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Non-Verbal communication and its impact in society

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“Nonverbal communication is a silent infiltrator, having broad influence over our social environment. It provides us with a mode for conveying messages without the use of verbal language.” (Dunn 1999) It is not what you say; it is the way you are sitting. Have you ever listened to someone and heard what he or she said, but felt puzzled for some unknown reason? If so, you probably were receiving nonverbal communication that was not consistent with the verbal communication. Personal behavior is critical in a person’s ability to communicate effectively. Both verbal and nonverbal communication is related and very important in our interactions with others. There are many types of non-verbal communication that can be used to contradict verbal messages, such as facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures and personal appearance. Observing and identifying behavior in verbal and nonverbal interactions of others can help increase a person’s ability to communicate more effectively.

Non-verbal communication is used so often that we actually forget that we are using it. It is defined as the basic above definition but unconsciously our minds are attuned to the posture and spatial distance between two or more people. It provides us with a means for conveying messages without the use of verbal language and also plays a role in the perception of the actual message we are trying to convey.

We do not realize how much we rely on non-verbal communication; the reason for this is due to the fact that most non-verbal communication transpires on a level that is below our conscious awareness. While many aspects of nonverbal communication are culturally specific, some, e.g. facial expressions and gestures, appear to have near universal levels of recognition. It is suggested that many more feelings and intentions are sent and received nonverbally than verbally. Non-verbal messages are also seen as more genuine because behavior can not be controlled as easily as spoken words. Perhaps the most common answer for why we use non-verbal communication so often is because words have limitations. It is seen as more effective to describe something non-verbally.

When communicating non-verbally, we tend to use much of our facial expressions to help communicate the message. The reason for this is because it is the most difficult to control. We make facial expressions so automatically that we barely realized what we’ve just communicated, e.g. there are 23 distinct eyebrow movements, each capable of stimulating a different meaning. If an ironic statement is made with a smile, the receiver knows to find it humorous instead of disconcerting. If we are sending a verbal message intending to deceive and avert our eyes the receiver knows we may be lying. Nervous facial expression hinders other’s perception of our competence and persuasiveness. Apart from our face, our hands are also very useful to help convey the message, for example waving to a friend as a means of saying “hi” or giving a high-five so to say “good on you.”

When we encounter people from other cultures, we may fail to understand them because of differences in language, values, gestures, emotional expression, norms, rituals, rules, expectations, family background, and life experiences. We usually think first about their spoken language but much communication between people is actually nonverbal, involving dress, ornaments, facial expressions, gestures, postures, and body positioning. There are cultural etiquette rules that are never taught to visitors, but visitors will be seen as very rude or perhaps even offensive if they behave in culturally inappropriate ways. Here are some examples:

Touching: In most Asian countries, young people tend not to display male-female contact in public – including no holding hands, no kissing and no hugging. American men rarely touch each other, except when shaking hands. Women touch each other somewhat more often, but with rare exceptions they do not walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm the way women in many countries do.

Eye Contact: In many western cultures direct eye contact signals honesty and directness, in other cultures it is a sign of rudeness. When talking to someone, Americans tend to alternate between looking briefly into the listener’s eyes and looking slightly away. When they are listening to another person, they look almost constantly at the speaker’s eyes. Particular behaviors may be appropriate in one place but not in another.

This leads to the issue of gender differences in non-verbal communication. It is argued that women smile more often. We think of the smile as a ‘natural’ response to good news, yet smiles (like nodding or saying ‘yes’) are also about pleasing others, being polite, and in some instances, being subservient. Despite its ‘naturalness’ the smile is gender specific, and culturally specific.

Among the many factors contributing to non-verbal communication are sending and receiving ability and accuracy. Non-verbal cues sometimes may provide clarity or contradiction for a message being sent.

As you can see from these observations, verbal and nonverbal communication is essential for effective communication, Person-Nelson, (2000, p. 104) states that contradiction occurs when your verbal and nonverbal messages conflict. This often happens because we are unaware of the relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication. A person’s spoken word gives one message, but a person’s nonverbal communication tells how one really feels. The most effective way to improve your nonverbal communication skills is to observe others and to be aware of your own nonverbal messages. It is important to remember that appearance and environment play a critical role in communication. To be effective and maintain effectiveness, your nonverbal messages must complement or reinforce your verbal messages. Your nonverbal messages cannot contradict what you say or the listener will place more emphasis on the nonverbal meaning. Most important, remember that nonverbal messages are different in every culture and each person within that culture will interpret nonverbal messages differently.

Citations Page


1. Marjorie Miller. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Jan 30, 2005. pg. I.34


2. http://clearinghouse.mwsc.edu/manuscripts/70.asp




January 1999

Book Source:

3. David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)


4. http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072560053/

Pearson-Nelson-Titsworth-Harter, (2003), Human Communication

WEB Source:

5. http://www.uwsp.edu/education/lkirby/Interpersonal/Nonverbal.htm

(Reliable source: Course information/Help Page for course on Interpersonal Relationships at University of Wisconsin.)

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