Chapter 4: Nonverbal Communication

4.3 Nonverbal Communication Functions

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the functions of our nonverbal communication.

Functions of Nonverbal Communication

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 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 our 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 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 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.

Nonverbal communication receives less attention than verbal communication as a part of our everyday lives. Learning more about nonverbal communication and becoming more aware of our own and others’ use of nonverbal cues can help us be better communicators.


Key Takeaways

  • Nonverbal behaviors work with verbal messages to create meaning.
  • Becoming more aware of nonverbal behaviors will increase our ability to communicate effectively with a wide range of people.



  1. Getting integrated: As was indicated earlier, research shows that instruction in nonverbal communication can lead people to make gains in their nonverbal communication competence. List some nonverbal skills that you think are important in each of the following contexts: academic, professional, personal, and civic.
  2. To understand how chronemics relates to nonverbal communication norms, answer the following questions: In what situations is it important to be early? In what situations can you arrive late? How long would you wait on someone you were meeting for a group project for a class? A date? A job interview?



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