Chapter 3

3.4 Functions of Nonverbal Communication

Department of Communication, Indiana State University

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We use verbal communication to express ideas, emotions, experiences, thoughts, objects, and people. But what functions does nonverbal communication serve as we communicate (Blumer, 1969)? Even though it’s not through words, nonverbal communication serves many functions to help us communicate meanings with one another more effectively.

  • We use nonverbal communication to repeat (duplicate) verbal communication. When we use nonverbal communication to duplicate, we use nonverbal communication that is recognizable to most people within a particular cultural group. Obvious examples include a head-nod or a head-shake 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, 2000). We 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 side to side as if she was communicating “no.” However, her “no” was the same head-shake but it was accompanied with 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 substitute for (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 head-shake. 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 side-to-side is 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, 2000).
  • 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 it, “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.

Nonverbal Communication and You: Nonverbal Communication and Romance

If you don’t think areas that Communication scholars study (like nonverbal communication) apply to you, think again! A quick search of nonverbal communication on Google will yield a great many sites devoted to translating nonverbal research into practical guides for your personal life. One example on Buzzfeed.com is the article “10 Things You Can Tell About Your Date Through Body Language” written by Reveal Calvin Klein (2014). The article outlines 10 nonverbal cues to read to see if someone is interested in you romantically. While we won’t vouch for the reliability of these types of pieces, they do show the relevance of studying areas like nonverbal communication in our personal lives.

 

  • 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 of which are 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 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, “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, Alkema & Gilmour, 1971). 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 or 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, Edward, Roberts, & Bull, 2000). However, other studies indicate that we are really not very effective at determining deceit in other people (Levine, Feeley & McCornack, 2005) and that we are only accurate 45% to 70% of the time when trying to determine if someone is misleading us (Kalbfleisch, 1992; Burgoon et al., 2004; Horchak, Giger, Pochwatko, 2014). When trying to detect deception, it is more effective to examine both verbal and nonverbal communication to see if they are consistent (Vrij, Akehurst, Soukara, & Bull, 2004). Even further than this, communication scholars argue that people usually go beyond verbal and nonverbal communication and consider what outsiders say physical evidence and the relationship over a longer period of time. Read further in this article if you want to learn more about body language and how to detect lies.
  • We use nonverbal communication to indicate relational standing (Mehrabian, 1981; Burgoon, Buller, Hale, & deTurck, 1984; Le Poire, Duggan, Shepard, & Burgoon, 2009; Sallinen-Kuparinen, 1992; Floyd & Erbert, 2003). 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 custom 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 looked 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”?

Case In Point: Eat Like a Lady

In Japan, it is considered improper for women to be shown with their mouths open in public. Not surprisingly, this makes it difficult to eat particular foods, such as hamburgers. So, in 2013, the Japenese Burger chain, Freshness Burger, developed a solution: the liberation wrapper. The wrapper, or mask, hides women’s mouths as they eat thus allowing them to maintain the expected gendered nonverbal behavior for the culture. This article from the Daily Mail has more information.

 

  • 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 United States culture, people typically place a high value on their personal space. In the United States, people maintain far greater personal space than those in many other cultures. If you go to New York City, you might observe that anytime 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.Contrast this example to norms in many Asian cultures where frequent touch in crowded public spaces goes unnoticed because space is not used in the same ways. For example, watch this short video of how space is used in China’s subway system. 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 U.S. 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.

Effective Nonverbal Communication

Now that we can see how important nonverbal communication is in the creation of shared meaning, lets discuss some ways to use and interpret nonverbal communication effectively:

  1. Consider the nonverbal behavior in context. The way we interact with our families is not the way we are expected to interact with our co-workers. We might hug our families as we greet them, but businesses will often have codes of conduct that discourage employees from touching one another. Even within the professional context, however, different nonverbal behavior expectations abound.  For example, if you watch a professional football game you may see the players slapping one another on the butt after a good play. It would be unusual, however, to see employees leave a meeting and slap one other on the hind end.
  2. Consider past experiences. If you have a history with the other(s), you may have learned what a nonverbal cue “means.” For example, you know what mom’s look means….”Stop it”! If we dont have a history with the other person, we can consider our past experiences to help guide our nonverbal behaviors. For example, each quarter when you start a new class you probably enter the classroom and sit at a desk that faces toward the front of the room. Students dont come in and arrange their books and paper on the big long desk in the front of the classroom, because past experience has taught us that that space is where the professor will be.
  3. Look for clusters of nonverbal cues. Nonverbal behaviors are best interpreted by paying attention to a variety of cues. Take a look at the person’s facial expression, listen to their tone of voice, and observe their crossed arms. All these cues combined are going to give you a better picture of the message being communicated.
  4. Check your perceptions. It is always a good idea to ask the other person about your perceptions. Even if it is someone we have a past experience with, things change, messages are sometimes complex and multilayered, and misunderstandings can develop if we dont check in and ask about our perception of their nonverbal cues.

  1. "4.5: Functions of Nonverbal Communication". Introduction to Public Communication. Department of Communication, Indiana State University. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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3.4 Functions of Nonverbal Communication by Department of Communication, Indiana State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.