Nonverbal Communication

Verbal Communication


Importance of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is the use of gestures, facial expressions, and other non-audible expressions to transmit a message. Notice that this says "to transmit a message." It does not say "to transmit your message" or "to transmit your intended message." Frequently, people send conflicting verbal and nonverbal messages. When your nonverbal message conflicts with your verbal message the NONVERBAL message will be believed (actions speak louder than words). If you are not aware of, and do not attend to your nonverbal signals you could unintentionally send the wrong message.

There are additional explanations of the importance of nonverbal messages. In "Silent Messages," Dr. Albert Mehrabian analyzed the messages people send. He divided messages into three parts--verbal, vocal, and nonverbal. The verbal part includes the actual words we use in a message. The vocal part is the tone or inflection we place on those words. The entire message changes if we use a sarcastic tone rather than a sincere tone. The nonverbal part of the message includes the physical aspects--facial expressions, gestures, posture, eye contact -- that are used. Nonverbal communications are important because Dr. Mehrabian estimates that 7 percent of a message is verbal and 38 percent is vocal. That means that 55 percent is nonverbal, and it contributes to each message in a number of ways.

Function of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication can complement, repeat, contradict, regulate, replace, or accentuate our verbal and vocal messages.

Nonverbal cues complement a message by adding reinforcement to what is said. Nonverbal cues that complement a message would not convey the message if used alone. Complementary cues support the intended message. An example would be the distance between people. Generally, employees stand farther away from a boss than from a co-worker. Doing so does not convey much of a message by itself (especially if they are facing away from each other); but, when coupled with a friendly "Hello" in response to the boss's "Good morning", it does. It shows that you are responsive and respectful and that you are not challenging the boss's authority.

When a nonverbal cue adds to the verbal message, but could also stand alone, it is repeating the message. For example, if someone told you some gossip and you rolled your eyes as you said, "I don't believe it", you would be repeating your message. Either part could stand alone and still convey your disbelief.

Nonverbal messages can contradict verbal messages when they convey a meaning opposite to what is being said. A look of boredom or distraction while the boss discusses over lunch the finer points of bulk buying discounts and inventory control effectively negates comments like "How interesting!"

Nonverbal communication can regulate a conversation by controlling the course of the discussion. For instance, touching someone's arm can send a signal that you wish to speak or that you wish to interrupt.

Substitution occurs when the nonverbal message replaces the verbal. Once again, actions speak louder than words. Substitution occurs when a boss gives someone an unwanted assignment and, instead of refusing or verbally protesting, the person stares coldly at the boss for a few seconds before turning to perform the task.

Accenting differs from complementing in that accenting punctuates a part of a message, rather then lending general support to the entire message. Poking a finger into someone's chest is an example of accenting verbal communications.

These functions of nonverbal communication should be kept in mind as the types of nonverbal communication are discussed.

Types of Nonverbal Communication

Physical Characteristics

A person's physical characteristics have a large impact on communications because we are highly visual creatures and because visual data is the most immediate information we receive about someone. Think of all the people you know and compare that to the number of people on this planet. Of course, you know a very small percentage. However, you can instantly recognize a known face in a crowd. You may not know the person's name, but you will know if you have seen that person before. This is an amazing feat, considering that all faces are essentially the same (two eyes, a nose, a mouth, et cetera).

Although it is not always fair, it has been documented that people stereotype others based on immediate, visual impressions. It has been found that people respond more favorably to individuals who are attractive, clean, well groomed and well dressed. This has three applications for you. Remember this when applying for a job--many bosses make a major portion of the decision to hire a person based on their initial, visual impression. Be aware of these reactions with supervisors, as visual impressions could affect your evaluations or chances for promotion. Also, co-workers will respond more favorably to you if you are groomed appropriately.

Other stereotypes have been found to be based on body habitus. You may be limited in the amount of influence you can exercise over your body style, but awareness of these assumptions may explain why certain people react the way they do. For example, many people identify fat people as being more talkative, good natured, dependent, and trusting. On the other hand, thin people are sometimes seen as more ambitious, tense, stubborn, pessimistic, and quiet. Some people feel that muscular people are more adventurous and mature. Again, these things are not always true and are not always fair, but these prejudices have been found to exist.


Clothes not only affect the way others perceive us, but they affect the way we feel about ourselves. People with new, stylish clothes generally feel more comfortable. Clothes that do not fit well make people look uncomfortable, unkempt, and disorganized. Clothes that are dirty, worn, or wrinkled can give others the impression that you don't care enough about yourself. Some then assume that, if you don't care enough to look professional, you don't care enough to do professional work. Clothes can also communicate economic status, occupation, and values.

Applying this information to the work environment, keep in mind job interviews, reactions of supervisors, and reaction of co-workers. When applying for a job you should look professional--business like, neat, and well groomed, but not over done.

As mentioned with respect to physical characteristics, the way you dress could affect evaluations and promotions. Bosses may be hesitant to give a promotion to someone that dresses poorly, and risk sending a message to other workers that such an appearance is acceptable.


People like to keep others a certain distance away from them depending on how they were raised, how well they know the other people, and the status of the other people. In the U.S., casual friends or acquaintances are usually kept 24 to 40 inches away. Personal friends are usually allowed to come within six to eighteen inches. Intimate friends are allowed to come within six inches (as when someone is whispering).

Cultural differences associated with territoriality sometimes appear in the work world. In some cultures people stand much closer when speaking than is common in America. For example, Puerto Ricans stand close together when conversing. To back away from them is considered rude. This sometimes leads to a kind of dance. One person moves in too close, the other backs away, and so on. This can cover quite a distance. Sometimes the person that prefers more personal space will maneuver a table between them. As a last resort, some people will cross their arms in front of them, thus saving the last few inches for themselves.

As far as communication with managers is concerned, in North America people of higher rank expect, and are given, more personal space than people of lesser rank. When this is not possible, as in an elevator, tension results. Everyone in the elevator will usually become silent and stare at the floor indicator panel.

The relationship between a manager and a subordinate can also be communicated through territoriality. To begin with, being called to the manager's office means that you are on his or her turf. Being called to the manager's office, as opposed to the manager stopping by your work area, can indicate that the manager expects this to be a formal meeting. Once in the office, managers may convey their higher status by expanding their territory. This can be established by a manager leaning back in his or her chair and by putting his or her feet up.

Subordinates can also use territoriality to send messages. Sitting somewhere other than in the designated chair or to remain standing would indicate a challenge to the manager's status or defiance of the manager's authority. Another way to challenge the boss would be to lean or sit on his or her desk or intentionally to stand closer to the manager than normal. To many managers, the ultimate act of defiance would be for the subordinate to sit in the managerís chair.


Posture can be used to send a message or to read another person's intent. Postural nonverbal communication channels include body orientation, arm position, leg position, and general sitting posture.

Face-to-face communication is what most bosses expect when speaking to subordinates. To do otherwise would be an act of defiance or anger. When in a group, orienting your body away from the group or boss shows that you are avoiding the situation or are trying to distance yourself from the group or conversation. When a boss addresses a group of workers, they usually form a semicircle in front of the manager. If the group leaves some space for others to join it, then it is indicating its openness. If the body orientations do not allow for others, then the group is conveying that it is closed to others.

When people cross their arms in front of themselves, they are closed, or showing a defensive posture. Approaching the boss with a request or a new idea when he or she is in this position could be a mistake. The same position, with a hand tapping the arm, conveys impatience or anger. Better to approach this person later. Another arm position that can tell you not to approach someone is when the hands are grasped together behind the back while the person is walking. Generally this means the person is deep in thought, and you may not wish to break a manager's concentration.

Crossed legs convey a closed attitude just as crossed arms do. Legs draped over the arm of a chair or propped up on a desk may indicate a relaxed, casual attitude. More often these gestures are related to a feeling of superiority and are consanguineous to territoriality.

General sitting posture may convey messages also. Sitting behind a desk maintains territoriality and accentuates differences in status. On the other hand, some managers keep a round table in the office. Conferences are held at the table instead of a the desk in order to promote openness and to de-emphasize status. Having a reclining chair allows a supervisor to lean back with his or her hands placed behind his head. This is meant to transmit superiority and an aggressive attitude.

Facial Expressions

The face is the most expressive area for nonverbal communications, and we spend a great amount of time looking at it during a discussion. The wide variety of emotions expressed through the face are a part of everyone's repertoire. To demonstrate this, try watching television with the sound off. It is amazing how well the storyline can be followed.

Eye contact deserves special mention. Americans generally give more eye contact when listening. In other words, a speaker only glances at the listener, while the polite listener looks at the speaker's eyes or face. However, a hard stare indicates anger, aggression, or defensiveness. When a listener looks down at the floor while being accused of something, it is often taken as an admission of guilt. We also tend to look away when asking an embarrassing question or one that makes us feel uncomfortable.

Keep in mind that there are cultural differences involving eye contact. In some cultures, especially Spanish-speaking, looking down is a sign of respect. In Britain, eye contact is the opposite of the way it is in the U.S.. In the U.S. the listener looks at the speaker more than the speaker looks at the listener; the speaker looks briefly at the listener and then looks away. In Britain the speaker gives more eye contact then the listener. If a British manager and an American worker were talking to each ,other they could look at each other and away from each other at exactly the wrong time for both of them.

Attention to your eye contact with managers and co-workers is important in order to send the desired nonverbal message. People of higher status in the U.S. expect to receive more eye contact than they give. Conversely, less eye contact is given to someone whose position is below yours. Avoiding eye contact with a boss can signal indecisiveness, dishonesty, or an attempt to avoid being noticed. Prolonged eye contact (staring) shows that you disagree with what the person is saying or that you are challenging the speaker's authority over you.


Hand gestures can almost be as expressive as facial gestures. Anger can be communicated by making a fist or by a stab of an index finger into someone's chest. Throwing the hands and arms into the air can communicate exasperation. Arms crossed in front of the body show a closed or defensive attitude. Confidence is sometimes shown with the hands placed on the hips. Wringing the hands displays nervousness. Hesitation is sometimes shown by a person holding his or her earlobe. Careful attention to your hands and those of others would doubtless reveal even more.

Thus far the hand gestures mentioned have involved one person. Probably the most frequent polite hand gesture involving two people is the handshake. If someone offers you his or her hand so that it is perpendicular to the floor, a neutral attitude is being conveyed. A hand with the palm facing down indicates that the person feels that he or she is dominant. This is also true if the hand starts vertical (neutral) and then is turned so that it is on top of yours. On the other hand (no pun intended), a person with the palm facing up is revealing an open and cooperative attitude. The slight palm-up offering should be the one used with your boss when you do NOT wish to challenge his or her position or authority.


Communication Process

Each message contains more than words, as seen in the section on nonverbal communication. Furthermore, each message is affected by three things:

  • the meaning the sender puts on the message
  • the meaning the receiver puts on the message
  • interference, or noise, between the sender and the receiver.

In other words, you may mean one thing, but someone may interpret it in another way.

The sender of a message always imparts a meaning in that message. As has been mentioned, this meaning may be supported or contradicted by nonverbal communication. The words that would appear sincere on paper can be made to sound cruel or biting by using sarcasm. Meaning can be altered depending on which word in a sentence is accented. And sometimes what is NOT said is more important than what is said.

The receiver also affects the message. He or she may disbelieve most of what is being said--and thereby not believe your intended message. The receiver's attitude or emotional state may alter your message. Someone who is tired or has had a difficult day may treat any conversation as irritating, or a person having trouble at home may greet a co-workerís friendly "Good morning!" with a gruff "What's so good about it?"

Interference, or noise, is anything that obstructs the communication process. It can range from the noise created in a busy workplace to the noise imparted by the communication channel itself. For instance, four communication channels are common to the workplace:

  • written communication
  • telecommunication
  • third-party communication
  • face-to-face communication.

Written communication includes letters, faxes, and memos. Some managers feel that communicating to managees in this manner ensures that the intended message will come across. The managers reason that everyone will read the same words; therefore everyone will get the same message. However, the actual words amount to only 7 percent of the message. The remainder is composed of 38 percent tone and 55 percent nonverbal cues. Also, the manager may have the same words in the memo; but because 93 percent of the message is missing, the managee (receiver) is freer to place his or her own inflection and interpretation on them. In addition, written communications do not allow for immediate interaction. If the receivers have questions, they cannot ask them at that moment. They may even have to respond in writing or otherwise have a considerable delay in receiving an answer.

Telecommunication includes telephones, intercoms and other voice communications. These can be more effective because they use 45 percent of a message's capability (7 percent verbal and 38 percent tonal), and they allow for immediate interaction for the receiver and the sender. However, the majority of a message's potential is still not available to the receiver.

On the surface, third-party communication may seem to offer the least noise because verbal, tonal, and nonverbal information are available. In fact, it is the worst of the four. Not only does the message have the meaning the sender intended, it is subject to a second meaning--that of the person acting as the communication channel. That message may be, or may not be, what the sender intended.

Face-to-face discussions are best. They offer the full range of communication: the sender can impart the desired meaning, and the receiver can ask questions or ask for clarification if necessary. As far as communication channels and interference are concerned, these can be ranked in order of effectiveness as:

  1. face-to-face communication
  2. telecommunication
  3. written communication
  4. communication via third-party

Barriers to Communication

A number of barriers interfere with effective communication. These factors do not influence messages as much as they prevent communication from occurring. They include prejudice, closed words, judging, attacking the person, snap judgments, and ranking.

Prejudice, pre-judging, prevents communication from happening when a person assumes something will be true before it actually happens. An example would be thinking "I have dealt with doctors before, and they were arrogant. You are a doctor; therefore, you will be arrogant." Some doctors are arrogant, but so are some people in every occupation. That does not mean the next doctor you meet will be. Also, even if it were true that most doctors are arrogant (and I do not mean to say that they are), it still does NOT mean that the next one will be. There are always exceptions. Prejudice, then, is unfair. It is unfair to you in that it may keep you from communicating with or from getting to know others. It is unfair to other people in that they may be judged and treated wrongly. Another problem with it is that people guilty of it may make it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They may allow prejudice to taint the message to fulfill their beliefs. For example, I have heard people say, "I've worked with new employees before, and they slow me down too much." If they are assigned new employees, they may then convince themselves that the new people are responsible for any delays; or they may say "See, I could have been done with this if not for this rookie." They can't prove this, of course. They would have to repeat the same procedure with the same conditions and time both performances to prove the point. Barring such proof, they assume their biased opinions to be true.

Closed words are those like "all," "none," "everyone," and "never." They are exclusionary. They eliminate other possibilities. They inhibit communication when used as part of generalizations as in "They never get the patient here on time," or "All of the people on that shift are lazy," or "They're always rough with the clients." Not only would it be rare for statements like this to be true, but they prevent communication by evoking defensive responses from the subjects of each of them. Few people would not be defensive if told that they "always act unprofessional."

Judging interferes with communication when it masquerades as reporting. Judging means a value judgment, an evaluation, of something. The thing is good, bad, better, or best. Reporting separates fact from opinion. Saying that an employer pays "poorly" tells us little. What is "poor" to one person (maybe someone with ten years of experience) may be acceptable to another (someone right out of school). Saying that an employer's starting salary is $6.00 an hour is reporting the facts. The receiver is then free to make his or her own judgment as to the adequacy of the pay.

Attacking the person refers to assailing the entire person, rather than limiting comments to his or her behavior. Saying "I can't stand him. He's so slow." is attacking the person. Saying "I don't like that it takes him so long" talks about his behavior. Attacking the person requires someone to change on a fundamental level. Criticizing behavior only requires people to change one small part of themselves.

Snap judgments, or premature closings, result when people make decisions based on first impressions or based on limited information (jumping to conclusions). Some people make snap judgments based on appearance or based on their first experience working with someone. They then extrapolate that behavior and judge the entire person. I have worked with a number of people who were absolutely convinced that they could tell if a person was going to be agood health professional or if they would successfully complete an educational program after only a few minutes during an interview. They would then point to the few times they were right as verification of their abilities--they would ignore the many times they were wrong. Some snap judgments are harmless, as in those times when we instantly "hit it off" with a new co-worker. Snap judgments are the most harmful and wrong when they are wrong.

Ranking refers to a person's position or status. It is a barrier to communication when it prevents a person of one rank from talking openly to a person of another rank. It is very common. One form that is frequently seen is when people of lower rank are reluctant to report problems to people of higher rank. However, it is also seen in the awkward conversations people at the top of an organization have with those at the bottom of an organization. In this case the conversation may turn to the weather or other harmless topics, with little or no real communication about the organization ever taking place. Here the high ranking people are often just as uncomfortable as those of lower ranks.

Improving Communication

The first step to improving communications is to want to change. You must admit that change is possible and that it is desirable. Second, objectively look at the way you communicate with others. Identify which of the barriers to communication affect you. Third, actively try to change. You must constantly look for chances to improve your communication. Fourth, realize that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is when sound hits your ear and is translated to your brain. Listening is when you actively attend to this information. Most people can hear; fewer can listen. Fifth, you must realize that, like many things, this probably will not come easily. It is not impossible to improve your communication skills, but it will require some effort. (This is the step where many fail--too many people want instant, painless results.) Beyond this, here are some further suggestions.

Never fake attention. No communication can take place if you are not listening. Instead, concentrate on what the speaker is saying (and not on distractions or on his or her appearance), and don't get so overly emotional that you stop hearing the speaker and start formulating a response. Along with this last idea, hear the speaker out. Do not interrupt.

When you are unsure of a speaker's message, when you are not clear about what he or she means, ask. In many work situations it is too important to leave a message partially understood. Paraphrase what you think you heard. Verify the message so that you know in no uncertain terms what is meant. Repeat the message to the sender. Ask. Say things like, "Are you saying....?" or, "Just so I'm clear on this..." or, "What I'm hearing is.... is that what you meant?"

C.O.D. Online Top of Page
Copyright © 1998 College of DuPage
Center for Independent Learning(630) 942-2185
Updated 27 May 98