Non-verbal Communication

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Home | Communication: An Introduction | Verbal Communication | Non-verbal Communication | Professional Communication | Barriers and Gateways to Effective Communication

Non-verbal Communication


While talking about communication, we talked about verbal communication as well as non-verbal communication. As we have already indicated, verbal communication takes place with the help of language and non-verbal communication takes place with the help of non-linguistic support other than the spoken or written words and includes body movements like its postures, gestures and facial expressions, use of space and distancing. Non-verbal communication is also possible with the help of different signs, symbols and other modes. It is more important than that of verbal communication because it constitutes 65% of the total communication transacted in our everyday life whereas verbal communication constitutes only 35%.

Different Types of Communication

Different forms of non-verbal communication are:

Personal Appearance

Before a speaker starts speaking, the audience or the listeners try to guess what the speaker is going to say. Most often, our appearance itself creates the first impression among the listeners. Unless the speaker is able to present himself/herself in an audience-friendly manner to induce them into a receptive mood, one of the pre-requisites for successful communication, proper communication cannot take place. If the appearance of a speaker is not audience-friendly, s/he may create hostility among the audience and be an utter disaster. The personality or appearance of a person is based upon many factors: the way s/he dresses up, his/her hair style, make up. Dress speaks of the group identity, oneness, mark of status and suitability for a formal occasion. The Chief Guest of a Convocation, for example, is never expected to be in loose pantaloons and slippers. The right dress code for such an august occasion would be a formal suit, preferably with a tie, though wearing a suit without a tie is also acquiring its importance among people on such occasions. This is the reason why many organizations go for a uniform dress code for their employees. This focus on appearance is more culture specific than universal as with the rapid strides in civilization and the increasing changes in lifestyle, people have started accepting informal dress patterns for formal occasions as well. Indian saints, for example, when invited by the foreign universities as guests of honour prefer to go in their traditional attires which seems very much acceptable to the audience there.


By gestures we mean the different movements of the head, hands, legs, shoulders and other parts of the body to communicate different messages like ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘come here’ ‘go there’ keep sitting’, ‘don’t move’ etc . Most interestingly, these gestures are often used to give directions to the pet animals and are equally applicable to animals. For instance, when we move our head up and down, we indicate approval or agreement, The shrugging of the shoulders may mean either ‘I don’t care’ or ‘I don’t know’. The waving of the hand may be used either to say hello to somebody or to bid goodbye. If we raise the thumb of the right hand with all other fingers downward, we mean ‘Well done’ or ‘Keep it up.” We also raise the index finger to the lips to say, “Be quiet!”. The winking of the eyes is used to indicate that we are looking at something with much heed. Closing of eyes is very often associated with extreme happiness or excitement, very rarely helplessness of course. Even small gestures like scratching the scalp, playing with hair, playing with a key-chain, clasping one’s hand, looking in other directions are indicative of various messages like ‘absentmindedness’, indifference’, ‘carelessness’ etc and adversely impact effective communication.


Postures refer to the different positions or movements of our body and hands while sitting, standing, walking, talking, even sleeping. The movement of our body, positions of hands and other parts of the body show various traits of our personality and tell to the audience whether we are dynamic, dull, self-confident or nervous. In personal discussions or group discussions, postures play an important part. In group discussions, we must be ready to play our parts actively. When our turn comes, we must sit in an upright position, not in a reclined one and talk to our co-participants with confidence and respect. While talking, our chin must be parallel to the floor. Drooping shoulders and stooping body indicate that we are casual, tired and disinterested. In an act of listening too these postures are important. When somebody is listening to us in an upright position, it is assumed that the person is attentive. If the same person slouches towards left or right, forward or backward, it indicates both indifference and carelessness. But at the same time, extraordinary stiffness or uprightness is unwelcome as it indicates the hostility of the person in the listening position. On the other hand, if a person stoops forward with his/her hands on the cheeks and eyes wide open, we interpret it as an attentive position.

Facial Expression

Face is the index of the mind. It is the objective correlative of our thoughts and feelings. Whatever we think and feel gets reflected on our face. An open smile indicates friendliness, a prolonged smile indicates crookedness, a laughter indicates openness, a frown indicates discontent and disapproval, raising of eyebrows indicates surprise, doubt and disbelief, tightening of the jaw muscles indicates hostility and antagonism and a wooden expression on the face may indicate indifference and prejudice towards the listeners. Biting the lips, scratching the nose or the ears, blinking of the eyes, moving fingers over the forehead indicate that the speaker’s participation in the act of communication is either minimal or nil.

Eye Contacts(Oculesics)

Eye contact is one of the dominant aspects of non-verbal communication. Eyes, being the extension of the brain and window to the soul, reflect our thoughts and feelings, say what our mouth cannot and express the sincerity or casualness in both speaking and listening. Wide eyes speak of attention, static eyes speak of indifference, half-closed eyes may indicate the unpreparedness of the body for the act of communication and completely closed eyes may mean either ‘complete concentration’ or ‘absence of the same. In art and literature, therefore, description of the eyes of the heroines occupies a pivotal position. So in order to ensure the active participation of the listeners, it is wise to have a watch, of course unconsciously, on the eye movements of the listeners, particularly people seating in the first few rows. This not only helps us improve our communication but also helps us improving the level of participation and sense of satisfaction among the listeners. While speaking, a good speaker can alter, adjust or reframe his message on the basis of the feedback s/he receives from the listeners.

Space Distancing(Proxemics)

The minimum distance to be maintained from the receiver or addressee is determined by the nature of the context where the act of communication is transacted. Care should be taken by the participants in a communication not to invade the personal territories. This invasion of personal territory occurs when the participants are in a state of excitement or heightened state of mind (like anger, shock, danger, ecstasy, grief etc). In a formal social interaction, a zone of 4 to 12 feet is maintained, which is known as the Social Distance. The normal convention is that the person who is superior stands and others remain seated. On the other hand, in public speaking, this distance is between 12feet to 30 feet, depending upon various local conditions. In Middle Eastern cultures, it is said that the person sitting or standing close to a person at a distance of less than one meter is interpreted as a sign of friendliness and good will and if somebody sits or stands too far away, s/he is considered aloof and unfriendly. On the contrary, in western cultures, ‘personal space’ is very important and people do not prefer it to be invaded by others in an act of conversation. Moreover, majority people from the western cultures consider themselves more as individuals than as members of groups, hence give utmost priority to their individuality and personal space (Das et al, n.d, p.55).

Tactile Communication(Haptics)

Many messages can also be communicated through the ways our bodies touch each other. When we want to express our love or grief for somebody, we hug him/her; when we express our affection for somebody, we kiss on his/her forehead, when we express our liking for somebody, we kiss his/her palms or cheeks. When somebody pats us, we feel happy, excited and encouraged. The simple touch of hand, even a handshake, can convey strong messages. A cold hand indicates a cold relationship whereas a warm hand evokes love for the person initiating the communication. The way we shake hands with others is also equally indicative of our approach and attitude towards that person. In some countries, people touch each others’ bodies, usually on the back, shoulders or arms, in a natural gesture of friendliness while talking to each other but it is avoided in some other cultures and often misinterpreted.

Body Language(Kinesics)

Body language is the shortcut that all of us have to tune ourselves to a new environment where communication is to take place. The social attitudes corresponding to the different cultures in different society are articulated through the body language of the participants. With the proper use of body language, we can turn the hostile things in our favour and make communication a success.

Time language

Attitude towards time, though taken very casually in the South Asian Countries, is very important in determining the success or failure of an individual or organization. In the western cultures, particularly in the German culture, punctuality is considered to be one of the most vital social traits. Respect to time should be a matter of mutual interest. It may so happen that the guest arrives at a place in time but the hosts are not to been seen around, which is indicative of nothing other than the indifference and/or disrespect of the hosts towards the guests. A guest treated this way would think hundred times before accepting an invitation from people of this sort. The vice versa may also happen often. In either case, this shows the disrespect of the defaulter to the other party under consideration. People may get tired of waiting for person before s/he arrives. This is very much prevalent among most of the politicians in India who consider punctuality to be an oddity in their character, not a desirable trait.


Often it so happens that our silence becomes more eloquent than our speech. The silence we maintain after an argument may mean our anger or disapproval of the other person or his/her arguments. The silence after a tragedy is indicative of the emotional disturbance going on in a person’s mind. The silence of a participant after a quarrel or failure may indicate that the person is planning to take revenge or sorting out ways and means to come out of this sorry state of affairs. In many cases, it also leads to suicide as the victim considers suicide to be the be all and end all of all disturbances in life.

Artefact and Environment

Graphs, charts, traffic lights, signs and symbols used in social and religious communication, the things we possess, the environment we maintain inside our houses are suggestive of many messages that we do not or cannot express through verbal communication. In the Hindu temples, for example, falling of a flower from a God’s or Goddess’s head is considered to be auspicious whereas falling of stone from a temple is considered inauspicious. Likewise, in the election of a new Pope, the religious leaders of the Roman catholic Church gather at St peters Basilica and wait for a column of white smoke coming out of the chimneys (Das, 2009, 19-20). In the Indian context, for example, if somebody plants a red flag in a field, it means ‘reserved for a religious cause’. But if the same flag has a sickle and hammer in it, it is the flag of the Communist Party of India(M), indicative of the usurpation of the land for community purposes. Inside home or an office too, the environment is indicative of the mood or mind set of the inhabitants or workers. If the things lie in disorder, this indicates carelessness of the people; if there is utter silence at home, it indicates that some tragic thing has happened or there is absolute collapse of communication whereas utter silence in an office may mean perfect discipline or an atmosphere of fear and hatred, with communication relegated to backward position. Likewise, if there is chaos either at home or in an office, it may mean lack of discipline or lack of communication. But when there is noise but within a tolerable limit, it may mean that environment is vibrant and there is perfect communication and coordination among all members.

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Repulsive physical appearances can be disastrous for candidates aspiring for jobs. Do you agree? Give reasons for your answer.

Tips for Improvement of Non-verbal Communication

As already said, non-verbal communication is more important than verbal communication because we do not talk or write twenty four hours. Out of the twenty four hours in a day, we devote hardly five-six hours to verbal communication and the rest is conditioned by how we communicate non-verbally. Hence mastering the non-verbal communication skills is equally important.

The following tips are useful in improving our non-verbal communication skills.
• Be neat in your personal appearance: When we are going to attend any formal meeting or interview, we should be properly dressed, which should never mean ‘gaudily dressed’. Somebody who is ‘overdressed’ is likely to be a butt of fun and ridicule. Casual dresses are alright if the speaker and the listener are well known to each other.

• Face the Listener: While speaking to an audience, we should try to gauze the feedback of the listeners from their facial expressions as face is the index of the mind. The expressions on the face send out multiple signals which a good speaker should be able to discern and decode.

• Focus on the Speaker: If you are sitting in the listener’s position, focus on the speaker by maintaining eye contact with him. But prolonged eye contact or staring at somebody’s face may seem threatening and disrupt communication.

• Position Yourself Properly: Irrespective of the role we have in an act of communication, we should be aware of the body position we are required to maintain to facilitate communication. Both the speaker and the listener should stand and sit upright in order to look ‘involved’. Unless the body postures match with the expectations of the other person, one may tend to misguide the other in an act of communication.

• Consider Past Experience: While speaking to an audience, we can predict their behaviour on the basis of our experience with similar audience in the past.

• Clarify from Time to Time: If we cannot see any visible signs of comprehension or appreciation of our speech, we need to talk to the audience straight and clarify from them whether we are being properly understood or not.

•Use Positive Gestures: The gestures we exhibit should be friendly, caring and most importantly, non-threatening as aggressive gestures may drive the listeners away from a topic being discussed.

•Keep a Reasonable Distance from the person you are addressing to: While speaking, irrespective of the cultural context where we are located, we should maintain a safe and reasonable distance from the person we are addressing to avoid being aggressive or aloof or unfriendly.

•Eliminate Pseudo-Affective Communication: Pseudo-affective communication takes place when there is a wide gap between what we say and what we do. We are not gifted to understand our lapses; it is others who decide what right or wrong things we do. Nether the speaker nor the listener is able to understand what hinders them from a successful act of communication. The mutual perceptions of the participants regarding this gap between words and deeds should guide people to control communication and contribute to the elimination of this undesirable mode of behaviour.

•Improve the Personal Space and Environment: How we decorate our surroundings and arrange our living places also determine the kind of impact that we may exert upon others and affect the act of communication. The desk, the chair, the table, the paintings on the walls and the music being played on can be good indicators of our personality traits and help a person understand us at first sight, which may in turn facilitate or hinder communication.

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Is it essential to focus upon non-verbal communication? Why?