Social Psychology – Nonverbal Communication

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

People communicate with more than just words. Hand gestures, facial expressions and other cues will often carry far more information than just the verbal message [1]. Everyone has at least a few examples of having carried out part (or even whole) conversations without using words. These nonverbal elements of communication are mostly uncontrolled and spontaneous; and can emphasize a verbal message, contradict it, call attention to important details and sometimes even distract from it. Nonverbal communication seems to be universally understood, and conveys the emotional context of the message. It is possible to get nonverbal information from gestures, posture, touching (or not), facial expressions, pitch and tone of voice, gaze, and even the way a person dresses [2]. The use of nonverbal cues seems to be a developed trait, with very young children finding it difficult to read nonverbal cues that are easily read by older toddlers and children [3].

Elements of nonverbal communication

  • Paralanguage: Besides the actual words, the way a person says something can convey a lot of information. Such elements of paralanguage like inflection, pitch, emphasis placed, pauses and speed can add volumes of meaning to a message. Even elements like laughing and sighing can help in interpreting the actual meaning of a verbal message, as they provide information about the emotional context [2].
  • Body language: One of the most important elements of body language is facial gestures, most of which are universally recognized. People in different cultures demonstrate similar facial expressions in similar situations, and can recognize the underlying emotion in faces from other cultures. Eye-contact is another important factor that provides information about the emotional state of a person. Posture and gestures as well as movement also convey a lot of information. The way a person stands, holds themselves in different situations and the way they walk can convey information about mood and confidence [1, 2].
  • Interpersonal space: Proxemics is the study of how people use space to communicate. Typically, people who want to express agreement or intimacy will stand closer, lean in and basically reduce the space between themselves and the receiver of the communication. On the other hand, when people wish to demonstrate disagreement and social distance will also add physical distance to their interaction. Even when people are is a public space like a bus, and cannot control the physical space between themselves and others, they try to control the social distance by averting their gaze or looking at a neutral object [2].
  • Personal effects: People use clothing and accessories to not only manage impressions, but also to send a message about who they are. The way a person dresses and the objects they carry with them are often used to convey messages about who they are and how they perceive themselves to others [2].

Importance of Nonverbal communication

Often, people choose not to provide a lot of information through verbal communication; and on occasion, this may be done with the express purpose of mis-informing someone [1]. Being able to read nonverbal communication can help identify the true intent of an individual, as it is extremely difficult to control all the cues simultaneously while continuing to deliver a false message. People don’t need to be trained to read nonverbal cues. Most people will pay attention to and process the information they contain without even realizing it. Sometimes people are aware of what they read from nonverbal communication, particularly in important situations. A recent study [4] found that patients will pay attention to doctors’ nonverbal cues like expressions, tone of voice and eye contact. Some more perceptive patients also attend to other cues like distance, touch, and posture; and these cues are then used in evaluating the value of the doctor’s message as well as the doctor him/herself. Thus, if the doctor is leaning in and smiling while looking into the patients eyes, the patient is more likely to trust the doctor.

In the age of IT

With advances in communications technology, a significant amount of interpersonal communication seems to occur through text messages, chat and e-mail. These modes allow for little if any nonverbal communication; and it may seem that people are at a disadvantage in these forms of communication. But the need to convey nonverbal information seems to be as strong as the need to receive it, and people often include emoticons like “J” and “L” or information about para-verbal behavior (like adding “heehaw” or stretching a word’s spelling) that convey nonverbal cues in a pure text communication. An entire plethora of terms like LOL (Laughing out loud) and ROFL (rolling on the floor with laughter) has helped create an equally complex interaction that mimics real world interaction [5].

How people read cues

Most times, people are not aware of reading nonverbal communication, and would be hard-pressed to describe all the cues that they take into consideration. When made aware of the process, most people gauge the honesty of any communication by observing a person’s Micro-expressions, Inter-channel discrepancies, Eye contact and Intensity of facial expressions [1]. Micro-expressions are fleeting expressions that are reflexive demonstrations of the person’s real emotions. Since these are very hard to control, people exhibit their real feelings in micro-expressions even when they hide them in speech. People also find it difficult to lie and control their body language or maintain a steady gaze at the same time. Thus, it is possible that a person says “I’m happy” but does so with slumped shoulders, showing a discrepancy in verbal and nonverbal communication [1]. A recent study [6] suggests that people may estimate the kind of emotion (positive or negative) from the person’s body language rather than from just facial expressions. Thus, when people can only see the body without the fine features, or when they perceive a contradiction (hunched shoulders, but a smile on the face), they will attend more to the body postures. This may be due to an intuitive awareness that it is far more difficult to fake body language than it is to fake facial expressions.

Nonverbal communication allows an individual to enrich their understanding of the experiences of others, as well as to communicate the details of their own. It is not easy to consciously attend to or control nonverbal expressions; But with diligence, a person may be able to do so if they so choose. Nevertheless, the true value of understanding the role of nonverbal cues is that they help in adding meaning and context to verbal communication, and in enhancing the quality of overall communication.


[1] Baron, Robert A. “Social Perception”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 79 – 109.

[2] DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Symbolic communication and language”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 166 – 196.

[3] Carpenter, Malinda; Kristin Liebal & Micheal Tomasello. “Young children’s understanding of markedness in non-verbal communication“. Journal of Child Language 38 (4). 2011. Pp. 888–903. doi:10.1017/S0305000910000383.

[4] Marcinowicz L, Konstantynowicz J, Godlewski C. Patients’ perceptions of GP non-verbal communication: a qualitative study. British Journal of General Practice, 60(571). 2010. Pp. 83–87.

[5] Horowitz, Leonard M. & Strack Stephen (Ed.s). “The role of nonverbal communication in interpersonal relations”. Handbook of Interpersonal Psychology: Theory, Research, Assessment, and Therapeutic Interventions. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. 171 – 190.

[6] Aviezer, Hillel, Yaacov Trope & Alexander Todorov. “Body cues, not facial expressions, discriminate between intense positive and negative emotions.” Science, 338. 2012. Pp. 6111: 1225.