Types of Non-Verbal Communication

Communication is the exchange of ideas, information and messages of all kinds between a sender and receiver. It could be verbal, which involves spoken words, or non-verbal, which involves use of signs, signals and other ‘wordless’ modes to pass across messages. We communicate everyday using non-verbal and verbal methods. The focus here is on non-verbal methods which is also a dominant way of communication in the society.

What is Non-Verbal Communication?

Non-verbal communication consists of information exchange without the use of words, whether oral or written. This involves the use of silent communication channels such as signs, touch, behaviour, clothing, gestures and expressions of all kinds, and sounds such as clapping of hands, gun shots, and tone of voice to pass across message to the audience. Non verbal communication includes everything from the simple shrug of the shoulder, the V-sign, OK ring, the thumbs up gesture, eye movements, facial expressions, body postures, gestures, gait, clothing, to the tone of voice, and accent. This includes the use of space, touch, smell and paralanguage (pitch and other vocal characteristics that enhance or give meaning to spoken words).

Body language is a common way of communicating non-verbally. This consists of the use of the entire body and/or its various parts to pass across a message. Body language as a non-verbal communication strategy is often combined with oral communication to emphasize a message or ensure clarity in communication. Non-verbal communication remains a common way of communication in modern society, especially in combination with verbal communication

Types of Non-Verbal Communication

There are various ways to exchange information through non-verbal means. Hasan (2013) gives the following types of nonverbal communication;

Facial expression

The face reveals a person’s personality and innermost feelings. People use their face to express various emotions such as sadness, happiness, anger, love, surprise, shock, sorrow, excitement, among others. Beauty, and sometimes illness and poverty could be expressed through the face. The beards on a man’s face, the type of make up a lady wears and the way a person winks the eyes, covers the mouth while talking or after sudden shout (mouth guard gestures), all communicate about a person’s personality, intentions, perceptions or attitude.

Eye behaviour

Though the eye is also part of the face and should be regarded an aspect of facial expression, eye behaviour is very effective and dominant in the communication process as a result of which it has been categorized separately. Eye behaviour refers to the movement and manipulation of the eyes in various ways to express different meanings. Among the various ways of communicating nonverbally through the eyes are winking, glaring, staring, mopping with mouth open, blinking repeatedly, and even closing the eyes abruptly or normally. These expressions could communicate warning, encouragement, shock, surprise, expectation, invitation, rejection, or avoidance of imminent bad development (as in closing the eyes when a penalty kick is about to be taken during a football match or while an accident is about to happen).

Body movement

This consists of the adjustment, positioning, manipulation, twisting, or shifting parts or all of the body as nonverbal communication strategy. Body movement is also called Kinesics, a word first used by an Anthropologist, Bird Birdwhistell in 1952 which means a study and interpretation of body movements. Body movement is used in nonverbal communication in various ways which are isolated into five categories: Emblems: common signs used in expressing meanings such as the OK sign, thumbs up, pointing at the eyes as a way of telling somebody to watch meticulously, clearly or closely, holding the ears to ask people to listen attentively, putting a finger on the lips to communicate need for silence, etc.; Illustrators: These are signs or demonstrations used to enhance, emphasize or clarify what somebody is talking about. Examples are placing the hand at a particular level to show the height of what or who is being talked about, and punching the fists in the air to demonstrate the fierceness of a fight; Regulators: These are signs used to regulate verbal communication and they include gazes, winks, nods, shaking of the head, and raised eye brows; Affect displays: This consists of expressions which reveal a person’s emotional state. These expressions include angry stares, trembling body, or shivering; Body Manipulators: These are actions which consist of using a part of the body to control another part of the body or the entire body. Such actions include tugging or stroking the ear, twisting the hair, or habitually touching a particular pat of the body while talking.

Posture and gait

These constitute one of the most effective nonverbal communication forms. The way we stand, sit, squat, bend (postures), and the way we walk (gaits) pass across information about our physical and emotional status. For instance, standing with the hands on the hips or folded across the chest could indicate a challenge, confidence, or resistance, depending on the direction of discussion. Also, slumping into a chair and staring into the sky or bending the head and staring at the floor could express loss of hope.

Personal Appearance

A person’s looks or appearance could create an impression which could even enhance or determine the way he or she is addressed or approached. Good looks (nonverbal communication) could make verbal communication more effective.

Clothing

This is a dominant nonverbal communication strategy. It is commonly said that the way you dress is the way you are addressed. Clothing is used to communicate class, social status, economic status, ethnic background, likes and dislikes, profession, authority (as in police or army uniforms), effect of the weather, among others.

Touching

This is used to communicate reassurance, calm someone down, call attention, among others. Touching is also very effective in enhancing or emphasizing verbal communication.

Proxemics

This is the use of distance to pass across a message. Proxemics which is a concept first used by anthropologist, Edward Hall, in 1966 refers to the study of factors surrounding the maintenance of distance between people as they interact. The distance a person maintains when interacting with another person could indicate intimacy. Apart from forced closeness in a crowded place, there is intimate distance for embracing, touching or whispering, personal closeness for interaction among friends or family members, social distance for interaction among acquaintances, and public distance used for public speaking.

Para language

This refers to tone, pitch, range, tempo, resonance (variation in volume of voice from quiet, thin level to loud, booming level) and quality of voice which are used to ‘add value’ to spoken words. The pitch for instance can indicate the gender of a person. The tone of voice could indicate anger, surprise, happiness, love (including what is referred to as ‘bedroom voice”), among others.

Smell and taste

This consists of meanings interpreted from fragrance coming from food, odour (particularly body and mouth odour which speak about poor hygiene or skin disease), deodorants and body sprays (which could give specific social class to people), air fresheners, etc. Taste also communicates a lot about meals and other substance put in the mouth.

Environmental factors

This has to do with messages passed through the design, decoration, and other aesthetic values of the interior or exterior of a place. Glamour, economic and social status could be expressed through the nature of decoration and furnishing of a place. Also from the design and decoration of a place, you could get information about what the place is used for -school, religious place, market place, hospital, etc. The use of colours in decoration and lighting, playing of soft music in an apartment, and use of dim lights, could pass across various messages.

(Source: Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Ecology in the Digital Age, written by Chinenye Nwabueze)

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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