Nonverbal communication is vital in how we share things with others and understand what others are trying to say. Communication is essential for successful interpersonal relationships, but it isn’t just the words you say that speak volumes. Your nonverbal signals—including body language and facial expressions—are forms of nonverbal communication that can carry much meaning.
In this article, explore some different examples of nonverbal communication, their impact, and things you can do to improve your nonverbal communication.
What Is Nonverbal Communication?
Nonverbal communication involves conveying information without the use of words. It may rely on signals made with body language, gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
Nonverbal communication can serve many important roles when conveying information to others.
- Strengthening the message: It can strengthen or emphasize what you are saying verbally.
- Undermining your message: If your body language sends a different signal than what your words convey, people may feel you are not being honest.
- Augmenting the message: Your body language can sometimes complement or augment the spoken word. A gesture or expression can add meaning that people might not understand in your words.
- Emphasizing the message: Body language, gestures, and expressions can add weight to your words or clarify that a particular point is more important.
- Replacing the message: Instead of saying your message aloud, nonverbal communication can often be used to send the message without saying a word.
One commonly cited figure suggests that 55% of communication occurs through body language, 38% through tone of voice, and just 7% through spoken words. It is important to note that this varies depending on the situation.
Examples of Nonverbal Communication
Many different types of signals can be used to communicate information nonverbally. Some examples of nonverbal communication include:
People can convey a tremendous amount of information and emotion with the use of facial expressions. The emotions conveyed with facial expressions—including anger, sadness, happiness, and fear—are universal across cultures worldwide.
Eye contact can also be used to communicate non-verbally. For example, looking at someone can indicate interest and attention. Depending on how eye contact is used, it can also be used to express attraction, dominance, or even aggression.
Other aspects of eye gaze, including pupil size, blinking, or eye shifting, can also indicate how a person is feeling. Trouble maintaining eye contact, for example, is often perceived as a sign that a person is not being honest.
Nonverbal information is also communicated through the movements and positions of the body. Posture, for example, can communicate that a person is interested and paying attention. Crossed arms might suggest that a person is uncomfortable or defensive.
While single movements shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, how a person carries or presents themselves can tell a lot about their feelings.
How people dress and present themselves in terms of physical appearance can also convey important information. For example, factors such as hairstyle, clothing, and even choice of color can affect how other people perceive and judge others.
For example, if you are trying to communicate that you are professional and competent, you might wear business attire. If you are trying to communicate that you are stylish and on the cutting edge, you might try to dress in more fashionable, trendy clothing.
Tone of Voice
How you say things can communicate meaning in addition to your words. Tone, pitch, inflection, volume, and rate of speech all influence how people interpret your words. This aspect of nonverbal communication is referred to as paralinguistics.
Intentional movements can also be utilized to send messages. Gestures such as waving and pointing can be used to communicate a message quickly. However, gestures are not always universal and may differ depending on geographic location or culture.
Physical space can also be a nonverbal way to communicate or reinforce a message. Everyone needs personal space, although the amount of space you need can depend on who you’re talking to and the situation.
Standing very close to another person can send different messages depending on the situation. In some cases, it might convey affection. In other cases, it might be a way to exert dominance or intimidation. Cultural factors can also affect personal space needs.
Physical contact can also be used to send a message, whether a handshake or a pat on the shoulder. Touch provides safety and comfort, essential for healthy childhood development.
In adulthood, the way people utilize touch may depend on their sex. Where women are more likely to express care or comfort through touch, men are more likely to use it to assert dominance or control.
Importance of Nonverbal Communication
Nonverbal signals are important for several reasons.
- Communication: Verbal and nonverbal communication typically happen simultaneously. In many cases, the goal of nonverbal signals is to help amplify or lend clarity to spoken words. For example, if you are trying to convince a group of colleagues to buy into your argument, body language can reinforce that you are knowledgeable, confident, and trustworthy.
- Relationships: Nonverbal behaviors can also be important in relationships. These signals can convey attention and affection. Or they can be used to express anger and distrust.
- Therapy: Nonverbal communication also plays a pivotal role in the therapeutic process. A therapist’s nonverbal signals can convey interest in a person’s story and can help make the individual feel comfortable and willing to open up.
Therapists also pay attention to their client’s body language and other nonverbal signals. For example, they might note when someone is words don’t align with their body movements.
How to Improve Your Nonverbal Communication
If you feel like your nonverbal communication skills could improve, there are things you can do to learn how to communicate more effectively through your body language and other nonverbal signals. Some things that may help include:
Use Eye Contact
Good eye contact can convey that you are paying attention, that you are confident, and that you are interested in what your conversation partner is saying. But remember, however, that eye contact should feel natural. You don’t want the other person to feel that you are staring at them or attempting to intimidate them.
Consider Your Expressions
Your facial expressions can also be used to emphasize what you are saying or trying to convey verbally. Matching your expressions to your words, tone, and body language can help your message carry more weight.
Build Your Emotional Awareness
Developing a greater emotional understanding of your feelings can help you better send signals that align with your emotions. This awareness also helps you better read the feelings of other people. Understanding their mental state means you’ll be able to respond more appropriately.
Learn About Body Language
Being able to interpret other people’s body language is helpful. Some strategies that can help include:
- Notice when words don’t match up with body language. When what a person is doing doesn’t match up with what they are saying, it may indicate that they are trying to hide something. For example, a person might say they are fine, but their fidgeting, poor eye contact, and defensive posture might indicate that they are feeling sad or anxious.
- Pay attention to signals as a group. Honing in a single gesture or aspect of body language while ignoring other signals is a mistake that can lead to miscommunication. For example, if you focus on the fact that a person’s arms are crossed, you might think they are being defensive. If that person is smiling, making comfortable eye contact, and using a warm tone of voice, however, it likely means they are simply crossing their arms for another reason.
- Trust your feelings: It’s important to trust your instinctive responses to other people instead of overanalyzing specific signals. If a person seems uncomfortable, there’s a good chance your initial interpretation is accurate.
If you aren’t sure about the signals someone is sending, one of the best things you can do is ask questions.
You can often do this by simply asking for clarification (“Do you mean…?”) or paraphrasing what they have said and asking them to confirm your interpretation (“What I’m hearing is that we should…”).
Instead of letting a misinterpretation lead to poor communication, ask for clarification.
Nonverbal communication makes up a great deal of everyday communication. It can play an important role in how people relate to one another and can often strengthen, replace, or even undermine what you are trying to convey. Working on your nonverbal communication skills can be a great way to become better at communicating in a wide variety of settings.
Mehrabian A. Nonverbal Communication. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction; 1972.
Frith C. Role of facial expressions in social interactions. Philos Trans R Soc Lond, B, Biol Sci. 2009;364(1535):3453-8. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0142