progress. We all know how annoying it can be when a person dominates a conversation or when we cannot get a person to contribute anything.

Personal Presentation and Environment

Personal presentation involves two components: our physical characteristics and the artifacts with which we adorn and surround ourselves. Physical characteristics include body shape, height, weight, attractiveness, and other physical features of our bodies. We do not have as much control over how these nonverbal cues are encoded as we do with many other aspects of nonverbal communication. Although ideals of attractiveness vary among cultures and individuals, research consistently indicates that people who are deemed attractive based on physical characteristics have distinct advantages in many aspects of life. This fact, along with media images that project often unrealistic ideals of beauty, have contributed to booming health and beauty, dieting, gym, and plastic surgery industries.

Have you ever tried to change your “look?” An example might be big changes in how you present yourself in terms of clothing and accessories. A younger version of you in high school might embrace wearing clothes from the local thrift store daily. Of course, most of them were older clothes, so you were going for a “retro” look, which that might suit you at that age. Later in the last years of college, you might as if you are entering a new stage of adulthood, so you might start wearing business-casual clothes to school every day, embracing the “dress for the job you want” philosophy. In both cases, these changes will definitely affect how others perceived you Television programs like What Not to Wear seek to show the power of wardrobe and personal style changes in how people communicate with others.

4.4 Nonverbal Communication Competence

As we age, we internalize social and cultural norms related to sending (encoding) and interpreting (decoding) nonverbal communication. In terms of sending, the tendency of children to send unmonitored nonverbal signals reduces as we get older and begin to monitor and perhaps censor or mask them (Andersen, 1999). Likewise, as we become communicators that are more experienced we tend to think that we become better at interpreting nonverbal messages. In this section, we will discuss some strategies for effectively encoding and decoding nonverbal messages. As we have already learned, we receive little, if any, official instruction in nonverbal communication, but you can think of this chapter as a training manual to help improve your own nonverbal communication competence. As with all aspects of communication, improving your nonverbal communication takes commitment and continued effort.

Guidelines for Sending Nonverbal Messages

First impressions matter. Nonverbal cues account for much of the content from which we form initial impressions, so it is important to know that people make judgments about our identities and skills after only brief exposure. Our competence regarding and awareness of nonverbal communication can help determine how an interaction will proceed and, in fact, whether it will take place at all. People who are skilled at encoding nonverbal messages are more favorably evaluated after initial encounters. This is likely due to the fact that people who are more nonverbally expressive are also more attention getting and engaging and make people feel more welcome and warm due to increased immediacy behaviors, all of which enhance perceptions of charisma.

Nonverbal Communication is Multichannel

Be aware of the multichannel nature of nonverbal communication. We rarely send a nonverbal message in isolation. For example, a posture may be combined with a touch or eye behavior to create what is called a nonverbal cluster (Pease & Pease, 2004). Nonverbal congruence refers to consistency among different nonverbal expressions within a cluster. Congruent nonverbal communication is more credible and effective than ambiguous or conflicting nonverbal cues. Even though you may intend for your nonverbal messages to be congruent, they could still be decoded in a way that does not match up with your intent, especially since nonverbal expressions vary in terms of their degree of conscious encoding. In this sense, the multichannel nature of nonverbal communication creates the potential of both increased credibility and increased ambiguity.

Nonverbal Communication Affects Our Interactions

Nonverbal communication affects our own and others’ behaviors and communication. Changing our nonverbal signals can affect our thoughts and emotions. Knowing this allows us to have more control over the trajectory of our communication, possibly allowing us to intervene in a negative cycle. You might start to exhibit nonverbal clusters that signal frustration when you are waiting in line to get your driver’s license renewed and the man in front of you does not have his materials organized and is asking unnecessary questions.

You might cross your arms, a closing-off gesture, and combine that with wrapping your fingers tightly around one bicep and occasionally squeezing, which is a self-touch adaptor that results from anxiety and stress. The longer you stand like that, the more frustrated and defensive you will become, because that nonverbal cluster reinforces and heightens your feelings. Increased awareness about these cycles can help you make conscious moves to change your nonverbal communication and, subsequently, your cognitive and emotional states (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 1995).

Nonverbal Communication Regulates Conversations

The ability to encode appropriate turn-taking signals can help ensure that we can hold the floor when needed in a conversation or work our way into a conversation smoothly, without inappropriately interrupting someone or otherwise being seen as rude. People with nonverbal encoding competence are typically more “in control” of conversations. This regulating function can be useful in initial encounters when we are trying to learn more about another person and in situations where status differentials are present or compliance gaining or dominance are goals.

Even though verbal communication is most often used to interrupt another person, interruptions are still studied as a part of chronemics because it interferes with another person’s talk time. Instead of interrupting, you can use nonverbal signals like leaning in, increasing your eye contact, or using a brief gesture like subtly raising one hand or the index finger to signal to another person that you would like to take the floor.

Nonverbal Communication Relates to Listening

Part of being a good listener involves nonverbal-encoding competence, as nonverbal feedback in the form of head nods, eye contact, and posture can signal that a listener is paying attention and the speaker’s message is received and understood. Active listening, for example, combines good cognitive listening practices with outwardly visible cues that signal to others that we are listening. Listeners are expected to make more eye contact with the speaker than the speaker makes with them, so it is important to “listen with your eyes” by maintaining eye contact, which signals attentiveness. Listeners should also avoid distracting movements in the form of self, other, and object adaptors. Being a higher self-monitor can help you catch nonverbal signals that might signal that you are not listening, at which point you could consciously switch to more active listening signals.

Nonverbal Communication Relates to Impression Management

The nonverbal messages we encode also help us express our identities and play into impression management. Being able to control nonverbal expressions and competently encode them allows us to better manage our persona and project a desired self to others—for example, a self that is perceived as competent, socially attractive, and engaging. Being nonverbally expressive during initial interactions usually leads to impressions that are more favorable. So smiling, keeping an attentive posture, and offering a solid handshake help communicate confidence and enthusiasm that can be useful on a first date, during a job interview, when visiting family for the holidays, or when running into an acquaintance at the grocery store.

Guidelines for Interpreting Nonverbal Messages

We learn to decode or interpret nonverbal messages through practice and by internalizing social norms. Following the suggestions to become a better encoder of nonverbal communication will lead to better decoding competence through increased awareness. Since nonverbal communication is more ambiguous than verbal communication, we have to learn to interpret these cues as clusters within contexts. My favorite way to increase my knowledge about nonverbal communication is to engage in people watching. Just by consciously taking in the variety of nonverbal signals around us, we can build our awareness and occasionally be entertained. Skilled decoders of nonverbal messages are said to have nonverbal sensitivity, which, very similarly to skilled encoders, leads them to have larger social networks, be more popular, and exhibit less social anxiety (Riggio, 1992).

Recognize that Certain Nonverbal Signals are Related

The first guideline for decoding nonverbal signals is to recognize that certain nonverbal signals are related. Nonverbal rulebooks are not effective because they typically view a nonverbal signal in isolation, similar to how dictionaries separately list denotative definitions of words. To get a more nuanced understanding of the meaning behind nonverbal cues, we can look at them as progressive or layered. For example, people engaging in negative critical evaluation of a speaker may cross their legs, cross one arm over their stomach, and put the other arm up so the index finger is resting close to the eye while the chin rests on the thumb (Pease & Pease, 2004). A person would not likely perform all those signals simultaneously. Instead, he or she would likely start with one and then layer more cues on as the feelings intensified. If we notice that a person is starting to build related signals like the ones above onto one another, we might be able to intervene in the negative reaction that is building. Of course, as nonverbal cues are layered on, they may contradict other signals, in which case we can turn to context clues to aid our interpretation.

Read Nonverbal Cues in Context

We can gain insight into how to interpret nonverbal cues through personal contexts. People have idiosyncratic nonverbal behaviors, which create an individual context that varies with each person. Even though we generally fit into certain social and cultural patterns, some people deviate from those norms. For example, some cultures tend toward less touching and greater interpersonal distances during interactions. The United States falls into this general category, but there are people who were socialized into these norms who as individuals deviate from them and touch more and stand closer to others while conversing. As the idiosyncratic communicator inches toward his or her conversational partner, the partner may inch back to reestablish the interpersonal distance norm. Such deviations may lead people to misinterpret sexual or romantic interest or feel uncomfortable. While these actions could indicate such interest, they could also be idiosyncratic. As this example shows, these individual differences can increase the ambiguity of nonverbal communication, but when observed over a period of time, they can actually help us generate meaning.

Try to compare observed nonverbal cues to a person’s typical or baseline nonverbal behavior to help avoid misinterpretation. In some instances, it is impossible to know what sorts of individual nonverbal behaviors or idiosyncrasies people have because there is not a relational history. In such cases, we have to turn to our knowledge about specific types of nonverbal communication or draw from more general contextual knowledge.



Figure 4.1: Consider a wink as an example of ambiguous, nonverbal communication. Jonathan Safa. 2018. Unsplash license. https://unsplash.com/photos/ITH_dM_RQLk

Figure 4.2: Hand gestures are helpful in reinforcing verbal communication. Johan Godínez. 2020. Unsplash license. https://unsplash.com/photos/dDYRYivNzbI

Figure 4.3: The “OK” hand gesture is an example of an emblem. Elena Rabkina. 2020. Unsplash license. https://unsplash.com/photos/QH8aF3B0gYQ

Figure 4.4: Public space. Kindred Grey. 2022. CC BY 4.0. Includes Person by mungang kim from NounProject and Person by mungang kim from NounProject (both NounProject license).

Figure 4.5: Social space. Kindred Grey. 2022. CC BY 4.0. Includes Person by mungang kim from NounProject and Person by mungang kim from NounProject (both NounProject license).

Figure 4.6: Personal space. Kindred Grey. 2022. CC BY 4.0. Includes Person by mungang kim from NounProject and Person by mungang kim from NounProject (both NounProject license).

Figure 4.7: Intimate space. Kindred Grey. 2022. CC BY 4.0. Includes Person by mungang kim from NounProject and Person by mungang kim from NounProject (both NounProject license).

Section 4.1 and 4.2

Andersen, P. A. (1999). Nonverbal communication: Forms and functions. Mayfield.

Andersen, P. A., & Andersen, J. F. (2005). Measures of perceived nonverbal immediacy. In V. Manusov (Ed.), The sourcebook of nonverbal measures: Going beyond words (pp. 113-126). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Burgoon, J. K., Birk, T., & Pfau, M. (1990). Nonverbal behaviors, persuasion, and credibility. Human communication research, 17(1), 140-169. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1990.tb00229.x

Canfield, A. (2002). Body, identity and interaction: Interpreting nonverbal communication. Retrieved December 29, 2021 from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED473237.pdf

Comadena, M. E., Hunt, S. K., & Simonds, C. J. (2007). The effects of teacher clarity, nonverbal immediacy, and caring on student motivation, affective and cognitive learning. Communication Research Reports, 24(3), 241-248. https//doi.org/10.1080/08824090701446617

Depaulo, B. M., & Friedman, H. S. (1998). Nonverbal communication. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp. 3–40). McGraw-Hill.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. Routledge.

Krauss, R. M., Chen, Y., & Chawla, P. (1996). Nonverbal behavior and nonverbal communication: What do conversational hand gestures tell us? Advances in experimental social psychology, 28, 389-450. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60241-5

Neill, S. (2017). Classroom nonverbal communication. Routledge.

Oster, H., Hegley, D., & Nagel, L. (1992). Adult judgments and fine-grained analysis of infant facial expressions: Testing the validity of a priori coding formulas. Developmental Psychology, 28(6), 1115–1131. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.28.6.1115

Porter, S., ten Brinke, L. & Wallace, B. (2012). Secrets and lies: Involuntary leakage in deceptive facial expressions as a function of emotional intensity. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 36(1), 23–37. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-011-0120-7

Qiang, K. A. N. G. (2013). Paralanguage. Canadian Social Science, 9(6), 222-226. https://doi.org/10.3968/j.css.1923669720130906.3832

Riggio, R. E. (1992). Social interaction skills and nonverbal behavior. In R. S. Feldman (Ed.), Applications of nonverbal behavioral theories and research (pp. 3–30). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Vrij, A., Hartwig, M., & Granhag, P. A. (2019). Reading lies: Nonverbal communication and deception. Annual review of psychology, 70(1), 295-317. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-103135

Section 4.3

Andersen, P. A. (1999). Nonverbal communication: Forms and functions. Mayfield.

Bruneau, T. (2011). Chronemics and the verbal-nonverbal interface. In The relationship of verbal and nonverbal communication (pp. 101-118). De Gruyter Mouton. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110813098.101

Buller, D. B., & Burgoon, J. K. (1986). The effects of vocalics and nonverbal sensitivity on compliance. Human Communication Research, 13(1), 126–44.

Hall, E. T. (1968). Proxemics. Current Anthropology, 9(2), 83–95.

Glaeser, G., & Paulus, H. F. (2015). The language of our eyes. In The evolution of the eye (pp. 183-209). Springer, Cham.

Hannaford, B., & Okamura, A. M. (2016). Haptics. In Springer handbook of robotics (pp. 1063-1084). Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-32552-1_42

Harrigan, J. A. (2005). Proxemics, kinesics, and gaze. In J. A. Harrigan, R. Rosenthal, & K. R. Scherer (Eds.), The new handbook of methods in nonverbal behavior research (pp. 137–198). Oxford University Press.

Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2004). The definitive book of body language. Bantam.

Section 4.4

Andersen, P. A. (1999). Nonverbal communication: Forms and functions. Mayfield.

McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: Communication skills book (2nd ed.). New Harbinger Publications.

Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2004). The definitive book of body language. Bantam.

Riggio, R. E. (1992). Social interaction skills and nonverbal behavior. In R. S. Feldman (Ed.), Applications of nonverbal behavioral theories and research (pp. 3–30). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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