5.3 Functions of Nonverbal Communication

You learned that we use different types of nonverbal communication to express ideas, emotions, experiences, and thoughts. But what function does nonverbal communication serve as we communicate? Even though it’s not through words, nonverbal communication serves many purposes to help us communicate meanings with one another more effectively.

We use nonverbal communication to duplicate verbal communication, often in a way that is recognizable to most people within a particular cultural group. Obvious examples include a head-nod or a headshake to duplicate the verbal messages of yes or no. If someone asks if you want to go to a movie, you might verbally answer “yes” and at the same time nod your head. This accomplishes the goal of duplicating the verbal message with a nonverbal message. Interestingly, the head-nod is considered a “nearly universal indication of accord, agreement, and understanding” because the same muscle in the head-nod is the same one a baby uses to lower its head to accept milk from its mother’s breast (Givens). Researchers witnessed a two-year-old girl who was learning the duplication function of nonverbal communication and didn’t always get it right. When asked if she wanted something, her yes was shaking her head from side to side as if she was communicating no. However, her no was the same headshake, but it was accompanied by the verbal response “no.” So when she was two, she thought that the duplication was what made her answer no.

We use nonverbal communication to replace verbal communication. If someone asks you a question, instead of a verbal reply yes and a head-nod, you may choose to simply nod your head without the accompanying verbal message. When we replace verbal communication with nonverbal communication, we use nonverbal behaviors that are easily recognized by others such as a wave, head-nod, or headshake. This is why it was so confusing for others to understand the young girl in the example above when she simply shook her head in response to a question. This was cleared up when someone asked her if she wanted something to eat, and she shook her head. When she didn’t get food, she began to cry. This was the first clue that the replacing function of communication still needed to be learned. Consider how universal shaking the head from side to side is as an indicator of disbelief, disapproval, and negation. This nonverbal act is used by human babies to refuse food or drink; rhesus monkeys, baboons, bonnet macaques, and gorillas turn their faces sideways in aversion; and children born deaf/blind head shake to refuse objects or disapprove of touch (Givens).

We use nonverbal cues to complement verbal communication. If a friend tells you that she recently received a promotion and a pay raise, you can show your enthusiasm in a number of verbal and nonverbal ways. If you exclaim, “Wow, that’s great! I’m so happy for you!” while at the same time smiling and hugging your friend, you are using nonverbal communication to complement what you are saying. Unlike duplicating or replacing, nonverbal communication that complements cannot be used alone without the verbal message. If you simply smiled and hugged your friend without saying anything, the interpretation of that nonverbal communication would be more ambiguous than using it to complement your verbal message.

We use nonverbal communication to accent verbal communication. While nonverbal communication complements verbal communication, we also use it to accent verbal communication by emphasizing certain parts of the verbal message. For instance, you may be upset with a family member and state, “I’m very angry with you.” To accent this statement nonverbally, you might say, “I’m very angry with you,” placing your emphasis on the word very to demonstrate the magnitude of your anger. In this example, it is your tone of voice (paralanguage) that serves as the nonverbal communication that accents the message. Parents might tell their children to “come here.” If they point to the spot in front of them dramatically, they are accenting the here part of the verbal message.

We use nonverbal communication to regulate verbal communication. Generally, it is pretty easy for us to enter, maintain, and exit our interactions with others nonverbally. Rarely, if ever, would we approach a person and say, “I’m going to start a conversation with you now. Okay, let’s begin.” Instead, we might make eye contact, move closer to the person, or face the person directly—all nonverbal behaviors that indicate our desire to interact. Likewise, we do not generally end conversations by stating “I’m done talking to you now” unless there is a breakdown in the communication process. We are generally proficient in enacting nonverbal communication such as looking at our watch, looking in the direction we wish to go, or being silent to indicate an impending end in the conversation. When there is a breakdown in the nonverbal regulation of conversation, we may say something to the effect of “I really need to get going now.” In fact, we’ve seen one example where someone does not seem to pick up on the nonverbal cues about ending a phone conversation. Because of this inability to pick up on the nonverbal regulation cues, others have literally had to resort to saying, “Okay, I’m hanging up the phone right now” followed by actually hanging up the phone. In these instances, there was a breakdown in the use of nonverbal communication to regulate conversation.

We use nonverbal communication to contradict verbal communication. Imagine that you visit your boss’s office and she asks you how you’re enjoying a new work assignment. You may feel obligated to respond positively because it is your boss asking the question, even though you may not truly feel this way. However, your nonverbal communication may contradict your verbal message, indicating to your boss that you really do not enjoy the new work assignment. In this example, your nonverbal communication contradicts your verbal message and sends a mixed message to your boss. Research suggests that when verbal and nonverbal messages contradict one another, receivers often place greater value on the nonverbal communication as the more accurate message (Argyle et al.). One place this occurs frequently is in greeting sequences. You might say to your friend in passing, “How are you?” She might say “Fine” but have a sad tone to her voice. In this case, her nonverbal behaviors go against her verbal response. We are more likely to interpret the nonverbal communication in this situation than the verbal response.

We use nonverbal communication to mislead others. We can also use nonverbal communication to deceive, and often, we focus on a person’s nonverbal communication when trying to detect deception. Recall a time when someone asked your opinion of a new haircut. If you did not like it, you may have stated verbally that you liked the haircut and provided nonverbal communication to further mislead the person about how you really felt. Conversely, when we try to determine if someone is misleading us, we generally focus on the nonverbal communication of the other person. One study suggests that when we only use nonverbal communication to detect deception in others, 78% of lies and truths can be detected (Vrij et al.). However, other studies indicate that we are really not very effective at determining deceit in other people (Levine et al.) and that we are only accurate 45–70% of the time when trying to determine if someone is misleading us (Kalbfleisch et al.; Horchak et al.). When trying to detect deception, it is more effective to examine both verbal and nonverbal communication to see if they are consistent (Vrij et al.). Even further than this, Park et al. argue that people usually go beyond verbal and nonverbal communication and consider outsiders’ words, physical evidence, and the relationship over a longer period of time.

We use nonverbal communication to indicate relational standing (Mehrabian; Burgoon et al.; Le Poire et al.; Sallinen-Kuparinen et al.). Take a few moments today to observe the nonverbal communication of people you see in public areas. What can you determine about their relational standing from their nonverbal communication? For example, romantic partners tend to stand close to one another and touch one another frequently. On the other hand, acquaintances generally maintain greater distances and touch less than romantic partners. Those who hold higher social status often use more space when they interact with others. In the United States, it is generally acceptable for women in platonic relationships to embrace and be physically close, while males are often discouraged from doing so. Contrast this to many other nations where it is customary for males to greet each other with a kiss or a hug and hold hands as a symbol of friendship. We make many inferences about relational standing based on the nonverbal communication of those with whom we interact and observe. Imagine seeing a couple talking to each other across a small table. They both have faces that look upset, red eyes from crying, closed body positions, are leaning into each other, and are whispering emphatically. Upon seeing this, would you think they were having a breakup conversation?

We use nonverbal communication to demonstrate and maintain cultural norms. We’ve already shown that some nonverbal communication is universal, but the majority of nonverbal communication is culturally specific. For example, in US culture, people typically place high value on their personal space. In the US, people maintain far greater personal space than those in many other cultures. If you go to New York City, you might observe that any time someone accidentally touches you on the subway, he/she might apologize profusely for the violation of personal space. Cultural norms of anxiety and fear surrounding issues of crime and terrorism appear to cause people to be more sensitive to others in public spaces, highlighting the importance of culture and context.

A drawing full of different facial expressions.
This 1920s comic artist was practicing facial expressions; what do you think each one means? Image is in the public domain

If you go grocery shopping in China as a Westerner, you might be shocked that shoppers would ram their shopping carts into others’ carts when they wanted to move around them in the aisle. This is not an indication of rudeness but a cultural difference in the negotiation of space. You would need to adapt to using this new approach to personal space even though it carries a much different meaning in the US. Nonverbal cues such as touch, eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures are culturally specific and reflect and maintain the values and norms of the cultures in which they are used.

We use nonverbal communication to communicate emotions. While we can certainly tell people how we feel, we more frequently use nonverbal communication to express our emotions. Conversely, we tend to interpret emotions by examining nonverbal communication. For example, a friend may be feeling sad one day, and it is probably easy to tell this by her nonverbal communication. Not only may she be less talkative, but her shoulders may be slumped, and she may not smile. One study suggests that it is important to use and interpret nonverbal communication for emotional expression and, ultimately, relational attachment and satisfaction (Schachner et al.). Research also underscores the fact that people in close relationships have an easier time reading the nonverbal communication of emotion of their relational partners than those who aren’t as intimate. Likewise, those in close relationships can more often detect concealed emotions (Sternglanz and Depaulo).

Nonverbal Communication Summary

In this chapter, you have learned that we define nonverbal communication as any meaning shared through sounds, behaviors, and artifacts other than words. Some of the differences between verbal and nonverbal communication include the fact that verbal communication uses one channel, while nonverbal communication occurs through multiple channels simultaneously. As a result, verbal communication is distinct, while nonverbal communication is continuous. For the most part, nonverbal communication is enacted at an unconscious level, while we are almost always conscious of our verbal communication. Finally, some nonverbal communication is considered universal and recognizable by people all over the world, while verbal communication is exclusive to particular languages.

There are many types of nonverbal communication including kinesics, haptics, appearance-based, objects, artifacts, proxemics, environmental, chronemics, paralanguage, and silence. These types of nonverbal communication help us share meanings in our interactions.


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