Nonverbal Communication Theories

Vijai N Giri. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publication. 2009.

The first scientific study of nonverbal communication was seen in Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. He argued that all mammals show emotions reliably in their faces. Today, studies on nonverbal communication range across a number of fields, including linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, and social psychology. Nonverbal communication plays an important role in everyday interactions with the different people we meet. The human body is so incredibly versatile that it can send thousands of nonverbal messages. When we encounter people, we usually look first at their face to see if their expression reflects what they are saying. Then we listen to the tone of their voice to check if there are any indications of the emotions involved, and finally, we listen to the spoken words to get the actual meaning. Generally, we make judgments about the nature and behavior of persons based on their nonverbal and visual cues rather than on their verbal communication.

Most people have an intuitive sense about what nonverbal communication is. Often called body language, it is assumed to include gesture, facial expression, body movement, gaze, dress, and the like to send messages. But the notion of body language is fairly vague and omits a number of important communicative nonverbal elements, such as use of voice, touch, distancing, time, and physical objects as messages. It is the assumption that one cannot not communicate, a claim that has given rise to extended debate on what constitutes nonverbal communication. Now it is believed that all nonverbal behavior is communication. Judee Burgoon defines nonverbal communication as those behaviors other than words themselves that form a socially shared coding system—that is, they are typically sent with intent, typically interpreted as intentional, used with regularity among members of a speech community, and have consensually recognizable interpretations.

Nonverbal communication is both powerful and indispensable in communication. Our verbal communication would be ineffective if our nonverbal messages did not accompany them. No matter where we look, nonverbal communication is at the heart of every message conveyed or received whether in face-to-face encounters or over the telephone. In fact, nonverbal communication includes personal feelings, emotions, attitudes, and thoughts through body movements—gestures, postures, facial expressions, walking styles, positions, and distance—either consciously or involuntarily, more often subconsciously, and accompanied or unaccompanied by the spoken language. Thus, it can be said that nonverbal communication is the way people unconsciously telegraph their private thoughts and emotions through body movements—the way in which they fold their arms, cross their legs, sit, stand, walk, use their hips, eyes, and even in the subtle way they move their lips.

A pioneer in the field of nonverbal communication, Ray Birdwhistell, suggested that most human communication occurs through gestures, postures, position, and distance. He described a 65 to 35% split between actions and words. Albert Mehrabian, a well-known expert in nonverbal communication, conducted a study on the relationships among the three main elements of communication: the verbal, the vocal, and the visual. The verbal refers to the words that are spoken, the message. The vocal refers to the intonation, projection, and resonance of the voice through which the message is conveyed. The visual depicts the nonverbal behaviors while speaking. Mehrabian noted the impact of communication across the three forms as verbal, 7% (words); vocal, 38% (tone of voice, inflection); and visual, 55% (nonverbal physical behaviors). The visual is the most controllable and perhaps the most unconscious element of the message from sender to receiver. If the message is consistent, all the elements get combined effectively. There is excitement and enthusiasm in the voice, correlated with an energetic, lively face, and body that exudes confidence and conviction about the message.

Bruce Perry states that human communication starts when words have no meaning. It starts by gazing, rocking, stroking, kissing, and humming. It is in these first nonverbal interactions that a human being is connected to another and the back and forth of communication begins. Thus, nonverbal communication is the core of all languages. Human beings have a remarkable brain-mediated capacity to make sounds and act as symbolic representations of other things. They are capable of making thousands of complex languages with millions of unique words.

When language does not develop in the context of caring relationships, we lose the beauty and meaning that words can convey. For each newborn, exposure to repetitive spoken language in a relationship provides the stimulus for neural organization that will allow that child to develop complex language capabilities—the capacity to understand and to communicate using words. This learning process requires that language be derived from social-emotional communication. The face, not the voice, is the major organ of human communication.

Only a fraction of our total brain is dedicated to verbal communication. Indeed, the vast majority of our communication with others is nonverbal, and a huge percentage of what our brains perceive in communication from others is focused (even without our being aware) on the nonverbal signals—eye movements, facial gestures, tone of voice, latency to delay in responding to a question, the move of a hand, or tip of the head. Even as one area of the brain is processing and attending to the words in an interaction, more areas are continually focusing on, and responding to the nonverbal actions that accompany the words. It is through nonverbal communication that we learn the meaning of words.

Despite the important role that nonverbal messages play in our society, few people are conscious of the ways in which they respond to the nonverbal cues of others. It is ironic that people spend several years in learning verbal language, but almost no time is devoted to the study of the syntax or vocabulary of nonverbal behaviors. The result is that our ability to send and interpret nonverbal messages is generally inadequate.

Anthropologists Birdwhistell and Edward T. Hall were interested in the total process of communication, and their pioneering efforts and observations of body movements, gestures, postures, and the use of space laid the groundwork for the area of study called nonverbal communication.

The Role of Culture

Cultures differ radically in their use of space, touch, time, and artifact; in the symbolism of their attire; in their use of bodily and vocal cues—in short in all the nonverbal codes. For example, touching the feet of elderly people would be seen as showing respect to them in Indian culture, but the same act might be interpreted differently in other cultures. Communicators become more tolerant of others once they understand that unusual nonverbal behaviors are the result of cultural differences.

Although much nonverbal communication is based on arbitrary symbols that differ from culture to culture, a large proportion is also to some extent iconic and may be universally understood. Paul Ekman’s influential 1960s studies of facial expression determined that expressions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise are universal. Nonverbal communication has many modes of communication, but based on several studies, the following mediums are popularly known as they are frequently used for conveying and understanding the messages. Each of these mediums has some unique properties that influence the communication behaviors.

Modes of Nonverbal Communication


Proxemics was first developed by Hall during the 1950s and 1960s. Hall’s studies were inspired by earlier studies of how animals demonstrate territoriality. The term territoriality is still used in the study of proxemics to explain human behavior regarding personal space. Owen Hargie and David Dickson identified four such territories. Primary territory refers to an area that is associated with someone who has exclusive use of it—for example, a house that others cannot enter without the owner’s permission. Secondary territory, if using the previous example, means that there is no right to occupancy, but people may still feel some degree of ownership of a particular space. For example, someone may sit in the same seat on a train every day and feel aggrieved if someone else sits there. Public territory refers to an area that is available to all, but only for a set period, such as a parking space or a seat in a library. Although people have only a limited claim over that space, they often exceed that claim. For example, it was found that people take longer to leave a parking space when someone is waiting to take that space. Interaction territory is the space created by others when they are interacting. For example, when a group is talking to each other on a footpath, others will walk around the group rather than disturb it.

Use of space varies because cultural definitions of the self are different. People of a particular culture arrange their space in a certain ways. Hall defines three basic types of space. Fixed-feature space consists of unmovable things such as walls and rooms. Semifixed-feature space includes move-able objects such as furniture. Informal space is the personal territory around the body that travels with a person and determines the interpersonal distance between people. For example, Anglo-American culture uses four discernible distances: intimate (0 to 18 inches), personal (1 to 4 feet), social (4 to 12 feet), and public (over 12 feet). It may be noted that the distance between communicators also depends on sex, status, and social role.


Haptics is the study of touching behavior in nonverbal communication. Touches that can be defined as communication include handshakes, holding hands, kissing (cheek, lips, hand), back slapping, a pat on the shoulder, and brushing an arm. Touching of oneself during communication may include licking, picking, holding, and scratching. These behaviors are referred to as adaptor and may send messages that reveal the intentions or feelings of a communicator. The meaning conveyed from touch is highly dependent upon the context of the situation, the relationship between communicators, and the manner of touch.

As a form of communication, haptics has received increasing attention in nonverbal research over the past decades. Our need for touch seems to be very strong. Touch can convey a myriad of meanings, ranging from care and concern to anger and violence. The power of communication through touch has been studied in several applied settings. If touching is so important and powerful, why is it often suppressed in our society? Perhaps, as our society is progressing, people substitute touch with other signs and symbols, such as language. In Indian culture, touching has a very wide range of meaning. Untouchability, a curse in Indian society, exists even today in certain parts of the country. In northern India, in certain relationships some family members cannot touch each other. Touching the feet of parents and older people in the family and relations is supposed to be the best way to show respect.


The study of the role of eyes in nonverbal communication is referred to as oculesics. Eye contact can indicate interest, attention, and involvement. Gaze comprises the actions of looking while talking, looking while listening, amount of gaze, and frequency of glances, patterns of fixation, pupil dilation, and blink rate. All these activities should be understood in their proper cultural contexts.


An interesting but often overlooked dimension of nonverbal communication is chronemics, or use of time. Our notions of time, how we use it, the timing of events, our emotional responses to time, and even the length of our pauses contribute to the communicative effect of time. The concept of time varies from culture to culture. For example, in Indian culture, lateness and waiting might not be that important as it is in many Western cultures. Misjudgment and misuse of these different time systems can lead others to interpret nonverbal behaviors inaccurately. People in such cultures, where punctuality is considered not that essential, may face difficulties if they arrive early or on time. In addition, this will definitely affect their communication behaviors.

Following Hall and others, William Gudykunst and Stella Ting-Toomey identified two dominant time patterns: monochrome time and polychrome time. Monochrome time schedule (M-time) refers to cultures and contexts in which time is seen as being very important and it is characterized by a linear pattern. The emphasis is on the use of time schedules and appointments. Time is viewed as something that can be controlled or wasted by individuals, and people tend to do one thing at a time. The M-pattern is typically found in North America and Northern Europe. The other pattern is called the polychrome time schedule (P-time) where personal involvement is more important than schedules. The emphasis lies on personal relationships rather than on keeping appointments on time. This is the usual pattern that is typically found in Latin America and the Middle East.


Kinesics is the study of bodily activity in nonverbal communication. Birdwhistell is considered to be the originator of kinesics. Kinesics is also popularly known as body language. Kinesic behaviors include mutual gaze, smiling, facial warmth or pleasantness, childlike behaviors, direct body orientation, and the like. Birdwhistell proposed the term kineme to describe a minimal unit of visual expression, in analogy to a phoneme which is a minimal unit of sound. Birdwhistell based his theory on seven assumptions: (1) All body movements have potential meaning in communicative contexts—somebody can always assign meaning to any bodily activity; (2) behavior can be analyzed because it is organized, and this organization can be subjected to systematic analysis; (3) although bodily activity has biological limitations, the use of bodily motions in interaction is considered to be a part of any social system; (4) different groups will therefore use gestures differently—people are influenced by the visible bodily activity of others; (5) the ways in which bodily activity functions in communication can be investigated; (6) the meanings discovered in research on kinesics result from the behavior being studied as well as the methods used for research; and (7) a person’s use of bodily activity will have idiosyncratic features, but will also be part of a larger social system shared with others.

Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen conducted research on kinesics particularly on face and hands. They were interested in increasing understanding of the individual communicator, the nature of interpersonal interactions and relationships, as well as the quality of communication by studying kinesic elements. Researchers in the field of kinesics generally value face as the most expressive part of the body. In our daily interaction with people, it is the face that first draws our attention since it is directly observable. Facial expressions are highly flexible and changeable. They are connected with our emotions as well as with our speech. The face can encode a variety of communicative (conscious and intended) and informative (unintended) messages. We alter our facial expressions to make them relevant to particular situations, such as parties, weddings, funerals, formal occasions, and so on.

Thus, every part of the body, from the eyebrows to the legs and feet, can be manipulated, and this gives rise to endless possible combinations of features. Birdwhistell has even estimated that there are 250,000 expressions possible in the face region alone. Fortunately, not all of these minute differences in expressions are meaningful.

Physical Environment-Appearance

Environmental factors such as furniture, architectural style, interior decorating, lighting conditions, colors, temperature, noise, and music affect the behavior of communicators during interaction. Environmental conditions can alter the choices of words or actions that communicators use to accomplish their communicative objective.

Another visual dimension of nonverbal communication is the physical appearance of the human body. Elements such as physique, height, weight, hair, skin color, gender, odors, and clothing send nonverbal messages during interaction. For example, research into height has generally found that taller people are perceived as being more impressive. Men and women are very conscious of their own appearance and that of others. In fact, physical attraction is often the key determinant of whether people will choose to become acquainted. It should be clear that physical appearance cues produce strong reactions in others, but physical appearance as a code is more limited than some of the other nonverbal codes. Thus, physical appearance is more effective in the beginning stage of interaction, and the first impression effects are generally important.


Paralanguage (sometimes called vocalics) is the study of nonverbal cues of the voice. Vocalics is concerned with the use of the voice in communication. It focuses on how we say something rather than on what we say. It is, therefore, referred to as the vocal element of speech as opposed to the verbal element, which is the words and their meanings. Vocalics consists of several features. Vocal quality is the characteristic tonal quality of the voice, based on such factors as resonance, articulation, lip control, and rhythm control. Intensity, tempo, pitch, fluency and vocal patterns are the important dimensions of vocalics.