Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is all the ways people transmit messages through means other than words. What you “physically” say with your words and what you “symbolically” say without words work together to create meaning. So when you talk to your next door neighbor or the person sitting next to you on the bus and smile, move closer to, shake hands, or roll your eyes influences how he or she interprets your message.Like language, nonverbal communication is also related to culture and gender. The meaning of any nonverbal behavior is defined by the cultures of the speaker and receiver. Miscommunication can occur when nonverbal gestures are misunderstood or have another meaning in a different culture. (See video on hand gestures)Nonverbal communication conveys cultural meanings of gender. Men and women use nonverbal communication to express themselves as gendered. Functions of nonverbal communication include supplementing spoken language, regulating interaction, and conveying relationship level meaning. Nonverbal communication may supplement verbal communication by: repeating words, contradicting a verbal message, complementing verbal statements, replacing language, accenting verbal message by emphasizing certain words. Nonverbal cues may also regulate interaction through behaviors like eye contact and body posture. Women tend to use cues to invite and encourage others into conversations. Men tend to use more cues to maintain attention and discourage others from speaking.Nonverbal communication also is the primary conveyance of relationship levels of meaning. Three primary dimensions of relationship level meaning are responsiveness liking and power. Responsiveness conveys interest in the interaction involvement with others. Nonverbal cues indicating responsiveness include nonverbal cues like inflection, eye contact and open body posture. A lack of responsiveness may be indicated through behaviors like looking around, turning away or yawning. Females tend to use nonverbal behaviors to indicate involvement with others and signal empathy. Women also tend to be more overtly expressive of emotions and smile more. Feminine speech communities teach responsiveness to create affiliation. Liking is the nonverbal relationship level meaning that signals whether we like or dislike someone. Nonverbal cues may include display more overt signs of liking and friendliness than men. The power or control dimension of relationship meaning consists of nonverbal cues that display the degree that we act in control of, equal to, or deferential to others. Men tend to incorporate more behaviors that signal dominance and control in conversations through cues such as greater vocal volume, more non-affiliate touch, and use of greater amounts of personal space.Differences exist between women and men’s skill for interpreting nonverbal behavior. Generally, females are better able to decode nonverbal behaviors and more accurately perceive others’ emotions. There are cultural values associated with nonverbal communication. Western society has a bias towards favoring masculine qualities, which is indicated through preferences for masculine nonverbal behaviors. Cultural beliefs are changeable. They may be altered as we recognize differences in a nonjudgmental manner and resist restrictive nonverbal gender prescriptions.Nonverbal codes are distinct, organized means of expression that consists of symbols and rules for their use. The five nonverbal codes include: kinesics, paralinguistics, proxemics, haptics, and appearance and artifacts.1- Kinesics is nonverbal communication sent by the body, including facial expression, gestures, posture, body movement, and eye behavior. The body movements consist of four types of nonverbal gestures: illustrators, emblems, adaptors, and regulators. Illustrators are signals that accompany speech to clarify/emphasize the message. Emblems are gestures that stand for a specific verbal meaning. Adaptors are gestures used to manage emotion (often unconscious). Regulators are used to control conversation. Facial expressions also communicate messages, mostly emotion (think the old saying the “eyes are the window into the soul”).2- Paralinguistics are the vocal (oral) aspects of nonverbal communication and include voice pitch, rate, volume, inflection, pitch, stress, and pauses. Male and female physiology doesn’t fully explain differences in pitch. Men tend to use lower pitch, higher volume, and less inflection to gain and hold attention. Women tend to use softer pitch, lower volume and more inflection to appear polite and caring. One study found that stereotypical perceptions of men and women were related to their vocal qualities.3- Proxemics is the study of how space can serve as a function of communication. The distance between speaker and receiver symbolizes physical or psychological closeness. There is an acceptable amount of space or distance that people are comfortable with based on their level of intimacy, gender, culture and relationship (see “Close Talker” video). Proxemics or personal space and its use, reflect gendered patterns that reflect society’s values. Space is a primary way that culture indicates privilege and power. Territoriality is personal space that we protect from “invasion” by others. Men are more likely than women to refuse to step back if another steps too close for comfort.4- Haptics or touch is another aspect of nonverbal communication that is influenced by gender, culture, and level of intimacy. Sons are less likely to be touched and handled than daughters. When touched, sons also are likely to be treated more roughly than daughters. Early childhood relating to touch may account for later differences between men and women. Females are more likely to initiate touches to express support, affection and comfort. Because they are generally larger and stronger than women, men tend to have higher levels of physical confidence and are more willing to use physical force.5- Artifacts and appearance are personal objects that affect our identity, how we view ourselves, communicate something about ourselves, and develop expectations (especially gendered expectations). Toys demonstrate appropriate behaviors and activities for boys and girls. Clothing another type of artifact, defines women and men differently. A third type of artifact, advertising, reinforces images of women as homemakers or sex-symbols and men as associated with heavy work, sports and outdoor activities. Women are encouraged to be “attractive” through purchase of cosmetics and hair products. Some people use artifacts to challenge cultural prescriptions of masculinity and femininity.Understanding nonverbal communication requires an effort to understand respect and appreciate others’ nonverbal communication on their own terms. By recognizing and attempting to understand others’ patterns of nonverbal behaviors, we may increase appreciation for individual differences and less rigidly restrict expectations for nonverbal behaviors. This may also provide a greater range of communicative options.

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