Non-verbal communication refers to the significant amount of communication that takes place between people without using actual words.
It includes non-speech sounds like clearing the throat, or "ums" to express a variety of things such as embarrassment, hesitation or disagreement, or "clicks" such as “tut-tut”or “tsk-tsk” to express disapproval.
Teachers often make use of exaggeratedly raised eyebrows or remind students about the 3rd-person singular -s by lifting up three fingers to avoid interrupting the flow of a student's speech when correcting mistakes.
It can be either voluntary, as in the case of gestures or involuntary, as in the case of blushing.
What could be included in non-verbal communication?
The possible range of things which could be included in the broadest definition of "non-verbal communication" is larger than one might initially think. Some of the following will add to or perhaps emphasise what is actually being said, while other elements will simply communicate additional information about the individual.
- blowing (as a way to express exasperation or relief)
- breathing deeply
- coughing (as a way to express an opinion, attract attention)
- giving the finger (and multiple other obscene gestures)
- shrugging your shoulders
- tapping your fingers
- waving hello/goodbye
- hand shaking
- thumbs up/down and a vast range of other gestures, many of which will be culture specific.
It is well known that we can "make a statement" by the clothes we wear, but it is also likely that we provide information to our audience by means of other, more or less unconscious decisions as well.
- the clothes one wears - formal, informal, holiday
- not wearing certain garments: tie, suit
- length/colour of hair
If by non-verbal we mean "information which is not explicitly carried in the lexis" then we can include the following:
- choice of words used - the register or level of formality selected.
- use of stress such as contrastive stress
- speed of delivery
- tone of voice
- nervousness or confidence in delivery
It is interesting that English grammar does not give us any conventional way to realistically and consistently express much of the above in the written language. (Register/formality is an obvious exception.) Hence the use of emoticons, bold, italics etc., especially when communicating on-line and when the writer wishes to find some way to include emotional content.
Considering the above, it is possible that no hard and fast rule can be drawn between verbal and non-verbal communication as, at some level, they will be difficult to tease apart.
What can be communicated using non-verbal communication?
Given the above - incomplete - list of communication methods one can wonder what may be communicated non-verbally. While the oft-quoted "93% of all communication" figure is based on a misunderstanding of the research, it is clear that a large number of things can be communicated.
In the case of sign language and lip-reading one could argue that 100% of communication is potentially non-verbal. However given that these are specialised skills generally only learnt by those with some difficulty in using aural communication these are probably best considered to be special cases.
The majority of people therefore use non-verbal communication consciously to express concepts such as agreement and disagreement, pleasure, lack of knowledge, lust, numbers, boredom, formal welcomes, acknowledgement of a shared secret. Many of these would seem to be attempts to express some emotional state which it would be difficult or awkward to express in words.
Meanwhile, with our appearance we can express social status, political affiliation, likes and dislikes, attitude to social norms.
Involuntary communication would seem to be largely concerned with revealing our inner emotional state to others. It is in this area that most research seems to have been carried out and when there is a mismatch between these signals and the verbal content problems arise.
It seems possible that some people are more adept at reading these emotional cues than others; and that likewise some individuals are more adept at suppressing them than others.
While some sources erroneously put the figure as high as 93% of communication, the real figure is certainly much lower. The much-touted "93%" figure seems to have originally come from the work of Albert Mehrabian, and it specifically related to communications of feelings and attitudes.
However it seems that:
- he never used the figure 93% and
- was only interested in emotional content anyway,
As Chomsky points out, it is necessary to distinguish between communication and language. In his view language, strictly speaking, and which may be verbal or not, as in the case of sign language for the deaf, corresponds to a set of formal grammatical rules whereas comunication includes all aspects of human relationships.
Steven Pinker refers to the "irony of the telecommunications age" in that phones, emails and video-conferencing have made the need for face-to-face business meetings obsolete: "But meetings continue to be a major expense for corporations... Why do we insist on doing business in the flesh? Because we do not trust someone until we see what makes him sweat."
While many language teachers now accept that students need practice in skills other than those of a purely grammatical nature and therefore include exercises to make students more aware of linguistic aspects such as intonation, all too often they concentrate mainly on the traditional four skills of speaking and writing (productive skills) and listening and reading (receptive skills). A commonly-heard complaint and/or justification is that time is short and if they are to cover the syllabus they don't have time to include other aspects of language beyond the basics.
It is clear, however, that language cannot be separated from culture and as each culture and community has developed a series of coded behaviours which aid communication between its members - and often those of other communities, being aware of non-verbal cues helps students bridge the productive-receptive skills divide by connecting listening with speaking.
ESP courses which include teaching/practising areas such as presentation skills, negotiating and so on often include non-verbal communication.
- Roach, Peter. "English Phonetics and Phonology: Glossary" Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 8th October 2012.
- Neuliep, James W. Intercultural communication: a contextual approach (2009) Chapter 8: The nonverbal code ISBN 978-1-4129-6770-9
- Mehrabian, Albert Silent Messages (1981)
- 90% urban myth
- Myth-Information: Communication is 93% Nonverbal
- The Psychology of Language and Thought. Noam Chomsky interviewed by Robert W. Rieber
- Pinker, Steven How the mind works Penguin ISBN 0-140-24491-3
- Affective filter
- Body language conversation questions
- Cross-cultural differences
- Humour conversation questions
- Linguistic competence
- Linguistic performance
- Meetings conversation questions
- Phonetic symbol
- British Council "Non-verbal communication"
- Hartman, Neal A. "Nonverbal communication" MIT Sloan School of Management
- Goldin-Meadow, Susan et al "The natural order of events: How speakers of different languages represent events nonverbally" in PNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
- American Psychological Association "Gesturing helps grade-schoolers solve math problems"
- Amy Cuddy: "Your body language shapes who you are" at TED