Nonverbal elements account for a huge part of everyday communication. From someone’s posture to their tone, most of the information an individual conveys in a given situation doesn’t actually come from their words. By learning to recognize the nonverbal cues you send and receive, you can improve your communication with others.
What Is Nonverbal Communication?
Nonverbal communication includes all of the information people use to understand what others tell them — except for the words themselves. In fact, it’s one of the most popular methods of breaking down the different elements of communication. In terms of understanding information when someone presents it as a single word, for example, research found the importance of that information breaks down to 7 percent verbal, 38 percent tone, and 55 percent body language.
While many people quote as well as dispute this “7 percent rule,” it provides a good starting point for understanding the importance of nonverbal communication. Missed or misread nonverbal information can lead to interpersonal confusion and miscommunication.
Types of Nonverbal Communication
Many different types of nonverbal communication exist — and people often use them unconsciously when they convey a message to others. For example, a frown and a smile tell different stories about our emotional state and desire to engage.
Here’s an overview of six common types of nonverbal communication:
- Facial Expressions: Your facial expressions constantly transmit information about your mood to those around you — even before you start to speak. Unlike gestures and posture, which can mean different things in different cultures, certain facial expressions are universal. Happiness, fear, and sadness look the same in every culture.
- Gestures: While certain gestures, like waving or clapping, convey specific meanings, others may communicate more subtle messages. Glancing at your watch when talking to someone, for example, indicates you want the conversation to end while tapping your foot gives the impression of impatience. A gesture’s meaning also tends to relate to a specific culture. Making the “okay” sign with your hand may signal everything’s fine in the United States, for example, while it’s akin to flipping off someone in Brazil.
- Body Language: Your body language also tells those around you a lot of information before you interact. Closed body language, such as crossing your arms, suggests you don’t want anyone to approach you. If you slouch, you may unconsciously tell people you’re shy or tired. Body language can be one of the most subtle ways of conveying information you don’t even realize you’re sending.
- Eye Contact: Where you choose to look plays a central role in nonverbal communication. When someone doesn’t want to talk, for example, they tend to avoid focusing on the other person’s eyes and instead look pointedly around at other things. On the other hand, a person very interested in conversation often will make heavy eye contact with their conversational partner. How often you blink can even convey a message while you remain unaware of that communication.
- Proxemics: Proxemics is a fancy word for how far or close you stand from someone. It’s about how much personal space you need. Your culture heavily influences this because some cultures dismiss space between friends while other cultures require larger physical distances between participants in an interaction. How intimately you know a person may also dictate appropriate distances in some cultures. The typical distance between friends having a conversation can vary from 18 inches to four feet, depending on the culture of those involved. Regardless of culture, however, most people typically keep more distance between themselves and someone with which they feel less comfortable.
- Paralinguistics: Paralinguistics relates to someone’s tone of voice, speech volume, and inflection. Humans use these vocal effects to convey information all the time. It’s why some people understand sarcasm and others don’t. These vocal effects also make it possible for someone to say “I’m fine” and mean a variety of different things, depending on how they say those words. For example, that phrase could mean someone actually feels fine if they say it in an upbeat tone of voice. In contrast, it could mean they actually feel awful if they say it sadly or that they don’t want to have a discussion if they say it firmly or coldly.
Understanding Nonverbal Information
The different methods of conveying nonverbal information form a huge part of the story people tell others — whether they realize it or not. Your nonverbal communication can be subtle, complicated, and sometimes at odds with the words you use. By understanding the three C’s of nonverbal communication, you can more accurately interpret the information you receive from others. Here’s an overview of each:
- Context: Context includes all of the cultural and interpersonal background that runs under any conversation. It requires you to consider your current environment, the personal history of your conversation partner and yourself, as well as your respective social roles. For example, keeping an appropriate amount of space between you and your boss inside the office conveys respect. However, keeping the same distance between you and a close friend at a social event would suggest you’re uncomfortable with them.
- Clusters: Instead of fixating on a single gesture or nonverbal cue you see during a conversation, try looking at clusters of nonverbal information. A cluster might include a series of gestures combined with body language. This approach can help you build a better picture of what the other person wants to convey and prevent you from focusing too much on any single piece of nonverbal information.
- Congruence: Congruence also plays a key role in helping you understand nonverbal information. If a person’s body language doesn’t line up with the words they are using, that’s likely a clue suggesting you should respond somewhat differently. In many cases, this can mean they’re conveying other information below the surface of the conversation. If this happens with a friend, it may suggest you should dig deeper to understand what’s going on. A lack of congruence can provide a huge hint that all is not as it seems and you need to pay more attention to what your conversation partner says nonverbally.