Types of Nonverbal Communication

Executives attending a meeting exhibit nonverbal communication that says that the meeting is not very exciting.

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A substantial portion of our communication is nonverbal. In fact, some researchers suggest that the percentage of nonverbal communication is four times that of verbal communication, with 80% of what we communicate involving our actions and gestures versus only 20% being conveyed with the use of words.

Every day, we respond to thousands of nonverbal cues and behaviors, including postures, facial expressions, eye gaze, gestures, and tone of voice. From our handshakes to our hairstyles, our nonverbal communication reveals who we are and impacts how we relate to other people.

Nonverbal Communication Definition

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines nonverbal communication as "the act of conveying information without the use of words." It adds that knowledge of a person's culture can be important to understanding their nonverbal cues.

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9 Types of Nonverbal Communication

9 Types of Nonverbal Communication

Scientific research on nonverbal communication and behavior began with the 1872 publication of Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Since that time, abundant research has been conducted regarding the types, effects, and expressions of unspoken communication and behavior.

While these signals can be so subtle that we are not consciously aware of them, research has identified nine types of nonverbal communication. These nonverbal communication types are facial expressions, gestures, paralinguistics (such as loudness or tone of voice), body language, proxemics or personal space, eye gaze, haptics (touch), appearance, and artifacts.

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are responsible for a huge proportion of nonverbal communication. Consider how much information can be conveyed with a smile or a frown. The look on a person's face is often the first thing we see, even before we hear what they have to say.

While nonverbal communication and behavior can vary dramatically between cultures, the facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are similar throughout the world.

universal facial expressions and nonverbal communication
Verywell / Joshua Seong

Gestures

Deliberate movements and signals are an important way to communicate meaning without words. Common gestures include waving, pointing, and giving a "thumbs up" sign. Other gestures are arbitrary and related to culture.

For instance, in the U.S., putting the index and middle finger in the shape of a "V" with your palm facing out is often considered to be a sign of peace or victory. Yet, in Britain, Australia, and other parts of the world, this gesture can be considered an insult.

Nonverbal communication via gestures is so powerful and influential that some judges place limits on which ones are allowed in the courtroom, where they can sway juror opinions. An attorney might glance at their watch to suggest that the opposing lawyer's argument is tedious, for instance. Or they may roll their eyes during a witness's testimony in an attempt to undermine that person's credibility.

Paralinguistics

Paralinguistics refers to vocal communication that is separate from actual language. This form of nonverbal communication includes factors such as tone of voice, loudness, inflection, and pitch.

Consider the powerful effect that tone of voice can have on the meaning of a sentence. When said in a strong tone of voice, listeners might interpret a statement as approval and enthusiasm. The same words said in a hesitant tone can convey disapproval and a lack of interest.

Body Language and Posture

Posture and movement can also provide a great deal of information. Research on body language has grown significantly since the 1970s, with popular media focusing on the over-interpretation of defensive postures such as arm-crossing and leg-crossing, especially after the publication of Julius Fast's book Body Language.

While these nonverbal communications can indicate feelings and attitudes, research suggests that body language is far more subtle and less definitive than previously believed.

Proxemics

People often refer to their need for "personal space." This is known as proxemics and is another important type of nonverbal communication.

The amount of distance we need and the amount of space we perceive as belonging to us are influenced by several factors. Among them are social norms, cultural expectations, situational factors, personality characteristics, and level of familiarity.

The amount of personal space needed when having a casual conversation with another person can vary between 18 inches and four feet. The personal distance needed when speaking to a crowd of people is usually around 10 to 12 feet.

Eye Gaze

The eyes play a role in nonverbal communication, with such things as looking, staring, and blinking being important cues. For example, when you encounter people or things that you like, your rate of blinking increases and your pupils dilate.

People's eyes can indicate a range of emotions, including hostility, interest, and attraction. People also utilize eye gaze as a means to determine if someone is being honest.

Normal, steady eye contact is often taken as a sign that a person is telling the truth and is trustworthy. Shifty eyes and an inability to maintain eye contact, on the other hand, is frequently seen as an indicator that someone is lying or being deceptive.

Haptics

Communicating through touch is another important nonverbal communication behavior. Touch can be used to communicate affection, familiarity, sympathy, and other emotions.

In her book Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters, author Julia Wood writes that touch is also often used to communicate both status and power. High-status individuals tend to invade other people's personal space with greater frequency and intensity than lower-status individuals.

Sex differences also play a role in how people utilize touch to communicate meaning. Women tend to use touch to convey care, concern, and nurturance. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to use touch to assert power or control over others.

There has been a substantial amount of research on the importance of touch in infancy and early childhood. Harry Harlow's classic monkey study demonstrated how deprived touch and contact impedes development as baby monkeys raised by wire mothers experienced permanent deficits in behavior and social interaction.

Appearance

Our choice of clothing, hairstyle, and other appearance factors are also considered a means of nonverbal communication. Research on color psychology has demonstrated that different colors can evoke different moods. Appearance can also alter physiological reactions, judgments, and interpretations.

Just think of all the subtle judgments you quickly make about someone based on their appearance. These first impressions are important, which is why experts suggest that job seekers dress appropriately for interviews with potential employers.

Researchers have found that appearance can even play a role in how much people earn. One 1996 study found that attorneys who were rated as more attractive than their peers earned nearly 15% more than those ranked as less attractive.

Culture is an important influence on how appearances are judged. While thinness tends to be valued in Western cultures, some African cultures relate full-figured bodies to better health, wealth, and social status.

Artifacts

Objects and images are also tools that can be used to communicate nonverbally. On an online forum, for example, you might select an avatar to represent your identity and to communicate information about who you are and the things you like.

People often spend a great deal of time developing a particular image and surrounding themselves with objects designed to convey information about the things that are important to them. Uniforms, for example, can be used to transmit a tremendous amount of information about a person.

A soldier will don fatigues, a police officer will wear a specific uniform, and a doctor will wear a white lab coat. At a mere glance, these outfits tell others what that person does for a living. That makes them a powerful form of nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal Communication Examples

Think of all the ways you communicate nonverbally in your own life. You can find examples of nonverbal communication at home, at work, and in other situations.

Nonverbal Communication at Home

Consider all the ways that tone of voice might change the meaning of a sentence when talking with a family member. One example is when you ask your partner how they are doing and they respond with, "I'm fine." How they say these words reveals a tremendous amount about how they are truly feeling.

A bright, happy tone of voice would suggest that they are doing quite well. A cold tone of voice might suggest that they are not fine but don't wish to discuss it. A somber, downcast tone might indicate that they are the opposite of fine but may want to talk about why.

Other examples of nonverbal communication at home include:

  • Going to your partner swiftly when they call for you (as opposed to taking your time or not responding at all)
  • Greeting your child with a smile when they walk into the room to show that you're happy to see them
  • Leaning in when your loved one speaks to show that you are listening and that you are interested in what they're saying
  • Shoving your fist into the air when you're upset that something isn't working

Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace

You can also find nonverbal communication in the workplace. Examples of this include:

  • Looking co-workers in the eye when speaking with them to be fully engaged in the interaction
  • Throwing your hands in the air when you are frustrated with a project
  • Using excitement in your voice when leading work meetings to project your passion for a specific topic
  • Walking down the hall with your head held high to convey confidence in your abilities

Nonverbal Communication in Other Situations

Here are a few additional examples of nonverbal communication that say a lot without you having to say anything at all:

  • Greeting an old friend at a restaurant with a hug, handshake, or fist bump
  • Placing your hand on someone's arm when they are talking to you at a party to convey friendliness or concern
  • Rolling your eyes at someone who is chatting excessively with a store clerk as a line begins to form
  • Scowling at someone who has cut you off in traffic, or "flipping them the bird"

How to Improve Your Nonverbal Communication Skills

If you want to develop more confident body language or improve your ability to read other people's nonverbal communication behaviors, these tips can help:

  • Pay attention to your own behaviors: Notice the gestures you use when you're happy versus when you're upset. Think about how you change the tone of your voice depending on the emotions you are feeling. Being aware of your own nonverbal communication tendencies is the first step to changing the ones you want to change. It can also give you insight into how you're feeling if you're having trouble putting it into words.
  • Become a student of others: It can also be helpful to consider how others around you communicate nonverbally. What do their facial expressions say? What type of gestures do they use? Becoming familiar with their nonverbal communication patterns helps you recognize when they might be feeling a certain way quicker because you're actively watching for these cues. It can also help you recognize nonverbal behaviors you may want to adopt yourself (such as standing tall when talking to others to display self-confidence).
  • Look for incongruent nonverbal cues: Do you say that you're fine, then slam cupboard doors to show that you're upset? This can give those around you mixed messages. Or maybe when someone is speaking with you, they are saying yes while shaking their head no. This is another example of incongruent behavior. Both can be signs of feeling a certain way but not yet being ready to admit or discuss it.
  • Think before you act: If your middle finger seems to automatically fly up when a car cuts you off—even if your young child is in the back seat, causing you to regret it as soon as it happens—you can work to stop this reaction. Train yourself to stop and think before you act. This can help you eliminate or replace nonverbal behaviors that you've been wanting to change.
  • Ask before you assume: Certain types of nonverbal communication can mean different things in different cultures. They can also vary based on someone's personality. Before assuming that a person's body language or tone means something definitively, ask. "I notice that you won't look me in the eye when we speak. Are you upset with me?" Give them the opportunity to explain how they are feeling so you know for sure.

A Word From Verywell

Nonverbal communication plays an important role in how we convey meaning and information to others, as well as how we interpret the actions of those around us.

The important thing to remember when looking at nonverbal behaviors is to consider the actions in groups. Consider what a person says verbally, combined with their expressions, appearance, and tone of voice and it can tell you a great deal about what that person is really trying to say.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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