The word “nonverbal” is used to describe the many ways human beings communicate without overtly using words. Typically, this encompasses body movements (gestures, facial expressions, eye behavior, touching); body positioning (posture, distance from and alignment to others); and vocal behavior (rate, pitch, intensity). Sometimes physical (appearance) and environmental (architecture, design) features are also included.
The modern study of nonverbal communication has its roots in the second half of the twentieth century, but Greek rhetoricians discussed the use of body movements in persuasive speaking as far back as the fifth century bce. These ideas were refined and expanded in the writings of Roman rhetorical theorists and practitioners. This interest in the appropriateness and effectiveness of bodily behavior in the speech-making process waned during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but re-emerged as the heart of the elocution movement. From the middle of the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, elocutionists emphasized what they considered to be the proper use of the body in delivering speeches. They had little concern for studying naturally occurring behavior. Instead, they offered prescriptions for successful body movement and voice in speech-making, which led to more stylized and formal behavioral enactments.
Two landmark studies of spontaneous nonverbal behavior were completed during the ninteenth century – de Jorio’s descriptions of Neapolitan gestures and Darwin’s observations on facial expressions linked to emotional states. But it was not until the 1950s that the phrase “nonverbal communication” appeared in a book title, and several ongoing developments came together to forge the foundation for nonverbal studies as we know it today. In the decades preceding the 1950s, scholars from many disciplines developed an interest in the scientific study of communication. There was also a growing desire to understand the nuances of natural, face-to-face interaction, and the technology for recording and analyzing those behavioral nuances was becoming increasingly sophisticated. The convergence of these factors resulted in numerous theoretical perspectives and research programs. Birdwhistell explored the possibility that body movement had a structure that paralleled the structure of spoken language; Hall began mapping the organization and effects of space on human interaction; Rosenthal viewed nonverbal signals as a source of unconscious influence in various contexts; others were interested in nonverbal behavior as an outward manifestation of psychological states. Scholars also began to look for similarities in nonverbal behavior across cultures and species (e.g., nonhuman primates). Two broad approaches emerged from these early explorations and they remain with us today: one approach describes how nonverbal behavior manifests itself in the structure and organization of human interaction; the other manipulates selected behaviors (nonverbal and/or psychological) and observes the effects on human transactions. In both approaches, it is clear that nonverbal and verbal behavior are not separate entities, but co-acting units of a comprehensive communication system governing human transactions.
Interrelationships With Verbal Behavior
Verbal and nonverbal behavior interact and support one another in various ways. For example, the words “go north” can be reinforced and repeated with a pointing gesture that co-occurs or follows the verbalization.
Nonverbal behavior may also complement what is said verbally – e.g., a job interviewee who verbally expresses a desire to work for a company may also show his or her interest through positive facial and vocal expressions accompanied by an attentive, forwardleaning posture. When verbal and nonverbal behavior complement one another, this increases the possibility that a communicator’s intended message will be decoded accurately.
There are, however, many times when verbal and nonverbal behavior do not complement one another. Instead, they appear to be discrepant or at odds with one another, communicating different meanings. Sometimes this discrepancy is intentionally performed in order to signal an alternative meaning for the verbal behavior – e.g., a sarcastic vocal tone indicating the verbal message is a sham or a smile that accompanies the phrase “you’re a real loser,” indicating the statement was made in the context of play and should not be taken seriously. Comedians use discrepant cues to get laughs and being coy requires displays of both approach and avoidance. Physicians and teachers can effectively communicate serious concern by combining positive verbal behavior with negative facial expressions. Discrepant verbal and nonverbal behavior may also occur when people try to hide or mask their true feelings or attitudes. In such cases, actual feelings may overpower the masks, and facial, vocal, and bodily behavior will signal just the opposite of “I had a nice time” or “Of course I love you.” Because responses of this type can be ambiguous, there may be difficulty in accurately decoding. This can trigger a discrepant message in return. Sometimes discrepant messages are passed over or go unnoticed because the content is not perceived to be of great import. And sometimes subsequent conversation helps to resolve seemingly discordant behavior. Many of these discrepant messages occur during natural feelings of ambivalence – e.g., not being sure whether you like someone or not, or not wanting to tell the truth, but not wanting to lie either.
Typically, decoders tend to believe the meaning associated with signals perceived as harder to fake when choosing between discrepant verbal and nonverbal signals. Although verbal behavior is often perceived as easier to fake, those who are just beginning to learn a new language tend to give more credibility to the manifest verbal behavior.
Nonverbal behavior may also act as a substitute for verbal behavior. Without any verbal behavior, a person can signal a variety of short-term states (tired, playful, frustrated, sad, indifferent) and even some long-term conditions (gender, old age) with facial expressions and body movements.
The face, voice, and hands are particularly effective in accenting and moderating verbal behavior.
Nonverbal behavior also works with verbal behavior to coordinate and regulate interaction behavior. Speakers coordinate and organize the production of their own messages in a variety of ways – e.g., using gestural chops and pauses to demarcate a verbalized series of units. In addition, both interactants regulate the flow of interaction between them – coordinating greetings, goodbyes, and turns at talk. Nonverbal behavior, like verbal, is often reciprocated when it meets our relationship expectations and preferences and offset with counteracting behavior when it does not.
Awareness And Trust
Some nonverbal behavior is enacted without a great deal of conscious awareness, but this is not true of all nonverbal behavior. We may not be aware of certain nervous mannerisms we exhibit, some types of gestures we use, or the dilation of our pupils, but we are often very much aware of making gestures that are widely understood by our audience, many facial expressions of emotion, as well as the choosing of certain artifacts designed to affect our appearance. Our awareness of our interaction partner’s nonverbal behavior also varies. If there is a reason to be particularly observant (e.g., suspected lying), our awareness of the other’s nonverbal behavior is high; at other times our awareness of specific behaviors may be low even though the impression these behaviors collectively communicate is high – e.g., “It isn’t anything you’ve said, but I feel like I can trust you.” Nonverbal behavior plays a central role in judgments of another person’s honesty, status, trustworthiness, liking, and competence. As a result, its influence in applied settings cannot be underestimated – e.g., demeanor in the courtroom, at security checkpoints, in political speeches, cross-cultural and classroom encounters, and in personal and work relationships.
Our nonverbal behavior has both biological and cultural origins. For example, genes are responsible for how the facial muscles move when displaying various expressions of emotion, but culture teaches people whether and when to use certain facial displays, under what conditions they should be manifested, and how they should blend together (Culture: Definitions and Concepts). Studies of twins and nonhuman primates suggest that we may be biologically predisposed to assume certain postures and possibly to enact whole sequences of movement behavior. Some aspects of nonverbal encoding and decoding skills may also have a genetic link. Tests repeatedly show females, as a group, to be somewhat more accurate encoders and decoders of nonverbal signals than males.
Nonverbal behavior is typically measured in three ways: (1) with a specific instrument (e.g., machines that track eye movements or vocal variations); (2) by observers who make detailed recordings of visible behavior or use an extant coding scheme; and (3) by observers who make judgments about the meaning of one or more nonverbal stimuli. Our knowledge and measurement of nonverbal behavior is becoming increasingly more precise, and computer-assisted analyses enable the processing of more information in a shorter period of time. Recording equipment is increasingly portable and unobtrusive, providing an opportunity for a greater database of spontaneous nonverbal behavior in natural situations.
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