Non-verbal communication refers to the significant amount of communication that takes place between people without using actual words.
It includes sounds like clearing the throat, or ums to express a variety of things such as embarrassment, hesitation or disagreement. Other important aspects are eye contact and body language in general and, more specifically, the facial expressions, gestures and postures that form part of one's culture and language.
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.
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 what is actually being said and other elements will simply communicate additional information about the individual.
A vast range of things which could be either voluntary or involuntary:
- 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
- thumbs up/down
- waving hello/goodbye
- pursing one's lips (as in irritation or disapproval)
- rolling your eyes
- unconscious expressions of surprise, anger etc.
- the clothes one wears - formal, informal, holiday
- not wearing clothes
- length 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
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 wished 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.
While some sources put the figure as high as 90% of communication, others are more cautious, and while acknowledging the importance of this kind of communication, put the figure lower. The much-touted "90%" figure seems to have originally come from the work of Albert Mehrabian, specifically related to communications of feelings and attitudes. However it seems that he never used the figure 90% and was only interested in emotional content anyway, leading to some people claiming that the 90% figure is an urban myth.
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.
- Affective filter
- Linguistic competence
- Linguistic performance
- Meetings conversation questions
- 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