Non-verbal Communication

The word “Non-verbal Communication” means Communication not involving speech or words. By non-verbal communication, we mean all communication that involves neither written nor spoken words but occurs without the use of words. Thus, this is the wordless message received through the medium of gestures, signs, body movements, facial expressions, tone of voice, colour, time, space, style of writing and choice of words.

Animals communicate their deepest feelings through gestures, cries, whistling, cooing and many other signals known to each other. It is we human beings, who have evolved the language of words to convey our thoughts in a structured manner.

Still, many a times, we tend to convey many of our feelings by smiling, patting, frowning, shouting or other such wordless clues. At other times, we also lace our words with different tones, gestures and facial expressions, to give a deeper meaning to our words. The verbal and non-verbal messages together form the total meaning of the message communicated. There is something said and something implied with every message communicated. For a full understanding of the message, we should know what has been communicated through words and without them.

Characteristics of Non-verbal Communication

The characteristics of non-verbal communication are:

  • It is Instinctive in Nature: Non-verbal Communication is quite instinctive in nature, that is, it indicates the attitude, instincts and feelings of the speaker.

  • It is less Conscious: Words are spoken after due thinking and with conscious effort. Depending on the situation we have to make a more or less conscious effort in these/choices of words. The non-verbal part of communication, on the other hand, is less deliberate and conscious as most of the expressions, gestures, etc. included in Non-verbal Communication are mostly unconsciously expressed, as the speaker may not even be aware of these signs.

  • It is Subtle in Nature: Spoken and written words are quite obvious and easy to see, listen and understand, whereas, Non-verbal Communication is very subtle, and needs skill to be understood and expressed.

  • It is Complimentary to Verbal Communication: Non-verbal Communication does not stand alone on its own and neither does it completely substitute Communication with words; it complements Verbal Communication and makes it more effective. As an example, when we watch a movie, the dialogues are made more impressive by the way they are delivered, with the modulations in the voice, other gestures and signals.

Relationship Between Verbal and Non-verbal Communication

In our day to day communication, the verbal element and non-verbal element operate together in the construction of meaning. There are six primary ways in which non-verbal message may be related to verbal ones:

A non-verbal message can complement a verbal one

Sometimes we twist our arms, change facial expressions, or bring a change in tone of voice. It may match the content of the words that we are speaking. Usually we don’t even think about this non-verbal message, unless someone overuses them to the point that they become annoying. When we do not have face-to-face conversation, (on a telephone, mobile), we may feel uncomfortable with our interpretation or the words of other because we cannot see the facial expressions, movements, or gestures that might accompany these words. When an individual wishes happy birthday to his friend with a big smile or expresses words of grief along with a sad face on the eve of any death in the family of his friend, non-verbal messages are complementing verbal messages.

It can emphasize a verbal one

When we write, we often accent certain words or by putting them in italics or capital letters. When we speak, we do the same thing, using pauses, volume, tone, raised eyebrows, pointing fingers, and so on. Consider the sentence: “I really enjoy this movie.” Try trading this sentence aloud and emphasizing the word really. Perhaps one will raise one’s pitch when one says the word. Certainly one will say it more slowly than the others. What effect is created if one says the word more slowly than the others and also raises his eyebrows just for that word?

It can repeat a verbal one

Words may suggest that some has to leave the room. Subsequently, the same individual may point to the door, and then the non-verbal message strongly repeats the meaning of the verbal message. This same repetition occurs if one says he is depressed and then has an enormous sigh.

A non-verbal message can regulate a verbal one

Usually, our non-verbal message control the flow of conversation. We often use tone of voice and speaking rate to indicate that we want to keep talking or to yield the floor to someone else. We also use them to subtly register approval or disapproval, understanding or misunderstanding of others.

It can substitute for a verbal one: A friend asks, “What is going on?” One can reply by shrugging his shoulders. Other friends calls, “Hi,” across the parking lot and his responds by waving his hands. Instead of giving reply in words, they have opted for non-verbal mode of communication. For example, when a student folds hands to convey his regards to his teacher, this namaskar is substituting to a verbal message. When the teacher replies with the same gesture, it is also a non-verbal message substituting a verbal one.

A non-verbal message can contradict a verbal one

Research indicates that when we perceive inconsistencies between verbal messages a non-verbal one we must believe the contents of the latter message. Has one ever laughed while saying sorry to someone? Has one congratulated anyone on the eve of his successful completion of PhD degree in management by presenting a sad and depressed face?

Your own experience will prove to you how much you value non-verbal communication and how it can even contradict the words that accompany it. These situations clearly tell us that contradictory situations regarding non-verbal message with verbal messages are rare.

Classification of Non-verbal Communication

The classifications are discussed in following subsections.

Kinesics or Body Language

‘Kinesics’ literally means ‘body movements’. Bodily movements, gestures and body language is an important factor, especially in face-to-face communication, as here the message is communicated by a number of factors like facial expressions, eye movements and gestures. Body language is the reflection of thought, feelings and position. All bodily movements, postures and gestures are guided by our thought processes and emotions.

By nodding our head, blinking eyes, waving hands and shrugging shoulders we send out signals and messages, which are louder than words. That is why this area of enquiry has been called ‘body language’. Just as language uses sets of symbols to convey meaning, our body, consciously and unconsciously or instinctively, carries messages, attitudes, relationships and moods indicating warmth/indifference, positive/negative feelings and so on. We, however, infer these meanings from body symbols and seek them in the face and eyes, gestures, posture, and physical appearance where each has its own functions.

Kinesics or body language includes:

  • Facial expressions
  • Eye contact
  • Gestures
  • Body shape and posture
  • Appearance


Haptics is the study of how individuals communicate by touch. This mode of communication is our earliest means of making contact with others. It has actually become essential to human development. Babies and children need to be touched in order to grow, flourish, and avoid numerous health problems. Touch even seems to improve a child’s mental functioning as well as physical health.

In our life touch plays an important role in how we respond to others and to our environment, and it can communicate many messages. When we appreciate someone, we pat on his back. Parents and alders bless their younger ones by touching their head. Younger people express respect by touching the feet of elderly people. By shaking hands, we show our warmth and affection to each other. When two friends after a long gap hug each other, it shows their warmth and affection.

Touching can show tenderness, affection, encouragement and the full range of emotions. The infant begins its communicative life largely through the sense of touch. As the baby is a hugged, kissed, cradled, cuddled and stroked, human exchange being to unfold. Psychologists contend that the denial of extensive touching can have untold negative impact upon the infant’s development. Touching actions serve as regulators. They act as both conveyors and elicitors of positive as well as negative feelings. Touching conveys the total range from highly impersonal to highly personal meanings.

The touch will be of four types:

  • Intimate touch: A child and mother usually touch to each other to shower affection. Two friends/brothers meet each other after a long gap is also an intimate touch.
  • Friendly touch: When two people meet, they touch their shoulders and back to show their warmth and it is a friendly touch.  Professional touch: Doctor examines their patients by touching. Surgeons operate their patients.  Social touch: Handshake is one of the commonest forms of this kind of touch. When a teacher touches his student to encourage him, it is social touch. By touching the head of younger ones, blessings are bestowed by the elder ones.

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