Nonverbal Communication

We can define nonverbal communication, then, as behaviors and characteristics that convey meaning without the use of words. Nonverbal communication behaviors frequently accompany verbal messages to clarify or reinforce them. For instance, if someone asks you for directions to the bookstore and you point and say “It’s that way,” your nonverbal behavior (pointing) clarifies the meaning of your verbal message. If you simply say “It’s that way” without pointing, then your verbal message is ambiguous—and not very helpful. At other times, however, nonverbal communication behaviors convey meaning on their own. For example, if you ask me where the bookstore is and I shrug my shoulders, you will probably infer from my behavior that I don’t know the answer to your question, even though I never actually said so.

Nonverbal behavior is a powerful way of communicating, and it comes naturally to many of us. Yet there’s a lot more to interpreting nonverbal behavior than you might think. The more you learn about nonverbal communication, the better you will be able to understand it.

Several studies suggest that facial expressions of these basic emotions are interpreted very similarly across cultures.7 In a classic study, psychologist Paul Ekman took photographs of people communicating six basic emotions through their facial expressions: happiness, fear, disgust, anger, sadness, and surprise. He then showed the photos to participants in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, and the United States. He asked the participants to match each photograph with what they believed was the emotion being displayed. Ekman then compared the responses from different countries and found that participants were equally accurate at describing which emotion was displayed in each photograph.

Facial expression plays a vital role in communicating ideas in American Sign Language (ASL). In some instances, the same hand sign is associated with different meanings if it is accompanied by different facial expressions. Both photographs feature the hand sign for “you,” for example, but they involve different facial displays. The photo on the left would be interpreted as a question, such as “Are you?” or “Did you?” The photo on the right, however, would be interpreted as an exclamation, such as “It’s you!” Although the hand sign is the same in the two photographs, the meaning differs because of the accompanying facial expression.

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