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Disciplines > Communication > Theory > Signals

Words | Voice | Body | See also


When we communicate, we often need to tell the other person something, but the social context makes it difficult for us to speak outright about what we want to say. To compensate for this, we send signals. These may be done through words, voice and body language. Below are just some of the ways that signals are sent.


We send many signals through the words that we use (or do not use). Language is a fundamental system of communication and we are experts at using its subtle nuances to modify meaning and hence say things without saying them.


Qualifiers change how certain something is. When we use qualification in what we say, we send signals that we are not so sure about it or that we are open to discussion in this area. Qualifiers are thus invitations to the other person to question or comment on what has been said.

Most people here usually work to at least five o'clock.

I don't normally sell for much less than that.


When we leave something out from what we say we are often sending signals about that omission, for example that the omitted item is not important or that it is too embarrassing to mention.

Omissions can be at the syntactic level, where for example a person is left out of a statement or where a judgement is made without mentioning the source of authority.

People here work late. (Which people? How late?)

Customers can afford things. (Which customers? What things? How much are they?)

It is not a good idea to do that. (Who says? Do what, exactly?)


Metaphor is a great way of saying something without saying it. Metaphors use similarity an alternative scenario to explain something in the real world.

I feel like I'm being attacked by a pack of rabid dogs!

Do you remember Captain Kirk and the Klingons? Just like that.


Using emphasis with individual words highlights their importance and, by implication, downplays the importance of other words. When emphasis is used with more than one word in a sentence or even a paragraph, these also chain together to form a key additional phrase.

You must remember to pay her.

Do you know if you can do this today.


The human voice adds additional dimensions to speech and can be used to send particular signals. In particular, any variation in the way anything is said can act as a signal.


Lowering of pitch makes a voice sound more masculine and can be used to signal authority. Modulation of pitch can be used to signal interest -- the reverse is also true: talking in a monotone can indicate boredom.


Speaking more loudly signals authority and dominance. It is typically used in battles for who is going to speak, where both the current speaker and the interrupter may have an duel of escalating to determine who keeps the baton.


Slowing down can be used to emphasize and make clear. When a person does not seem to understand, the speaker may repeat the words, only more slowly (and often louder, too). This can signal irritation.


Body Language is all about signals, and whilst we use words to send basic messages, our bodies constantly add signals about what we are really thinking.

Invading and touching

When the body is moved closer to the other person, in particular into their body space, then this usually signals either aggression or friendship. Touching other people sends signals of dominance or friendship.


The body is often used to point towards that which is of interest. If I want to leave, I may point towards the door. If I am interested in talking with somebody, I will point my body towards them (and conversely I may point away from those in whom I am not interested).


Most body language works through a set of clusters of movements that signal such as deception, readiness, relaxedness, etc.


Gestures are often deliberate actions and are used to send many signals, from rude insults to subtle pointers.

See also

Signalling in negotiation, Modifying meaning in language, Body Language


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