Kinesics is the study of how we use body movement and facial expressions. We interpret a great deal of meaning through body movement, facial expressions, and eye contact. Many people believe they can easily interpret the meanings of body movements and facial expressions in others. The reality is that it is almost impossible to determine an exact meaning for gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact. Even so, we rely a great deal on kinesics to interpret and express meaning. We know that kinesics can communicate liking, social status, and even relational responsiveness (Mehrabian). Facial expressions are a primary method of sharing emotions and feelings (Ekman et al.). For example, imagine yourself at a party and you see someone across the room you are attracted to. What sort of nonverbal behaviors do you engage in to let that person know? Likewise, what nonverbal behaviors are you looking for from them to indicate that it’s safe to come over and introduce yourself? We are able to go through exchanges like this using only our nonverbal communication.
Haptics is the study of touch. Touch is the first type of nonverbal communication we experience as humans and is vital to our development and health (Dolin et al.). Those who don’t have positive touch in their lives are less healthy both mentally and physically than those who experience positive touch. We use touch to share feelings and relational meanings. Hugs, kisses, handshakes, or even playful roughhousing demonstrate relational meanings and indicate relational closeness. In Western society, touch is largely reserved for family and romantic relationships. Generally, girls and women in same-sex friendships have more liberty to express touch as part of the relationship than men in same-sex friendships.
However, despite these unfortunate social taboos, the need for touch is so strong that men are quite sophisticated at finding ways to incorporate this into their friendships in socially acceptable ways. One such example is wrestling among adolescent and young-adult males. Do you ever wonder why you don’t see as many women doing this? Perhaps it’s because wrestling is socially acceptable for men, whereas women are more likely to hug, hold hands, and sit touching one another. In contrast, an exchange student from Brazil recognized the differences in touch between cultures when arriving in the United States. She was surprised when someone hesitated to remove an eyelash from her face and apologized for touching her. In her country, no one would hesitate to do this act. She realized how much more physical touch is accepted and even expected in her culture.
Objects/artifacts/personal appearance are types of nonverbal communication we use on our bodies and surroundings to communicate meaning to others. Consider your preferences for hairstyle, clothing, jewelry, and automobiles as well as the way you maintain your body. Your choices express meanings to those around you about what you value and the image you wish to put forth. As with most communication, our choices for personal appearance, objects, and artifacts occur within cultural contexts and are interpreted in light of these contexts. Consider the recent trendiness and popularity of tattoos. While once associated primarily with prison and armed services, tattoos have become mainstream and are used to articulate a variety of personal, political, and cultural messages.
Proxemics is the study of our use of space to influence the ways we relate to others. It also demonstrates our relational standing with those around us (May). Edward Hall developed four categories of space we use in the US to form and maintain relationships. Intimate space consists of space that ranges from touch to eighteen inches. We use intimate space with those whom we are close (family members, close friends, and intimate partners). Intimate space is also the context for physical fighting and violence. Personal space ranges from eighteen inches to four feet and is reserved for most conversations with nonintimate others (friends and acquaintances). Social space extends from four to twelve feet and is used for small group interactions such as sitting around a dinner table with others or a group meeting. Public space extends beyond twelve feet and is most often used in public speaking situations. We use space to regulate our verbal communication and communicate relational and social meanings. A fun exercise to do is to go to a public space and observe people. Based on their use of the above categories of space, try to determine what type of relationship the people are in: romantic, family, or friends.
Our environments offer nonverbal communication through our use of spaces we occupy, like our homes, rooms, cars, or offices. Think of your home, room, automobile, or office space. What meanings can others perceive about you from these spaces? What meanings are you trying to send by how you keep them? Think about spaces you use frequently and the nonverbal meanings they have for you. Most educational institutions intentionally paint classrooms in dull colors. Why? Dull colors on walls have a calming effect, theoretically keeping students from being distracted by bright colors and excessive stimuli. Contrast the environment of a classroom to that of a fast-food restaurant. These establishments have bright colors and hard plastic seats and tables. The bright colors generate an upbeat environment, while the hard plastic seats are just uncomfortable enough to keep patrons from staying too long—remember, it’s fast food. People and cultures place different emphases on the use of space as a way to communicate nonverbally.
Chronemics is the study of how people use time. Are you someone who is always early or on time? Or are you someone who arrives late to most events? Levine believes our use of time communicates a variety of meanings to those around us. Think about the person you know who is most frequently late. How do you describe that person based on their use of time? Now think about someone else who is always on time. How do you describe that person? Is there a difference? If so, these differences are probably based on their use of time. In the US, we place high value on being on time and respond more positively to people who are punctual. But in many Arab and Latin American countries, time is used more loosely, and punctuality is not necessarily a goal to achieve. You may have heard the expression “Indian time” to refer to “the perception of time [that] is circular and flexible” (Harris and Shutiva). This is the belief that activities will commence when everyone is present and ready, not according to an arbitrary schedule based on a clock or calendar. Neither approach is better than the other, but the dissimilar uses of time can create misunderstandings among those from different cultural groups.
Paralanguage is the term we use to describe vocal qualities such as pitch, volume, inflection, rate of speech, and rhythm. While the types of nonverbal communication we’ve discussed so far are nonvocal, some nonverbal communication is actually vocal (noise is produced). How we say words often expresses greater meaning than the actual words themselves. Sarcasm and incongruence are two examples of this. The comedian Stephen Wright bases much of his comedy on his use of paralanguage. He frequently makes statements such as “I’m getting really excited” while using a monotone voice accompanied by a blank facial expression. The humor lies in the incongruency—his paralanguage and facial expression contradict his verbal message. Whenever you use sarcasm, your paralanguage is intended to contradict the verbal message you say. As professors, we have found that using sarcasm in the classroom can backfire when students do not pick up on our paralinguistic cues and focus primarily on the verbal message. We have learned to use sarcasm sparingly so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings.
You should now recognize the infinite combination of verbal and nonverbal messages we can share. When you think about it, it really is astonishing that we can communicate effectively at all. We engage in a continuous dance of communication where we try to stay in step with one another. With an understanding of the definition of nonverbal communication and the types of nonverbal communication, let’s consider the various functions nonverbal communication serves in helping us communicate.