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Non-verbal communication


Guest articles > Non-verbal communication


by: Aleksandra Arsik


The communication among the people can be roughly divided in verbal and non-verbal. The visual no-verbal communication is a process of communication through receiving messages, through gestures, body language, body posture, facial expression or eye contact, communication through clothes, hairstyles, architecture and symbols.

The speech can also contain non-verbal elements known as para-language, including voice quality, emotions or style of speech, as well as rhythm, intonation or stress. The written texts have non-verbal element, such as the handwriting style, spatial architectural design with words or usage of emotions.

Many studies of non-verbal communication are directed towards face-to-face interaction, where categorisation in three main areas is possible:

  1. Environment where the communication is ongoing,
  2. Physical characteristics of the communication and the ones that communicate, and
  3. Behaviour of the ones that communicate during the interaction.

Verbal vs oral communication

The experts in these area most commonly use the strict meaning of the term ”verbal” , which means that they are either ”worried because of the words” and do not use verbal communication, as a synonym on oral or speech communication. The sounds that are not considered words, such as the loud laughing or singing one tune are non-verbal.

The language and the writing are forms of verbal communication. In this group belongs the words usage, even though they have elements of para-linguism which very frequently transfer non-verbal messages. The non-verbal communication can reach any of the sensors’ channels: eyes, sound, smell, touch or taste. The non-verbal communication is important when we speak or hear: our attention is directed towards the words, as well as the body language. The audience receives both the verbal and the non-verbal signs. The body movements usually are not positive or negative when anylised only as gestures-the situation and the message will evalute them.

History of non-verbal communication

The first scientific study on the non-verbal communication was done by Charles Darwin in his book Expression of the emotions among the humans and the animals (1872). This study had significant influence in the linguistics, semiotics and the social psychology.

Even though the non-verbal communication is grounded on free symbols, that are different from culture to culture, Paul Ekman in the 1960’s was working in the analysis of the facial expressions, establishing whether the expression of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sorrow or surprise, that are universal among humans, are differently manifested and interpret in different countries.

Clothes and body characteristics

Clothes can speak about the temperament, mood, behaviour of an individual. The opinions about wearing cheap, expensive, cosy, casual, formal, elegant, stylish or old fashioned clothes say a little bit something about the one’s that is wearing them. On the other side, the uniforms have functional and communication purpose.

The posture, height, weight, hair colour, skin pigment, sex and the clothes transfer messages through interaction. For example, one survey on the height of the people has establishes that generally, a better first expression is made by the ones that are higher. Melamed and Bozionelos (1992) have studies a group of managers in the United Kingdom, where they have established that the height was a key factor, that influenced whether an employee would be promoted. Even though it is unjust, it can not be considered as a general truth.


The surrounding around us: furniture, architectural style, interior design, lighting, colours, temperature, noise and the music influence the behaviour of the communicators during the interaction. The furniture and the interior design in a particular room is also seen as a non-verbal message on the owners views, mood and social status.


Proxemy is a theory on the manner that people use and notice the physical space around them. The space between the sender and the recover of the message influences the manner that the message can be interpreted.

The perception and the usage of the space significantly varies in different cultures and in different views outside the culture. The space in the non-verbal communication can be divided in four main categories: intimate, social, personal and public. Scot McLean has defined the distance between the communications dependant on the sex, status and the social role.

The proxemy has also been notices among the animals that understand and implement the territory belonging. The term ‘theritory belonging’ is still used in the proxemy studies, in order to explain the human behaviour in relation to the personal space. Hargie and Dickson (2004) have identified four such theories.

1. Primary space: refers to the area related to someone that has exclusive rights on its usage. For example, a house in which others can not enter without a permission of the owner.

2. Secondary space: different from the primary space, in this case there in no ”right” of ownership, but the people still feel certain degree of ownership on particular space.

For example: A person can seat at the same place when driving in the bus towards work and to feel hurt if someone seats on his or her place.

3. Public territory: it refers to the territory available to everybody, but for a particular period of time. This is the case of parking lot usage, or library seat taking. Even though people have only limited right on the space, very frequently they are overstepping this right.

For example: it has been established that the people need more space to leave the parking place, when somebody is waiting to park on their space.

4. Interaction of the territory: this is the space created by the others when they are interactive or connected among themselves.

For example, when a group of people is chatting at the trim path and they interact with the ones that are only walking, the second ones will go round the first group without disturbing them.


Chroneme is the study of using the time in the non-verbal communication. The manner in which we notice the time, the structure of our time and the response to the time, is a strong tool for communication, that helps to establish communication scene. The perception time includes accuracy and readiness to wait, it influences the speech speed, as well as how much people are ready to listen. The time and the frequency of the action, as well as the tempo and the rhythm of communication in interaction, contribute towards the interpreting of the non-verbal message. Gudkunst and Ting Tomei (1988) have identified two dominant aspects in this process:

  • Monochronic time-range (M-time): The time is very important and it is characterised as per the linear pattern, where the emphasis is on the utilisation of the time schedules and naming. The time is observed as something that can be controlled or wasted by an individual, and people have tendency to do one time in a certain interval. The M-sample is usually present in North America and South Europe
  • Polychronic time-schedule (P-time): The personal involvement is more important that the schedule, the accent is on the personal relation, not whether it is delivered on time. The P-time is present in South America and the Middle East.


The cynetics is a study on the body movements, facial expressions and movements. It was developed by the anthropologist Ray Birdwistle in 1950’s. The cynetic behaviour includes mutual looking at each other, a smile, cosy warmness, childish behaviour, direct orientation of the body or similar. Cinema is the minimal unit of visual expression in analogy with the phoneme that is a minimal unit of the sound.

Body posture

The posture of the body can be used for the purpose of establishing the degree of attention, participation of particular communication, difference between the status of the ones that communicate, as well as the level of liking somebody. There are a lot of studies on the body posture influence among humans: the direction and the orientation of the body and the hands explain the position of openness of the body and the gestures, as well as the manner in which they transfer the non-verbal messages.

The gesture is vocal body movement, that can be articulated with the hands and the body. It can include head, face or eye movements. The border between the language and the gesture, or the verbal and the non-verbal communication, is sometimes difficult to define.

Otenhemer (2007), Paul Ekman and Ulak Friesen have suggested that the gestures are classified in five types: coats-of-arms or emblems, illustrator, visible reaction, regulators and adapters.

  1. he coats-of-arms: movements with direct verbal translation. Example: hallo and googbuy at the football stadium
  2. Illustrators : movements that describe movements of what has been verbally said, like the turning of an imaginary wheel while explaining how we were driving.
  3. Visible reaction: Gesture that manifest emission, for example, a smile.
  4. Regulators: Gestures that control the interaction.
  5. Adapter: gestures that release the body tension release, example-fast movement of the legs.

The gestures can be categorised as independent or conjoined speech. The speech independent from the movement, depends on the culturally accepted interpretations, and it has direct verbal translation. The speech connected with the movements is used in parallel with the verbal speech. This type of non-verbal communication is used to emphasize the message that we want to announce.


Haptic is the study of the touch in the non-verbal communication. The touch that can be defined as a communication includes hands shaking, holding hands, kissing, shoulder tapping, greeting or similar. The liking, scratching and holding can be categorized in this type of communication. All these are called adapters and are sending messages that discover the intention or the feeling of the communicator. The meaning depends on the situation context, i.e. the relation between the communicators and the manner of touching.


The studying of the role of the eyes is a non-verbal communication that sometimes is called “ocylistics”. The eye contact can signify interest, attention and inclusion. The sight encompasses a procedure of seeing while we speak, and we ask to be heard.


The paralanguage which is sometimes called vocalism is studying the non-verbal sounds of the voice. The various acoustic characteristics of the voice, like the tone, pitch of the voice, the accent, prosody, can be classified in non-verbal communicators. They change the meaning of the words.

The linguist George Trager has developed classification system that consists of set of the voice, voice quality and vocalization

  • The voice posed in the context where the speaker speaks. It can include condition, sex, mood, age and people.
  • The vocal characteristics are volume, tempo, rhythm, articulation, resonance, nasality and accent. They are unique for each individual.
  • The vocalisation consists of three parts: characteristics, qualification and segregates.

The function of the non-verbal communication

Agril (1988) has concluded that there are five primary functions of the body non-verbal communication

  1. Expression of the emotions;
  2. Expressing of the attitudes among the communicators;
  3. Following of the speech and the interaction among the speaker and the listener;
  4. Self-presentation of her or his personality;
  5. Rituals (congratulations)

When we communicate, the non-verbal message can communicate with the verbal messages in six different ways: repetition, collision, addendum, replacement and emphasizing/moderating.

Dancing is also a non-verbal communication that within the human brain seeks the same ground for conceptualization, creativity and verbal memory, the same as the language in the speech and the writing. The means of self-expressing in the language is the vocabulary (steps and gestures in the dance), the grammar (rules for the steps) and the meaning (the steps and the gestures in the dance), The dance encompasses the element in the manner that is similar to the poetry, which is more common it its double meanings and more symbolic and unreachable meanings.

Regardless of this short overview on the types and manners of non-verbal communication, there is still space in which every individual can and is understanding the non-verbal messages. Since the non-verbal communication is a live matter, it upgrades constantly and its thesis are being expanded.

As a conclusion on the above said, I can give one example on the historical point of view of one’s car ownership:

If in 1769 when the car was invented it was a rarity, exclusivity, today it is just a common means of transportation. The communication that was non-verbally transferred among the owners of cars in the 18-th century was that they are of a different kind, unique. This non-verbal message in respect to car owners in our days goes about the ones owning exclusive, expensive cars

The development of the non-verbal communication through the time frame can be noticed in the example of the possibilities to travel: just a couple of centuries ago, travelling was not available for the majority of the people and any venture was considered an elitism. Today, for almost most of the people, travelling is a common activity, depending on the wishes and the possibilities, and it is not considered as something unreachable (expect for the financial part).

Imagine how would our ancestors react when someone would drive them all around the world in the today’s cars, or what will be the expression of the face of any super model if offered to be driven with a car from the 18-th century, from ona village to another, on a 20 km distance, for only 5-6 hours, when she knows that she can be there in 10 minutes with the our age cars.

Regardless of all examples and the theoretical support of the non-verbal communication, it is always interesting to compare the developments in this sphere, as it remains a place that develops, regardless of the definitions and theories that are trying to explain it.


Contributor: Aleksandra Arsik

Published here on: 16-Dec-12

Classification: Communication


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