Culture and Society

How do people communicate nonverbally?
Answered by Meredith Bower and Discovery Fit & Health
  •  Meredith Bower

    Meredith Bower

  • Discovery Fit & Health

    Discovery Fit & Health

  1. Nonverbal communication -- those gestures, gazes and facial expressions that usually accompany our words -- have more meaning than most people realize.  Holding a conversation with someone who makes eye contact or lightly touches your arm is usually much more satisfying than talking to someone who stands with crossed arms and appears to be looking over your shoulder for something more interesting.

    It's possible to send conflicting messages using verbal and nonverbal communication simultaneously. Consider the message being sent when someone wears a sweet smile on his face, but his threatening words are delivered in a low, deliberate tone. If your words say one thing but your body language conveys a different message, your meaning can become confused, or your credibility may be diminished. We tend to distrust or become uncomfortable around people whose facial expressions do not match the tone of their words.

    Our body language acts and other nonverbal cues are vital communication tools, emphasizing or confirming meaning, showing understanding, regulating interactions and even substituting for a verbal message. Children learn quickly how to react when a parent shoots them a disapproving look and puts a finger to the lips to say, "Be quiet, you are making me angry." And who among us can give accurate directions without pointing or using other non-verbal gestures for emphasis? As management guru Peter F. Drucker once said, "The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said."

    As we continue to become more globally oriented citizens, it is interesting to note that acceptable nonverbal gestures in one culture may be ineffective, unfamiliar or offensive to another society. Some cultures are more physically animated talkers, while others are more restrained in their nonverbal cues. Americans point with the index finger, while the Japanese find that rude and tend to use the entire hand. Indians also use their entire hand or point with their thumb or chin  [source: Expats Moving and Relocation Guide]. Communicating across cultures, when neither person speaks the same verbal or nonverbal language, can be especially difficult, and requires patience and understanding.

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  2. There are many different types of nonverbal communication, including body language, facial expressions, gestures, touch, eye contact, proximity, posture, smell, dress and sounds (such as shrieking and grunting). Nonverbal communication begins at birth, and new parents learn to distinguish between different types of cries to determine what their child needs or wants. All communication is controlled by the brain, even nonverbal signals, so nonverbal communication is an important tool in deciphering someone's inner state. However, nonverbal communication is subject to the interpretation of the person observing it, and different cultures interpret nonverbal communication in different ways.


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