According to communication experts, a substantial portion of our communication is nonverbal. Every day, we respond to thousands on nonverbal cues and behaviours including postures, facial expression, eye gaze, gestures, and tone of voice. From our handshakes to our hairstyles, nonverbal details reveal who we are and impact how we relate to other people.
In many cases, we communicate information in nonverbal ways using groups of behaviours. For example, we might combine a frown with crossed arms and unblinking eye gaze to indicate disapproval.
(a) Facial Expression
Facial expressions are responsible for a huge proportion of nonverbal communication. Consider how much information can be conveyed with a smile or a frown. While nonverbal communication and behaviour can vary dramatically between cultures, the facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger and fear are similar throughout the world.
Deliberate movements and signals are an important way to communicate meaning without words. Common gestures include waving, pointing, and using fingers to indicate number amounts. Other gestures are arbitrary and related to culture.
Paralinguistic refers to vocal communication that is separate from actual language. This includes factors such as tone of voice, loudness, inflection and pitch. Consider the powerful effect that tone of voice can have on the meaning of a sentence. When said in a strong tone of voice, listeners might interpret approval and enthusiasm. The same words said in a hesitant tone of voice might convey disapproval and a lack of interest.
(d) Body Language and Posture
Posture and movement can also convey a great deal on information. Research on body language has grown significantly since the 1970’s, but popular media have focused on the over-interpretation of defensive postures, arm-crossing, and leg-crossing. While these nonverbal behaviours can indicate feelings and attitudes, research suggests that body language is far subtler and less definitive that previously believed.
Some interpretations of body language:
- Listening: Tilts head, makes eye contact, nods
- Evaluating: Chews on pencils/glasses, strokes chin, looks up and right
- Eager: Leans forward with feet under chair
- Bored: Stares into space, doodles
- Aggressive: Leans forward with fists clenched
- Rejection: Moves back with arms folded and head down, walks with hands in pocket
- Defensive: Clenches hands, stands, crosses arms on chest
- Lying: Looks down, shifts in seat, glances at you
- Anger: Clasps hands behind back
- Disbelief, doubt: Rubs eye
- Sincerity, openness: Offers open palm
- Confidence: Walks briskly with upright posture
- Authoritative: Steeples fingers
- Indecision: Pulls or tugs at ear
People often refer to their need for “personal space,” which is also an important type of nonverbal communication. The amount of distance we need and the amount of space we perceive as belonging to us is influenced by a number of factors including social norms, situational factors, personality characteristics and level of familiarity. For example, the amount of personal space needed when having a casual conversation with another person usually varies between 18 inches to four feet. On the other hand, the personal distance needed when speaking to a crowd of people is around 10 to 12 feet.
(f) Eye Gaze
Looking, staring and blinking can also be important nonverbal behaviours. When people encounter people or things that they like, the rate of blinking increases and pupils dilate. Looking at another person can indicate a range of emotions, including hostility, interest and attraction.
Communicating through touch is another important nonverbal behaviour. There has been a substantial amount of research on the importance of touch in infancy and early childhood. Harry Harlow’s classic monkey study demonstrated how the deprivation of touch and contact impedes development. Baby monkeys raised by wire mothers experienced permanent deficits in behaviour and social interaction. Touch can be used to communicate affection, familiarity, sympathy and other emotions.
Our choice of colour, clothing, hairstyles and other factors affecting appearance are also considered a means of nonverbal communication. Research on colour psychology has demonstrated that different colours can invoke different moods. Appearance can also alter physiological reactions, judgment and interpretations. Just think of all the subtle judgement you quickly make about someone based on his or her appearance. These first impressions are important, which is why experts suggest that job seekers dress appropriately for interviews with potential employers.
This brings us to the end of another month – starting next month we will be looking into Written Communication, where we will explore Business Correspondence, Organisational Skills, Planning and Writing Guidelines and the Characteristics of Effective Correspondence.
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