In 1956, sociologist Erving Goffman wrote The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
In it, he introduces the concept of dramaturgy, which compares everyday social interactions to actors’ portrayals of characters, suggesting that one’s social interactions are analogous to a string of varying performances (Ritzer, 2021).
Goffman’s work also included the concept of impression management. The key to impression management includes appearance; your manner of interacting; and the attitudes conveyed through gestures, facial expressions, and nonverbal skills (Ritzer, 2021).
William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage.”
I’m not a trained actor, but teaching public speaking courses has made me aware that audiences seem to prefer speakers who use a variety of hand gestures. These gestures signify the speaker as “warm, agreeable, and energetic” (Goman, 2021).
Just that nugget of information has taught me to incorporate hand gestures to develop my public speaking skills.
What other nonverbal communication skills enhance daily interactions?
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based tools will help you and those you work with build better social skills and better connect with others.
This Article Contains:
What Is Nonverbal Communication?
Nonverbal communication is a way to convey information “achieved through facial expressions, gestures, touching (haptics), physical movements (kinesics), posture, body adornment (clothes, jewelry, hairstyle, tattoos, etc.), and even the tone, timbre, and volume of an individual’s voice (rather than spoken content)” (Navarro & Karlins, 2008, p. 2–4).
In this YouTube video, Joe Navarro explains several nonverbal communication cues, exposes some myths, and discusses his work with nonverbal communication in law enforcement.
Marco Iacoboni (2008, p. 81), author of Mirroring People, takes it a step further, stating that “gestures accompanying speech have a dual role of helping the speakers to express their thoughts and helping the listeners/viewers understand what is being said.”
To competently read body language, Navarro and Karlins (2008) provide suggestions such as rigorous observation and a familiarity with the person’s baseline behaviors. They also recommend watching for changes, or ‘tells.’
Navarro and Karlins (2008) advise becoming familiar with universal behaviors and contextualizing nonverbal cues. However, cultural norms could inhibit rigorous observation.
Characteristics of nonverbal communication
The United States is considered a low-context communication culture (MacLachlan, 2010). This means that much of the information in a message comes directly from words rather than through implication or body language.
This style of communication involves lots of verbal detail so as not to confuse listeners. Low-context cultures rely less on nonverbal communication, which can obscure or censor portions of the message.
Nonverbal communication is culturally determined, and it is largely unconscious. It indicates the speaker’s emotional state. When nonverbal cues conflict with the verbal message, it may convey confusion or deception (Navarro & Karlins, 2008).
Finally, nonverbal communication varies by gender and displays power differentials, information effective leaders can use to influence others (Hybels & Weaver, 2015; Henley, 1977).
Nonverbal communication of successful leaders
It’s essential for leaders to read body language, also known as decoding. Deciphering between engagement (e.g., nodding, tilting the head, open body postures) and disengagement (e.g., body tilting away, crossed arms and legs) can be the difference between success and failure (Goman, 2021).
Successful actors could be considered professional first-impression artists. Like actors, leaders often find themselves center stage; they must learn the art of creating first impressions.
Subjective awareness and the ability to express yourself nonverbally are known as encoding – crucial for positive first impressions. Advice from professional actors includes a maintaining a pleasant facial expression, good posture, pausing, breathing, relaxing, and avoiding hiding your hands (Shellenbarger, 2018).
This video, 8 Things Successful People Do to Look Confident, provides quick tips for confident body language even if you’re not feeling confident.
First impressions are said to be formed in less than seven seconds (Goman, 2021). In this short time, others formulate labels such as “powerful,” “submissive,” or “trustworthy.” Evolved leaders incorporate mindfulness to help.
Naz Beheshti (2018) states, “Evolved leaders… use nonverbal tools mindfully and deliberately to reinforce their message.” She goes on to say, “this lifts the value of your communication and your value as a leader” (Beheshti, 2018).
Awareness of self, others, and the situation (mindfulness) allows us to ensure that our gestures and body language align with our spoken words. This creates congruence and generates trustworthiness (Beheshti, 2018; Newberg & Waldman, 2013).
9 Types of Nonverbal Communication Skills
Knowing how to decode nonverbal clusters also helps discern messages.
This means we are analyzing several, simultaneous nonverbal cues. A frustrated person may tap their foot, cross their arms, and tightly squeeze their biceps (Jones, 2013). These clusters may cross over and include a variety of nonverbal categories, summarized below.
Kinesics is the study of how we move our body, specifically the head, hands, body, and arms (Jones, 2013). This includes sending messages through facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and posture.
Haptics is the study of touch or coming into physical contact with another person (Hybels & Weaver, 2015). Throughout history, touch has been surrounded by mystery and taboo. We are perplexed by healing touch and riveted by stories of infants who perished due to lack of touch. Touch can denote relationship, status, power, and personality (Henley, 1977).
Cultural norms dictate guidelines regarding touch. Mindfulness regarding social and environmental settings is prudent. We greet a friend at an informal party differently than we would greet a boss or coworker in a professional setting.
The study of space and distance is called proxemics, and it analyzes how people use the space around them (Hybels & Weaver, 2015).
This YouTube video is a fun demonstration of students completing a school project on personal space and the discomfort felt by both humans and animals when social norms are violated.
Territory is often used to display power or reveal a lack thereof.
“'[P]osture expansiveness,’ positioning oneself in a way that opens up the body and takes up space, activated a sense of power that produced behavioral changes in a subject independent of their actual rank or role in an organization” (Goman, 2021).
Expansiveness conveys power.
Environment includes objects we use to adorn ourselves and the artifacts we surround ourselves with in order to create an impression. These objects provide nonverbal cues that help others form impressions (Jones, 2013).
Paralinguistics, also known as vocalics, is the study of how we speak and involves pitch, volume, rate of speech, tone, quality, tempo, resonance, rhythm, and articulation to help determine the context of the message (Jones, 2013).
Chronemics is the study of time, including how it is used. Nancy Henley (1977, p. 43), author of Body Politics: Power, Sex & Nonverbal Communication, asserts “Time is far from a neutral philosophical/physical concept in our society: it is a political weapon.”
Henley (1977, p. 47) describes the concept of “ritual waiting,” stating, “The more important the person, the longer we will ungrudgingly wait for the service or honor of attention.”
The power of drawing attention to oneself doesn’t rely on physical appeal alone. Although facial symmetry and fashion of adornment are important (Jones, 2013), people who master good eye contact, have a lively face, offer encouragement, and use open gestures are also considered attractive (Kuhnke, 2012).
The study of our sense of smell and how smells are perceived is known as olfactics (Hybels & Weaver, 2015).
Is Nonverbal Communication Important?
Nonverbal communication is very important, as you could reveal unintentional information, as well as cause your communication to be misinterpreted.
Leakage: Unintentional messages
Teaching social–emotional skills to incarcerated people provided me with a powerful lesson about the nuances of nonverbal communication. On a particularly challenging day, I thought it wise to meditate and center myself prior to entering the jail. However, upon seeing me, the people inside began inquiring what was going on with me. What did they detect?
Nonverbal leakage can be shown through micro-expressions, which are “very fast facial movements lasting 1/25 to 1/5 of a second” and indicate a person’s real feelings (Ekman, 2003, p. 214).
This YouTube video is the opening scene of the series Lie to Me, based on the work of Paul Ekman regarding micro-expressions.
Varying statistics on the value of nonverbal communication may cause concern for those less practiced, but which statistics are accurate?
The original research from Mehrabian and Ferris (1967) regarding nonverbal communication is widely interpreted. Elizabeth Kuhnke (2012, p. 10), author of Body Language for Dummies, interprets the study, saying, “55% of the emotional message in face-to-face communication results from body language.” However, others blithely attribute 97% of the message to nonverbals (Lapakko, 2007).
The nonverbal communication formula often cited is 7–38–55, which indicates “7% of the message comes from words, 38% vocal, and 55% facial” (Lapakko, 2007, p. 7). When I see such statistics cited, it makes me wonder about particularly heavy phrases, such as “You have cancer” or “You’re fired.” A closer look at the research illuminates further findings.
Lapakko (2007) believes this formula is reckless, faulty, and misleading. Mehrabian and Ferris’s (1967) original research was conducted on 37 female psychology majors and included the use of one word: “maybe” (Lapakko, 2007).
As it turns out, the 7–38–55 formula “is applicable within the realm of interpreting the affect or emotional state of others” rather than communication in general (Lapakko, 2007, p. 5).
Regardless of statistics, we know that nonverbal communication is essential and that people skilled at both reading and interpreting body language tend to enjoy greater success in life than those not skilled (Goleman, 1997).
2 Psychology Theories and Models
Assuming Elizabeth Kuhnke and others are correct and that over half of the emotion of a message is derived from body language, it behooves us to explore theoretical frameworks of emotional expression to better understand this process.
Basic emotion theory
Basic emotion theory (BET) posits that emotions are a “grammar of social living” that situate us in the social and moral order of society (Keltner, Sauter, Tracy, & Cowen, 2019, p. 133). In addition, emotions structure interactions, particularly in relationships that matter. BET is integral to emotional expression.
Foundational to BET is the assumption that emotional expressions coordinate social interactions in three ways:
- Through rapid conveyance of important information to aid in decision making
- To evoke specific responses
- To serve as incentives for others’ actions
This is accomplished through reward systems such as parents smiling and caressing a child who exhibits specific behaviors (Keltner et al., 2019).
BET initially focused on six basic emotions. Literature reveals there are over 20 emotions with distinct, multimodal expressions, providing a deeper structure and highlighting the advancing nature of emotional expression (Keltner et al., 2019).
Two people who like each other will mirror each other’s facial expressions, gestures, postures, vocalics, and movements. This is known as neural resonance, and it aids the accurate transfer of information from one person to another (Newberg & Waldman, 2013).
To fully understand what another is saying, “you have to listen to and observe the other person as deeply and fully as possible” (Newberg & Waldman, 2013, p. 81). Neural resonance uses mirror neurons to create cooperation, empathy, and trust.
8 Fascinating Research Findings
Studying nonverbal communication is revealing and intriguing. Most experts will include aspects such as eyes, facial expressions, and hands, but digging deeper reveals less-acknowledged nonverbal nuggets.
1. The benefits of yawning
Yawning is one of the fastest and simplest ways to lower mental stress and anxiety (Waldman & Manning, 2017). Social norms dictate that we refrain from yawning in specific settings, but yawning has many benefits. Did you know that snipers are taught to yawn before pulling the trigger (Waldman & Manning, 2017)?
According to Waldman and Manning (2017), yawning stimulates alertness and concentration; optimizes brain activity and metabolism; improves cognitive functioning; increases recall, consciousness, and introspection; decreases stress and relaxes the upper body; recalibrates a sense of timing; enhances social awareness and empathy; and increases sensuality and pleasure.
2. Feet don’t lie
According to Navarro and Karlins (2008), the most honest part of our body is our feet, as demonstrated by small children who dance with happiness or stomp in frustration. Many people look to the face for truth; Navarro and Karlins take the opposite approach:
“When it comes to honesty, truthfulness decreases as we move from the feet to the head” (Navarro & Karlins, 2008, p. 56), reasoning that emotions are suppressed through fabricated facial expression.
3. Gestures that help
Gestures improve memory and comprehension skills. Gestures may convey information that can influence how listeners respond, depending on the hand being used. “We tend to express positive ideas with our dominant hand and negative ideas with the other hand” (Newberg & Waldman, 2013, p. 44).
4. The eyes have it
“Social network circuits are stimulated through face-to-face eye contact, decreasing cortisol, and increasing oxytocin. The result is increased empathy, social cooperation, and positive communication” (Newberg & Waldman, 2013, p. 135).
Eyes reveal a lot about us. When we are aroused, troubled, concerned, or nervous, our blink rate increases. Once we relax, our blink rate returns to normal (Navarro & Karlins, 2008).
5. Power posing for success
Body language affects how others see us and how we view ourselves. In this YouTube video, Amy Cuddy discusses her research on power posing and how it affects success.
Amy Cuddy’s book is also discussed in our article listing books on imposter syndrome.
6. Fingers crossed
One explanation of the origin of crossing fingers for good luck comes from early beliefs in the power of the cross. The intersection of the digits, epitomizing the cross, was thought to denote a concentration of good spirits and served to anchor a wish until it came true (Keyser, 2014).
7. Fake positivity is harmful
Positivity that doesn’t register in your body or heart can be harmful. According to Barbara Fredrickson (2009, p. 180), “fake smiles, just like sneers of anger, predict heart wall collapse.” To truly benefit from a smile, touch, or embrace, you need to slow down and make it heartfelt.
8. Stand up straight
Poor posture can reduce oxygen intake by 30%, resulting in less energy (Gordon, 2003). Stooping over can make us look and feel old and out of touch. By straightening up, we can make significant differences in how we think and feel. The effect is bi-directional; attitude influences posture, just as posture influences attitude.
Importance in Counseling and Healthcare
Much research on communication in therapeutic settings focuses on verbal communication, yet nonverbal messages are crucial.
Good rapport between clients and practitioners stems from mirroring and synchronicity associated with neural resonance (Finset & Piccolo, 2011; Newberg & Waldman, 2013).
Carl Rogers’s Client-Centered Therapy is based on an empathetic understanding of clients. Nonverbal communication provides valuable information for both the client and the therapist. Showing you like and accept a client may be the most important information a therapist can convey (Finset & Piccolo, 2011).
Nonverbal patterns in therapy evolve over time. Specific behaviors that further the therapeutic process include “a moderate amount of head nodding and smiling; frequent, but not staring, eye contact; active, but not extreme, facial responsiveness; and a warm, relaxed, interested vocal tone” (Finset & Piccolo, 2011, p. 122).
Conscious awareness of nonverbal cues can aid in rapport building. Leaning toward the other signals comfort, whereas leaning away or crossing your arms signals discomfort (Navarro & Karlins, 2008).
Torsos and shoulder blades seem innocuous; however, blading away (turning slightly) from another person shows discomfort, while blading toward or facing another squarely shows a level of comfort (Navarro & Karlins, 2008).
Open palms are an ancient sign of trustworthiness that help establish rapport and are considered nonthreatening (Kuhnke, 2012). Hidden hands (placed in pockets or behind backs) signal disconnection and reluctance to engage. To display respect, keep an open posture with your muscles relaxed and weight evenly distributed.
Mirroring and matching go a long way to show synchronicity. Be careful to avoid mimicry, which signals disrespect (Kuhnke, 2012). Too much of a good thing can jeopardize credibility. An extended, fixed gaze into another’s eyes or effortful smiling can seem awkward, or worse.
This short YouTube video explains the dynamics of fluctuating facial expressions, based on the work of Charles Darwin and Paul Ekman.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
This Silent Connections worksheet is an exercise for groups that combines mindfulness and nonverbal communication to build connections.
Someone who lacks the ability to make eye contact during conversation can be easily misinterpreted. To overcome this nonverbal communication issue, our Strategies for Maintaining Eye Contact can be very useful.
Our blog post 49 Communication Activities, Exercises, and Games includes six nonverbal communication activities for adults and three nonverbal exercises that work for families and children.
The blog post What Is Assertive Communication? 10 Real-Life Examples includes nonverbal qualities that complement and enhance assertive statements. Hints for eye contact, facial expressions, and posture can be found throughout.
In the blog post Cultivating Social Intelligence: 3 Ways to Understand Others, we discuss characteristics of social intelligence, including body language.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
Nonverbal communication is an essential communication skill. Nonverbal expertise aids in delivering clear messages and forming positive impressions. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture to make a difference. Gently stroking the hand of a grieving friend speaks volumes.
Viewing life as a series of dramatic performances, as implied by both Shakespeare and Goffman, can add a sense of intrigue and adventure to enhancing nonverbal communication. These essential skills will help us achieve goals.
Just as the highly motivated thespian will study and polish their craft, anyone wanting to succeed in their career or interpersonal relationships can study and practice the nuances of nonverbal communication.
Actors and public speakers often practice their craft in front of a mirror or videotape themselves to reflect on strengths and weaknesses.
This article includes a myriad of resources to help improve nonverbal communication skills with many additional resources available.
By starting with something as simple as posture, we exit stage right, headed toward the competency of center stage. Break a leg!
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Communication Exercises (PDF) for free.
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- Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. Holt Paperbacks.
- Finset, A., & Piccolo, L. D. (2011). Nonverbal communication in clinical contexts. In M. Rimondini (Ed.), Communication in cognitive-behavioral therapy (pp. 107–128). Springer Science + Business Media.
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- Jones, R. (2013). Communication in the real world: An introduction to communication studies. University of Minnesota Libraries.
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- Keyser, H. (2014, March 21). Why do we cross our fingers for good luck? Mental Floss. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/55702/why-do-we-cross-our-fingers-good-luck
- Kuhnke, E. (2012). Body language for dummies. John Wiley & Sons.
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- Waldman, M. R., & Manning, C. P. (2017). NeuroWisdom: The new brain science of money, happiness, and success. Diversion Books.