A Primer on Nonverbal Communication


Processing nonverbal communication is a skill, one that needs to be developed. This skill can be very hard to improve, given the fact that so much of the meaning typically is not transferred from the unconscious to the conscious.

What is Nonverbal Communication?


There are many definitions of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is essentially pulling meaning from objects, or a person’s body language. It is one of the six skills interpersonal communication skills. So rather than saying something verbally, a person can understand based on other elements of the communication process such as gestures or facial expressions. For many, however, the source of input is typically overlooked. And so, we miss a tremendous upon amount of the meaning that we could process.

The importance of Nonverbal Communication


Its importance lies in the fact that it is represents a entirely different channel of information available for you to access. For example, let’s say that you are talking to another person. In English, meaning is attached to the sounds of the words and emotions cues attached to the tones. This is not the case in Chinese languages, where tone determines meaning.

Besides emotion, you can also pick up other kinds of nonverbal cues. A few of the more important ones include whether a person understands or whether they are confused. Whether they are telling the truth or lying. And whether they secretly agree or disagree with what you’re saying.

The significance of nonverbal communication is that this data largely stays within the unconscious and does not we reach conscious awareness. As studies of the mind have shown, only a small part of the sensory data process actually reach conscious Wrangell-Saint of it is processed unconsciously. There are many instances of this but let me just give you one example.

You meet someone new, you carry on a conversation for a period of 5 minutes, and walk away thinking, “You know, I really like this guy.” Thinking further, you begin to wonder what it was that the other person did, what they said that caused you to like them so much. But paradoxically, you really can’t say what those factors are.

Examples of Nonverbal Communication

There are many examples of the importance of this type of communication. Three examples of nonverbal communication include:

The Handshake

Most likely, you pay very little attention to the nonverbal elements of the handshake. And if it’s done right, there’s no reason to do so. However, when the other person doesn’t understand exactly how this ritual needs to be completed, it interferes with the process of forming a positive first impression.

The example from the American culture, is the amount of pressure one exerts during on the other person’s hand. One puts a certain amount pressure into the handshake, and it should be neither too much nor too little. Another aspect of this is that when grasping of the hand, the web of your hand intersects the web of their hand. And of course, many of us have encountered the perspiring hand. All of these factors, makes is made us a bit uncomfortable, and why don’t know why.

Eye Contact



In some cultures, it is considered impolite and disrespectful to look into another person’s eyes. In other cultures, conveys trust. So eye contact is a very important nonverbal communication in terms of whether one extends trust and even acts friendly towards the other person.

Personal Space


Individuals all have a certain amount of space around the body that they consider to be theirs. This comfort zone varies with each individual within a culture and especially between cultures. Some cultures have the space very close to the body, other cultures have the space extending further away from the body. And you hear it all a time, “You are in my space.” Or you can see someone moving further away from you. This sense of personal territory often gets extended to objects such as desks. Very few of us would put their hands on the boss’s desk or even a stranger’s desk because we unconsciously understand that this object has become part of that individual’s personal space.


While all of us have personal space, whether we feel someone is into that personal space will depend upon the situations we find ourselves. A typical example concerns an elevator. For some odd reason, people tolerate others encroaching into their personal space in a crowded elevator. And in fact, people can be standing shoulder to shoulder and it really doesn’t bother them that much. Another interesting thing happens in most elevators as people stop talking. You see many times two people engage in conversation but as soon as the doors of the elevator open they shut up.

Forms of nonverbal communication can be broke out into tow different categories. The first category is those items associated with the human body. The second category are those items associated with the situation.

Test yourself


How good are you nonverbal communication? Do you know the meaning of the following terms. If you know all these terms, read no further, you are already and expert. 




Facial expressions,





interpersonal distance.

Types of Nonverbal Communication

Two nonverbal communication types associated with the situation include: artifacts and time.

Nonverbal Artifacts


Artifacts are technically the objects that we carry on our person or surround ourselves with. Artifacts are of great interest to anthropologists, since these are the only remaining part of culture that we can use to understand them better. For example, the tool is a type of artifact. Someone who has many tools in their home, functions differently in the universe, that someone who has no tools. Stone tools indicate a different level of understanding than flint, iron or steel ones.

Also, artifacts convey a person’s status and power in a particular society. One of the reasons people are so willing to shell out huge amounts of money for luxury goods, is that these goods are used to convey status. It’s often said, that no one buys a Mercedes to get from here to there. They’re input large amounts of money into this car as a status symbol. One might assume that someone who has to project this kind of image on the outside is rather insecure on the inside. Or perhaps, these owners use the car as a means of enhancing their dominance and encouraging the submissions of others.

I once saw the power of status artifacts in a large department store in Shanghai. I was out shopping, and had chosen to dress up in some rather old clothes. You know, old blue jeans, and a T-shirt with old grungy shoes. The person at the store chose to ignore me because she assumed I had no money. Of course, if I had chosen to wear a $500 suit, I’m sure the response would’ve been much different.

Nonverbal Aspects of Time (Chronomics)


One of the more subtle aspects of communication is the symbolic meaning give to time. For some, time is circular. For others, time is a straight line. For those that have a circular view of time, we would likely see an associated belief in reincarnation. Life has a beginning and an end, but like a wheel turning, you are born and you will die in a process that repeats over and over and over. On the hand, people in the West tend to assume that life is like stairway, it has one beginning and one Andy will be born and you will die and that’s it.

More practically, this perception of time is often captured in the starting and ending times of meetings. There is a growing international norm in which a meeting that is supposed to start at nine starts at nine. However this is not always observed in some cultures. One may end up being at the meeting at nine, but the meeting may not start until 9:30. A meeting that is supposed to end at eleven, may drag on till noon. And then you goes out for lunch, which is really an extension of the meeting.

Nonverbal Communication in the Body


Body language has a number of different elements associated with it. One can break these out a number of different ways. For example, you have: facial expressions, personal territory, gestures, eye contact, personal space, touch and so on. All of them have important, but some are more important than others.

If you are going to focus on the two most important elements of body language, its facial expressions and gestures. And of these two, facial expressions are much more important. Some people are rather skilled at masking the nonverbal communication elements associated with the face. They tend to be in the power elite, those business and government leaders, who for various reasons must lie and must do it well.

Cultural Nonverbal Communication


Cultures have a large impact on the expression of nonverbal meaning. Different elements of body language, such as gestures, will be understood differently depending on the culture in which you find yourself. Take for example, certain aspects of public speaking.

Typically in the American culture one sees quite a lot of variety in expression and intonation patterns associated with both face and voice. One also sees quite a lot of gestures, the harms arising and falling and being used in different ways to enhance the meaning of the words.

In many Asian cultures, presentations are more formal, there is less use of gestures, the hands typically being kept at one side or on the podium. Also, there tends to be less variety of expression on the face. And, it would not be unusual for a presentation to begin either with the recognition of the more distinguished members in the audience, or with an apology. The Americans, though, would tend to start a presentation with humor.

It’s also important to understand, that culture has a huge impact in terms of the amount of information conveyed verbally or nonverbally. One often can see this in the movies. Hollywood movies tend to have a lot of information conveyed via the dialogue. There are very few moments where nothing is coming at you verbally. Almost always one character or another is speaking. However in Chinese movies, you oftentimes see the exact opposite situation. There are long pauses, moments of silence, a focus on the face (one that typically lacks much expression).



Understanding nonverbal communication is essential skill to being a great leader. Sometimes the most important elements of meaning are left unsaid. And this is especially the case when were dealing with sensitive issues. It typically is not what they say, but what they don’t say, that we need to understand.


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