Nonverbal communication is a crucial component of interacting with others. In fact, many experts believe it forms most of the meaning listeners take away from their communications.
Despite this, many people do not understand how nonverbal communication works or what it is exactly. Nonverbal communication includes every method of transferring information without the use of spoken or written words, including facial expressions, posture, gestures, and more.
In many cases, nonverbal communication is unintentional and simply comes naturally as the speaker conveys their message. However, by using these cues intentionally, a speaker can help to improve their communication skills. Understanding what nonverbal communication is and how it can be used can improve interactions for nearly everyone.
Why Is Nonverbal Communication Important?
Being mindful of nonverbal cues can make or break a good communicator. The right nonverbal signs can convey critical information about a situation, including how someone is feeling, what their intentions are, and what their communication style may be. Nonverbal communication can be particularly useful for bridging gaps with people who are unable or struggle to communicate verbally.
What Is Nonverbal Communication?
Nonverbal communication encompasses a wide breadth of cues that convey information or intent. These come in many forms, such as facial expressions, eye contact, and even the physical space between the people in conversation, among many others. Unlike verbal communication, nonverbal communication is primarily visual and based on a person’s movements. A great many nonverbal cues exist, yet a few exceptionally important ones are described in more detail below.
The way an individual sits, stands, or otherwise positions their body communicates much about how they feel. For example, an individual may cross their arms when they are feeling frustrated or angry; if someone leans back in their chair and crosses their legs, it might indicate that they are relaxed. Posture expresses a lot about a person’s emotional state, and these cues contribute to the context of what they say.
The way a person moves can also add a lot to a conversation. Walking quickly or slowly, sitting still, or fidgeting all convey certain moods to others. In many cases, fidgeting while walking quickly will be interpreted as showing discomfort and nervousness.
Facial expressions are perhaps the most familiar form of nonverbal communication. Smiling and frowning are nearly universally recognized symbols of a person being happy or sad, but any facial expression communicates a great deal of information about a person’s emotional state.
Eye contact is a crucial cue that indicates attentiveness and interest. Steady eye contact tells the speaker that the listener is interested in what they are saying. Though the exact cultural meaning can vary, steady eye contact is often interpreted as demonstrating sincerity and respect. In contrast, looking away, perhaps at the ground or an electronic device, suggests disinterest, dishonesty, or a lack of respect.
Gestures are interpreted in very different ways between cultures, but they always carry meaning. In some cultures, a person waves to greet someone who is arriving and points with their finger to direct attention to something of interest. Gestures made with hands, arms, or even the whole body take place all the time. In certain cases, gestures can fully replace verbal communication, such as when using American Sign Language.
The amount of space between a speaker and someone else can communicate a lot about their comfort and feelings. For example, two people sitting very close together are likely to be very comfortable with each other, indicating that they are in a close relationship. On the other hand, when people leave a lot of space between them while communicating, it may reflect they are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with each other.
The appropriate level of personal space varies based on cultural norms and situations. People who have just met often stand two to three feet apart while conversing to show respect and maintain personal boundaries. By that same token, in different cases, people may stand close to intimidate others when they are angry.
Understanding Different Cultural Interpretations
Because nonverbal communication is not verbally explained, it is highly subject to cultural interpretations. This means it may not communicate the same thing to everyone. For example, smiling may be interpreted as friendly in many countries, but in others, it can be considered threatening and rude. It is impossible to be aware of every interpretation of body language. However, being understanding and aware of different possible connotations when interacting with those from other cultures is a key communication skill.
Nonverbal communication is a complex and multifaceted aspect of communication. Many possible cues conveying emotions, intent, and more advanced nuances blend to deliver a final message. Nonverbal communication can enhance comprehension, build trust, and allow individuals to communicate messages that would be difficult to place in words.
Mastering nonverbal communication can make people better communicators, and like all learned skills, it takes practice. A good way to start is by participating in a safe space free from consequence, like an online social skills group, which can allow participants to grow their skills in using and reading nonverbal cues to communicate effectively.