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Nonverbal Communication

According to some experts more than half of information conveyed in a conversation is communicated through nonverbal channels, although it can be subtle enough that we can't consciously tell how we convey or pick up those signals.

The two lists below summarize the strengths and limits of nonverbal communication. It sets a general mood, and can give a sense of someone's state of mind and heart. But it is less useful for communicating specific information (that's why humans invented language!).

Basic types of nonverbal communication

dancer image
  body motions / posture/ degree of tension and relaxation / synching

 deliberate movement

Some have particular meaning (such as three fingers for the number 3), others are more dance-like movements that accompany words.

Like other symbols, gestures may be symbolic (arbitrary) such as hitchhiker's thumb, or

iconic (imitates the thing it refers to), such as the "Shhh" finger in front of the lips.

  carry most of our nonverbal meanins. Culture and biology are integral parts . Similar across cultures are expressions for happiness, sadness, distress, fear, anger and surprise.

  Proxemics- distance between individuals.
Territory: marking space that belongs to you.

  critical for human survival. May be used for control, for teaching, for showing affection.

 presentation of self (clothing, decoration of space)

The Gaze

Gazing is learned so early, so deeply, that even when people have lived elsewhere for many years, their gaze patterns will usually be those of their birth culture. When do you look at people? For how long? If you look away, where do you look? How long to you maintain eye contact?

1) Part of cuing system for conversations: Whose turn it is to speak? How long should they talk?

2) Feedback--tells you if how the listener is responding to you, your message.

3) Powerful as a threat

4) Expresses affection (long gazes can have opposite meanings, depending on the context--staring down an enemy, adoring your new baby....)

Based on Argyle, "The Laws of Looking"

Limits to communicating non-verbally

Human beings invented language for a reason--if you try the silent day exercise, you will realize both how creative nonverbal communication can be AND how limited it is:
  • Is imprecise
  • Can't explain complex ideas
  • Hard to convey two things at once
  • Can't convey sarcasm (=contradiction between vocal tone and verbal words)
  • Only communicates for limited distances, and only in the present moment
  • Doesn't come across phone lines or in written text
  • Often cannot transmit factual information
  • Is open to multiple interpretations -- easy to misread
For a discussion of the advantages of nonverbal communication, see the page on NV communication in negotiations.

Reading nonverbal behavior

Single gestures or expressions rarely have a defined or predictable meaning, despite the popular books out there that tell you so. Especially if you don't know the person well or if you don't know the immediate context, a gesture is hard to decipher with certainty. For example, crossed arms can signal hostility, but they can also mean that the person is feeling cold, feeling superior, feeling defensive, or just has the habit of sitting that way.

A few nonverbal expressions of emotion are genetic rather than learned. You can rely somewhat on your reading of these cues despite differences in culture or personality: happiness (smiling), sadness, surprise, disgust, tiredness, and to some extent anger and fear. What you still can't tell for sure is WHY they are sad, mad, or afraid.

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