Nonverbal communication and language are different. There has been some research claiming that humans used nonverbal communication before they developed a language. Nonverbal communication is the process of sending and receiving messages without using words by means of facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, postures, physical appearance, and tones of voice. The concept of nonverbal communication is complex. It is almost impossible to know exactly what it includes, but the majority of our talking is done without speaking.
No one can speak more than one word at a time, but nonverbal messages can be sent in multiple ways at the same time. The meaning of nonverbal messages differs between cultures (Morreale, Spitzberg, and Barge, Human Communication: Motivation, Knowledge, & Skills, 119), races, and sometimes gender (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 130). Nonverbal and verbal communications sometimes contradict each other because people are sometimes unaware of the nonverbal messages that they send (Morreale, Spitzberg, and Barge, Human Communication: Motivation, Knowledge, & Skills, 119).
The movement of the body makes up a language, in which certain movements have specific meanings. Kinesics focuses on how people communicate through movement and posture, gestures, and the face and eyes (Morreale, Spitzberg, and Barge, Human Communication: Motivation, Knowledge, & Skills, 124). Kinesics refers to all types of body movement, except for touch, that may act as nonverbal communication. Body movement and posture are known as body language.
Gestures are large and small movements of the hands and arms that send messages. Gestures complement our speech, bridge our silences, send unspoken messages, or express our approval or disapproval (Lamb and Watson, Body Code: The Meaning in Movement, 1). Negative gestures like fidgeting lets others know that a speaker is nervous and has a lack of confidence. Speakers who don’t use any type of gesturing seem insecure and uncertain (Morreale, Spitzberg, and Barge, Human Communication: Motivation, Knowledge, & Skills, 125).
Sign language is any type of hand gesture that replaces specific words or numbers. It can range from a single hand gesture, such as a peace sign, to the language system of the deaf (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 53). Sign language was developed in the sixteenth century when Geronimo Cardano said that deaf people could learn and understand sign communication. Sign language is used throughout the world, not only by deaf people, but also by people that want to interact with them.
Familiar hand gestures that we give specific meanings to may have different meanings for different people. For example, in the 1950s, Vice President Richard Nixon went on a tour of Latin America. When he stepped off his airplane he flashed the OK sign. The crowd booed him because in their culture, it meant, “Screw you” (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 29-55).
Researchers have found differences of body language between gender and race. When men communicate power they often have an open body posture, using both the arms and legs. By comparison, women don’t expand as much. When women feel less powerful, they tend to lessen the amount of space their body takes up and tilt their head (Morreale, Spitzberg, and Barge, Human Communication: Motivation, Knowledge, & Skills, 124). Young blacks have developed movements that are quite different than whites. Kenneth Johnson, a researcher in ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, has described distinctive manners of black youths. According to Kenneth Johnson:
“There is a style of black male walking behavior, called in street jargon the pimp strut, which functions as an attention-getting device and serves to exhibit one’s masculinity and state one’s racial pride, self-confidence, and control. The young Black males’ walk is different. First of all, it’s much slower—it’s more of a stroll. The head is sometimes elevated and casually tipped to the side. Only one arm swings at the side with the hand slightly cupped. The other arm hangs limply to the side or it is tucked in the pocket. The gait is slow, casual and rhythmic. The gait is almost like a walking dance, with all parts of the body moving in rhythmic harmony” (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An
Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 130).
Movements of the face that are used to send messages are known as facial expressions. “Facial expressions may be controlled or uncontrolled” (Moss and Tubbs, Interpersonal Communication, 53). Certain facial expressions may be voluntary and some may be involuntary. The human face is capable of displaying six basic emotions such as sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, anger, and happiness (Morreale, Spitzberg, and Barge, Human Communication: Motivation, Knowledge, & Skills, 126).
Eye contact is also an important part of kinesics. Gazing is the very core of the concept of eye contact when dealing with nonverbal communication. The duration of a gaze can have mixed effects. If the gaze is maintained for one hundred percent of the conversation, it will be more likely uncomfortable to both the speaker and the listener. On the other hand, if the gaze is maintained for about seventy percent of the time, the results are then positive. This maintains a positive, sincere, and more normal environment (Moss and Tubbs, Interpersonal Communication, 68).
There have been some research studies that indicate that white males tend to engage in more eye contact than black males. Also the research indicates that black men engage in the least amount of eye contact then interacting with a white male. When blacks use a particular roll of the eyes in talking with whites, Kenneth Johnson says, “The movement of the eyes communicates all or parts of the message. The main message is hostility” (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 130).
Proxemics is the studies of how humans perceive, organize, and use space to communicate. Everything from how far you stand from students in line to how you arrange furniture in your bedroom all fit in this category. Humans have two kinds of needs, affiliated needs and privacy needs. Humans are very social creatures and at times we want to affiliate with others, but at other times, we need to have some privacy.
Selected individuals such as family and friends satisfy our affiliated needs. That is why we want contact with certain people rather than random individuals. Our need for privacy is really a need to control and to have the freedom to be alone. Proxemics includes territoriality and personal space.
Territoriality refers to claiming and defending a territory as one’s own. Territories are staked out as a means of protecting the self and providing privacy. Someone’s house, apartment, or room is their territory and they have the right to defend it against intruders. For example, many students pick out their own chair in a classroom and return to it for the rest of the course. Many housewives think of their kitchen as their territory and they will get mad if a child, husband, or even friends interfere.
There are different types of territories. They include public territory (places open to the public), interactional (social interaction), and home territory (any geographical place that someone regards as their home), and body territory (the human body and its surrounding space) (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 92). All of these territories play a huge role in nonverbal communication. Personality, culture, and physical expressions are all derived from these territories of proxemics (Lamb and Watson, Body Code: The Meaning in Movement, 89).
Personal space refers to the space around a person’s body. Personal space differs from territoriality in that it is not a fixed space. This space increases and decreases according to the situation. It may be very large when a person is in a strange environment and may shrink to nothing in the presence of a loved one.
Haptics is the study of touch. According to Desmond Morris, “We are a touch-starved society.” This quotation emphasizes the reason why touch is considered to have such potential for communication. Humans need to touch and be touched. Contact is necessary as a means of communication between mother and child. Touch also plays a role in psychological development. Only through touching his or her own body and objects in the environment can help the child to begin to recognize him or her as separate from the rest of the environment. Children learn sizes, shapes, and textures through touching things. The way a child perceives things is dependent on haptic experiences. The self-explorations that children engage in also contribute to their own body images, to whether or not they are comfortable with their own bodies. The perceptions that children acquire are dependent on how others react to them.
Physical contact is also important to a child’s psychological sense of security and well-being. Touching seems to provide a source of reassurance and comfort. It helps to release negative feelings. The final importance of touch is social in nature. Physical contact appears to be necessary for the development of interpersonal relationships. Touch experiences can strongly influence a person’s ability to relate to others, to trust them, and to be sensitive to others needs. Psychiatrists have linked many marital problems to inadequate or inappropriate experiences in childhood. Violence and aggression may have the same cause.
A number of studies have indicated that serious biological, psychological, and sociological problems do result when humans are deprived of touch. Research has suggested that a number of children that are placed in orphanages develop serious health and behavior problems. Lack of physical contact in childhood has led to such problems as allergies, speech difficulties, and learning disabilities later in life.
Adults and adolescents need and want physical contact. At least in intimate relationships, touch is an important part of the communication between two people. Lack of touch is taken as a sign that something is wrong in the relationship. Desmond Morris claims that in our culture we turn to “licensed torchers” such as hair stylists, barbers, manicurists, and masseuses. Even if body contact is not the main reason for seeking such services, the body contact is a satisfying result. This need for touch is due to the high degree of isolation that our culture has created.
The increasing of urbanization has left people not knowing most of the people that we see in a day’s time. We do not know whom we can trust and so we avoid contact with each other. These feelings of isolation and uncertainty are brought on by stress from living in urban environments. Too many people, too much noise, too little room, and too much activity are causes of environmental stress (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 69-70).
One way that people express themselves is through their physical appearance. Physical appearance, which includes our natural body features, dress, accessories, and cosmetics, is usually the first nonverbal code to have an impact on a relationship. It affects the visual, touch, and smell senses. These items convey a great deal of detailed information about someone’s lifestyles, personality, and values.
Americans today are obsessed with beauty. Physical attractiveness may be influential in determining whether a person is preferred. It may have a bearing on whether a person is able to persuade or manipulate others. Cosmetics and fashion are multimillion-dollar industries. People spend great sums of money for products, programs, and secrets to take off pounds or put them on, to get rid of wrinkles, to straighten or curly hair, to eliminate odors and create new ones and to hold in bulges. Women use bras and girdles, while some men use stiff collars and neckties to become beautiful or attractive people. Some men have hair transplants to cure baldness. Sometimes men and women have plastic surgery to alter their image.
The stereotypes of beauty are embedded in our culture. People’s obsession comes from television. Commercials and advertisements show models for what people should look like. Usually on television, the typical housewife or working man is attractive in some way.
Another important artifact that reflects on how good of an impression a person is given by someone is how he or she wears his or her hair. A person’s hairstyle depends on their personality. Hair has, at various times, been braided, curled, straightened, hardened, colored, cut, shaved off, or covered with a wig or weave, all in the name of beauty. Different cultures have different ways in which they maintain and style their hair. In some cultures, facial hair has been admired and taken as a sign of status (Moss and Tubbs, Interpersonal Communication, 78).
Like cosmetics and hair fashions, clothing and jewelry have played a significant role in beautification. There are a range of styles and materials that have been considered attractive. The importance of clothing is a central aspect of impression. Clothes seem to be important to first impressions. In one study, males and females were asked what things that they noticed first about a person. Females and males noticed clothes first, but for members of the opposite sex the face and figure were first.
Vocalics, also called paralanguage, is another form of nonverbal communication.
Vocalics includes the elements produced by the human voice, other than the words themselves. There are elements of the human voice that contribute to nonverbal communication such as intensity (volume), rate (the speed at which a person talks), and pitch (lowness and highness of the voice) (Morreale, Spitzberg, and Barge, Human Communication: Motivation, Knowledge, & Skills, 129). Everything from sniffs and sneezes to rapid speech and singing fall into this category. Silences and pauses in speech also fall into this category (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 80).
Vocal cues carry important messages. They carry a variety of information, ranging from the speaker’s sex and ethnic background to personality. Vocal cues send messages of attraction and dislike and they can also reveal status and power (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 84).
Vocal cues can distinguish emotions and also influence our thoughts about personality (Moss and Tubbs, Interpersonal Communication, 180). Several distinct emotions can be accurately identified solely on the basis of vocal cues. The rate of speech is very important in communication. A faster speed rate, as well as shorter comments and more frequent pauses, is linked to fear or anger. A slower speech rate can be linked to depression (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 84).
In conclusion, nonverbal communication is often used more than verbal communication to show emotions and the relationship part of a message. People use verbal communication to express facts, opinions, ideas, whereas, nonverbal communication is used to express or show feelings (Morreale, Spitzberg, and Barge, Human Communication: Motivation, Knowledge, & Skills, 119).
There has been some research to show that there is some kind of difference between the nonverbal behaviors between blacks and whites and also between men and women (Burgoon and Saine, The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to Nonverbal Communication, 130).
Nonverbal communication has many functions. It works in one or three ways: it replaces, reinforces, or contradicts a verbal message. A person can improve their use of nonverbal communication by being perceptive to context, audience, and feedback. The context includes the physical setting and the situation.
Touch is a significant aspect of nonverbal communication. It has also been concluded that there is a strong correlation between lack of physical pleasure and violence: the more pleasure, the less violence and vice versa. Cultures that display a lot of physical affection toward infants have a low incidence of theft, murder, rape, and physical punishments, while those that deny physical pleasure to infants generally have high rates of adult violence.
Physical appearance, which is also important in nonverbal communication, seems to be a large factor in determining how others judge personalities, sexuality, social status, and often happiness.
Burgoon, Judee K. and Thomas Saine. The Unspoken Dialogue: An Introduction to
Nonverbal Communication. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978.
Lamb, Warren and Elizabeth Watson. Body Code: The Meaning in Movement. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton Book Company, 1987.
Morreale, Sherwyn P., Brian H. Spitzberg, and J. Kevin Barge. Human Communication:
Motivation, Knowledge, & Skills. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, Inc., 2001.
Stephen, P. Atlas of Facial Expressions. New York, NY: Springer, 1987.
Moss, S. and S. L. Tubbs. Interpersonal Communication. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin,
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