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Non-verbal Functions


Explanations > Understanding body language > Non-verbal Functions

Accenting | Moderating | Complementing | Substituting | Contradicting | Regulating | Repeating | Deceiving | So what?


What is the purpose of non-verbal communication? What effect can it have? Here are a number of different functions that it can perform.


Accenting is calling attention to a key part of the message. When you put an accent on it, you create emphasis, making the item stand out by amplifying it.


Stamping, increasing volume, moving forward, slowing down


Moderating is the opposite of accenting as it seeks to reduce attention, playing down a point by removing emphasis and distorting or attenuating it in various ways to make it more difficult to understand.


Reducing volume, speeding up, being incoherent


Complementing is similar to accenting, but covers a wider range of the message. It ensures all speech is paralleled by non-verbal communication that aligns with the what is being said.


When talking about sad things, lowering the head and using a sad tone;

When seeking to excite, being animated in body and voice


Substituting is the replacement of words with non-verbal language. There are times when non-verbal language is just better. Sometimes there are things that are best left unsaid. Sometimes the raising of an eyebrows speaks volumes.


'Shall we ... ?' (waggling eyebrows and grinning);

Stepping towards an aggressor into their private body space, with a stern expression


Contradicting is sending a non-verbal message that disagrees with what is being said. This can be done deliberately in order to confuse. It also may happen subconsciously when lying.


Saying no while gently nodding;

Saying 'I did not do it' while rubbing the nose and pulling at the collar


Non-verbal language can be used to send signals about speaking. A typical use is around starting and ending speech. It can also be used to regulate the speech of others, indicating that you want them to stop so you can speak (or perhaps that you want them to respond).


Breaking (or making) eye contact, or giving a final and firm nod, when you have finished speaking;

Raising eyebrows when you are about to start speaking


Repeating with non-verbal signals is like complementing or accenting, but with a delay between the verbal and non-verbal communication. This acts as a form of emphasis, as in other forms of repetition.


Saying no, then shaking head afterwards;

Asking for help and then, after a short delay during which they do not respond, raising eyebrows and saying 'mm?'


Non-verbal signals can be used as a part of lying or deceit. This takes careful control and it is easy send mixed messages which signal deceit. There are around 600 muscles in the body and it is impossible to consciously control many of these.


Saying you did not do it, while looking and sounding insulted at the accusation;

Getting someone to do something by acting excited (whilst not really being enthused)

So what?

See and interpret the different signals that others giving. Also notice and perhaps use your own for subtle purpose. Beware of partial usage that sends mixed messages.

See also

Amplification principle, Alignment principle, Repetition principle


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