University of Washington, USA
tunities to understand and debate the scope and nature of social behavior. From our
attempts to dene what it is to our entreaties about what it is not, the vast scholarship
on nonverbal communication provides ample ground for surveying meaning-making,
biological and cultural inuence, neurological functioning, and much more. As such,
it oen involves theorizing (i.e., general discussions concerning its nature) rather than
theories per se, although signicant scholarship provides theoretical understanding for
certain topics within nonverbal communication. is entry includes discussion about
what scholars agree on and what they do not as we work to understand this complex
of communication modes, with the hope that doing so will broaden appreciation for its
importance in our social world and engender a shared understanding of its intricacy
What it is: Deﬁning nonverbal communication
Ideas abound for how to best dene nonverbal communication. And whereas theories
do not require denitions, their assumptions rest on an underlying view of what non-
verbal communication is. erefore, it is important to understand some of the ways
scholars conceptualize this part of our eld.
A code-based approach
For some, nonverbal communication comprises everything other than language that we
useasameansforcommunicatingwithothers. is kind of denition—and scholarship
that is based on it—is sometimes known as the basis of a “code” approach to nonverbal
communication. at is, the emphasis is on identifying and understanding particular
“carriers” of meaning. ese “all but words” denitions are common in textbooks that
devote one chapter or a part of a chapter to nonverbal communication and that work to
provide a basic overview of what the nonverbal system comprises. ey also are the
foundation for organizing a larger discussion of nonverbal communication in some
texts fully devoted to this area. Additionally, they undergird research that centers on the
the vast repertoire of cues that are part of this system.
e International Encyclopedia of Communication eory and Philosophy.
Klaus Bruhn Jensen and Robert T.C raig (Editors-in-Chief), Jeerson D. Pooley and Eric W. Rothenbuhler (Associate Editors).
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
No one category system is exhaustive, but common codes include kinesics (body
movements that can be communicative); proxemics (the use of personal space as com-
municative or as dening a communicative context) and territory (the employment of
space more broadly); haptics (touch as a means of communicating); facial expressions,
the face; physical appearance, including attractiveness, physical features, clothing and
personal artifacts; gaze behavior (allofthewaystheeyescanbeusedininteraction);
and vocalics or paralanguage (those characteristics of the voice that are not words per
included less oen are olfactics (the use of smell or scent as communication; objectics
(artifacts as communication); and environmental elements (e.g., room color, furniture
arrangements, materials used).
As noted, an advantage to this type of approach is that we can identify the large
range of cues that may communicate in addition to the mode of communicating,
namely language, that people identify most typically as having message value. is type
of approach also reects the richness of nonverbal cues in another way: When scholars
study particular cues (e.g., clothing) or larger “classes” of behavior (e.g., kinesics), they
can delve into the depth of how a particular code seems to work. Levine (1997), for
instance, focuses on chromemics (time as communicative) in his book AGeographyof
Time:eTemporalMisadventuresofaSocialPsychologist. Likewise, Jaworksi (1992)
provided a treatise on one aspect of vocalics, namely silence, in his book e Power
of Silence: Social and Pragmatic Perspectives. is kind of in-depth study allows for a
more theoretical treatment of particular cues or actions.
the range of cues within a single code. Birdwhistell (1970), for instance, oered
the term “kinesics” to reference a class of behaviors enacted by physical movement
and including gestures, body positioning, and head movements. But more than
providing a set of behaviors that could be communicated, the well-developed thesis
of his argument was grounded in the belief that “body motion is a learned form
of communication, which is patterned within a culture and which can be broken
down into an ordered system of isolable elements” (1970, p. xi). Birdwhistell thus
set up premises that encouraged research mirroring the same set of theoretical
assumptions, a set of beliefs not adhered to by all scholars who study nonverbal
An obvious disadvantage of the type of denition that rests on describing a set of cues
as its primary feature is that it articially separates out nonverbal communication from
language. at is, nonverbal codes are, by denition, all of those other than language
interaction alongside of what we say is not revealed in this way of presenting nonverbal
cues. Moreover, this denition separates the codes from one another. at is, it suggests
that the cues are used typically as message systems apart from other cues. Yet we know
that, when communicating, we may attend to our own or another’s vocal tone, posture,
and gaze patterns as we attempt to encode or decode interaction. Whereas each code is
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION 3
us as we communicate.
A function-based approach
Other denitions of nonverbal communication focus more on revealing what nonverbal
cues can do for us communicatively.atis,theyemphasizethefunctionsthatnonver-
bal cues can serve for us. Just as with a code approach, there is variance in the list of
municateforuspresent.But,oen,listsincludesocial inuence or persuasion, relational
messages or ways to enact power and intimacy, conversation management (i.e., the ways
in which nonverbal cues allow interactions to ow), the management of identity or
self-presentation,emotional expression,deception and deception-detecting,andperson
perception or impression formation. ese functions are fundamental to who we are as
communicators, and they are usually part of what scholars mean when they discuss the
social meanings behaviors may enact for us.
To get to an understanding of what nonverbal cues communicate involves dening
what communicating means more generally, also a controversial exercise and not one
necessary for language, which is seen as communication inherently. Some of the theo-
rizing in this area focuses specically on intentionality, or the degree to which people act
with some degree of strategic awareness. For some scholars, behavior must be encoded
with communicative purpose to count as communication; others argue that it must be
decoded as intentional. Behaviors seen as neither encoded nor decoded with the intent
to communicate are said to oer information (e.g., about how someone is feeling or
about one’s attitude) but are not viewed as communication between people. For yet other
scholars, the dierentiation between what counts as communication and what does not
depends on whether the behaviors aect interaction or whether most people who use
the communication system would generally agree to the cues having communicative
meaning, regardless of whether the interactants or observers “read” meaning into them.
e stickiness around the issue of dening communication before one can even
dene nonverbal communication is certainly a challenge for this form of denition.
And it is perhaps one of the clearest areas where nonverbal communication scholars
disagree. Moreover, our views of what counts and what does not count as nonverbal
communication (compared to nonverbal cues more generally) lead to very dierent
theories about the nature and form of nonverbal communication and to highly diverse
subjects of study.
But dening nonverbal communication by what it does for us has also allowed for
a robust set of ndings about the communicative potential of nonverbal behavior. As
noted, much of this is said to be “social” meaning; that is, nonverbal cues are theorized to
enact many of the primary processes necessary for human engagement, such as attrac-
tion and inuence. Moreover, it oers the chance to see how consequential this social
meaning is. For instance, under work on identity management, scholars such as Go-
man (1963) can reveal some of what occurs for people who have obvious behaviors or
appearances that are not accepted, or stigmatized, by others, and the signicant impact
that can have on those to whom the stigma applies.
A property-based approach
A somewhat dierent way to conceptualize nonverbal communication rests on the
argument that there is more than one means by which we process (both decode and
encode) information. at is, the cues in the range that we call “nonverbal” actually
have distinct processing and expressive properties. For example, given that we are
biological beings, our means of communicating are tied in with neurological systems
that allow us to engage interactively with others (see later section on “Biological origins
and the inuence of culture”). At least three such neurologically based communication
systems have been identied, each aliated with dierent physical capacities. One of
these is referred to as spontaneous communication;thisisageneticallybased,automatic
means of communication that we can use by virtue of our biological heritage and is
shared among all humans who have normative capacities (e.g., yawning because one is
tired). Pseudo-spontaneous communication is a more intentional system that relies on
understanding spontaneous communication but is used with purpose (e.g., yawning to
show another person that one is tired). Markedly dierent is symbolic communication,
which is understood only by people who share knowledge of that communication
system (e.g., a V sign indicating “peace” in the United States).
Whereas some scholars use these (or similar) delineations and note that nonverbal
communication behaviors take on diverse behavioral forms (i.e., signs, semblances or
iconic behaviors, and symbols) that arise from these dierent kinds of processing, oth-
ers make the case that nonverbal communication is only that which is not language,
with language in this case referring to any symbolic communication, even that which is
unspoken. Communication is nonverbal within this denition only when, for example,
it is processed in the right brain, analogic in nature, and “natural and direct.”
While it is not the intent here to determine the “best” way of discerning nonverbal
communication, as with much else that is discussed in this entry, a scholar’s decision to
choose one denition over another will work to dictate what he or she studies and what
he or she does not. It also aects the nature of the theories that he or she develops to
explain nonverbal behavior.
History of nonverbal communication scholarship
e study of and theorizing about nonverbal communication goes back to ancient
times, and the trajectory of its study has been presented in various places. Knapp
(2006), for example, traces the interest in a nonverbal communication to Confucius,
around 500 , with the rst prescriptive theses on how to be persuasive nonverbally
his ve “canons” of speaking, with nonverbal communication playing a particularly
important role in the delivery, a role that can at times have more weight than what a
Because the study of nonverbal communication exists in many elds—a true strength
of this line of work—scholars oen are aware only of the trajectory of scholarship in
their own eld. Manusov (2015) argues that there are actually many histories, or what
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION 5
she calls heritages, that have led to the depth—and the diversity—of the contemporary
nonverbal communication research landscape. Manusov also asserts that each of these
traditions has legacies: ey have led us down particular paths with our scholarship,
For instance, the early Western (Greek and Roman) emphasis on orality, led by Plato,
Cicero, Aristotle, and others, and which emphasized nonverbal cues as part of the canon
of delivery,wastheoriginofarhetorical heritage leading to contemporary work on non-
verbal cues as means of persuasion, and on their interplay with language. e linguistic
heritage began with Birdwhistell, Hall, and their contemporaries, and it shows up now
in work on the measurement of individual codes or constructs, such as the Facial Action
Coding System (Ekman & Rosenberg, 1997). e sociological heritage,broughtforward
the structure and implications of nonverbal behavior, whereas the psychological her-
itage, led by Rosenthal and others, can be seen underlying research on the cognitive
processing of nonverbal cues as well as work on individual and group dierences. It
also had at its heart an attempt to understand the persuasion processes that can lead
people to do things that they would not expect that they could do, a research legacy of
20th-century wars. Finally, the cultural heritage and the ethological heritage are reected
in scholarship that emphasizes learning, on the one hand, and biology, on the other. It is
Manusov’s (2016) contention that this large set of legacies commits our eld to diversity
of perspective and breadth of discovery. Much of what is written about in the following
Important debates surrounding nonverbal communication
is diversity and breadth are reected in the larger debates with which our eld grap-
are so important. is section focuses on some of those areas of dierence that reveal
opportunities for additional theoretical development.
Tie to language
Some of the eld’s earliest scholarship attempted to show how nonverbal communica-
tion occurs as people talk with one another. Perhaps because communication for many
people is synonymous with language or speaking, it is unsurprising that nonverbal cues’
In one of the rst contemporary attempts to discuss the functions of nonverbal
communication, Ekman (1965) asserted that nonverbal cues acted in relationship to
language by providing redundancy (repeating in form what is being said), complemen-
tation (elaborating on what is said), emphasis (highlighting part or all of an utterance),
contradiction (providing a contrast to the content of speech), and substitution (working
a “support” for speech, typically adding or reinforcing message value rather than
providing meaning on their own.
Whereas code denitions imply a separation of spoken and nonverbal communi-
cation (i.e., nonverbal communication is dened as anything but words), and Ekman
suggests a subservience of nonverbal to verbal communication, others have argued
that, in use, nonverbal and verbal means of communicating are better seen as a single
coordinated message system, variously called mixed syntax, comprehensive communi-
cation act, multichannel process, composite signal, integrated message, and multimodal
communication. Other scholars refer to the whole system of interconnected cues as
“language” rather than make what they argue are erroneous distinctions between verbal
and nonverbal behavior.
Although there is strong agreement about the oen-interconnected nature of the
nonverbal and verbal systems, whether it is better to theorize about them as separate but
related or as fully integrated remains controversial. Where scholars land on this debate
helps determine and is determined by how they engage in their scholarship.
Role of intentionality, consciousness, and control
Just as with its relationship to (or integration with) language, scholars have long worked
to discern the cognitive nature of nonverbal communication, and they dier in terms
of the degree to which they believe that we are aware of and can control our nonverbal
communication. As was seen in the discussion of denitions, for some theorists, non-
with intentionality in order to count as communication. For others, the inherent nature
of the “nonverbal communicative system” means that it is processed automatically and
with little awareness. Wherever a person lands in this debate, the scholarship on this
issue helps to reveal important aspects of how people communicate generally.
Scholars with an emphasis on the cognitive processes underlying behavior have iden-
tied what has been called a “continuum” of automaticity. Automaticity can be dened
as the degree to which behaviors are intentional, controllable, and processed with
awareness. According to Lakin (2006), automaticity can be “preconscious,” a largely
eortless way of behaving or understanding another’s behavior that occurs when we
encode or decode behavior without any awareness, control, or intent. “Goal-directed
automaticity” is that which required initially control, awareness, and intentionality but
has now become automatic. ere are also “controlled” behaviors, and they are those
about which we are aware, that we do with intent, and over which we have control.
As will be seen in the next section, some scholars emphasize those cues and func-
awareness. Some impressions of others, for instance, are tied to evolutionary forces that
permit us to know when another is hostile or kind. Part of these impressions has to
do with the behaviors themselves; that is, another’s actions can be recognized without
any interpretation required. Sometimes, however, we form impressions automatically
this way. Even when we do not know we have a particular view of another, our mind
has existing constructs that work automatically to shape how we respond evaluatively
and behaviorally to another. Some of these constructs may be fully hardwired (e.g.,
responses to someone physically larger than us, cues that denote gender), and others
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION 7
once embedded in our consciousness, they work on our impressions without awareness.
Because nonverbal cues, and what they may come to represent to us, are oen learned
outside of our awareness, we may believe erroneously that, for instance, we should
approach or avoid another, believe or not believe someone, or think another is simi-
on an accurate “knowing.” And sometimes they are. But other times, people underesti-
mate the extent to which they are responding on the basis of learned beliefs rather than
of what is accurate inherently. At the same time, we may assume more intentionality
is, we may engage in nonverbal behavior, such as showing attraction to another, which
we come to think is goal-directed, for instance, but may actually be the result of fully
unconscious and automatic processes. ese complexities are inherent to the nonverbal
communication system and are part of what makes it such a rich system, but they may
also result in communication errors and, at times, discrimination. Additionally, where
a scholar places his or her lens on the automaticity continuum will aect the theories
he or she builds.
Biological origins and the inﬂuence of culture
e discussion of automaticity ties the study of nonverbal communication to who we
for control or awareness at times because we, as a species, are hardwired to do so.
Some of the earliest work on nonverbal communication made explicit the link between
the displays and their biological—and in some cases evolutionary—origins. Darwin
(1872), for instance, observed that humans and other animals express many emotions
in ways that serve the survival functions of those emotions. e emotion of surprise, for
instance, helps survival by focusing attention on unexpected and potentially threatening
equate with this emotions serves the survival function, as wide eyes (increased visual
acuity), an open mouth (increased oxygen intake, fueling a potential response to the
threat), and hand over the mouth (protection against unwanted ingestion) all work to
support our chances of taking action.
Emotional expressions are oen looked at for their universal nature and even their
cross-species similarity. A large body of data supports that humans are capable of dis-
playing and understanding a set of emotions and that these are tied to our development
(that is, we become able to encode and decode these emotions over time, and this devel-
opment occurs in predictable and universal ways). e list of these “universal” emotions
varies across researchers, but it usually includes the recognition and display of happi-
ness, anger, fear, surprise, and sadness. Studies of blind children help to document this
natural (rather than learned) process. Even though some babies cannot see and thereby
of, for instance, delight or fear. is kind of nonverbal behavior use is considered to be
a part of our “bio-evolutionary” heritage and to involve ways of acting nonverbally that
are passed on to us from our ancestors and tied in with our physical bodies, such as
our hormonal and muscular systems. Many of our aection displays are, in some ways
In addition to being biological beings, humans are also social and cultural beings,
brought up and therefore inuenced by those around them. Hymes (1967) refers to
groups of people who share the same set of social rules and meanings as speech (or com-
ways of being shape the ways in which people come to encode and decode the social sig-
nals, including nonverbal cues, that others send to them and those they send to others.
Moreover, social signals and the rules that govern them come to be understood within a
particular context; only those who share a particular cultural code can fully understand
them. Importantly, these socially determined behaviors also reect and aect the values
and ideologies of those who use the codes.
Hall (1966) was one of the rst to bring insights about culture to the study of non-
verbal behavior, calling it the “hidden dimension.” In his observations across various
tances they keep when interacting with others on the basis of their relationship to the
other, cultures vary from one another in what those distances are. Likewise, groups dif-
notable divergence led to the labels contact and noncontact cultures, and whereas indi-
viduals and groups within any culture may not conform to the larger cultural norms,
for the most part these dictate how people act and how people who violate the cultural
norms are interpreted.
Clearly, there are both biological and cultural inuences on our communication.
Which is at play or more important is an ongoing debate, and as with other debates,
theorists’ work is deeply aected by the position that they take on this central issue.
Work that emphasizes the way in which biology and culture interact to create message
Theories about nonverbal communication
e study of nonverbal communication has been less theoretically driven than
some other research areas. Some work applies theories created for other domains
to a nonverbal context. For example, attribution theories,fromsocialpsychology,
explain the processes involved in how people assign attributes such as cause and
responsibility to behavior, and these theories have been used to explain and predict
the ways that people give meaning to their own and others’ nonverbal cues. Among
the ndings are that couples in intimate relationships commonly make attributions
for why their partners acted as they did (i.e., used certain facial expressions or vocal
tones), with their relational satisfaction aecting how positively or negatively they
view those behaviors. Attachment theory,adevelopmentalexplanationforhowsecure,
avoidant, or ambivalent people tend to be with others, has also been applied to the
decode vocal tone accurately. ere are, however, some notable exceptions of theories
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION 9
developed specically for the nonverbal domain, and these center on theories about
the deception process and, more deeply, the ways in which people adapt nonverbally
to one another in their interactions.
Moreover, existing large-level theories have as their basis an explanation of how
nonverbal communication works. Most notably, semiotics, or sign theory, is concerned
with the ways in which meanings for behavior are constructed or agreed to by the
people using those signs (this is a dierent use of the term “signs” than that used for
spontaneous forms of nonverbal communication, discussed earlier). Based originally
in literary analysis, semioticians tend to analyze the less behavioral cues that are part of
the nonverbal system, looking, for instance, at how objects and environments come to
have the meaning that they do. Semioticians’ focus is on the deep meaning-making that
people do in their everyday lives and the signication in which we engage as we give our
lives—and the things that occur within them—meaning beyond their original purpose.
But some theories arose specically within the study of nonverbal communication, par-
ticularly around the social functions mentioned earlier. Perhaps because of its social and
material consequences, researchers have been nearly exhaustive in their eorts to dis-
cern whether there are reliable indicators of being deceitful (deception) and whether
people use them in their attempts at detecting others’ deception. As such, it makes
sense that theories to explain the principles underlying the deception process would
emerge. Such theorizing began with the leakage hypothesis, which stated that engag-
ing in deception produces certain internal emotional and cognitive states that are then
associated with exterior indicators. ese nonverbal “indicators of deception” are, from
this theoretical stance, involuntary and uncontrollable/uncontrolled signs of internal
controlled channels and cues should be the best indicators of deceit. Whereas some
research supports the hypothesis—especially when one is able to record and watch
closely a person’s “microexpressions” and other movements not easily discernible in
everyday interaction—most scholarship has found reliable leakage cues to be elusive.
Since then, a four-factor theory has been advanced to better explain the dierent
forms of leakage that may emerge. In this theory, deceivers’ behaviors that dier
from one’s regular or “baseline” behaviors are the external expression of four internal
processes: (1) physiological arousal (some feeling of anxiety); (2) emotional reactions
(feelings associated with deception or its detection, specically fear, guilt, and delight;
the stronger the emotions, the more likely that they will reveal the deception that
induced them); (3) cognitive load (the eort required to formulate deceptive messages);
and (4) behavioral control (eorts to act as if one is not deceptive). e higher the
stakes of the lie, this theory predicts, the higher the levels of control attempted. As with
variation in what cues reveal the underlying factors.
It is also recognized, however, that some version of all of these underlying factors
could be at play when one is being truthful but is afraid of not being seen as such. In
10 NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
lies, and this is the premise behind the self-presentational perspective.Adistinguishing
factor is the importance of a liar appearing sincere in his or her attempt. is additional
demand of appearing honest may also occur for truth-tellers, but it tends to “show up”
more in the nonverbal cues of a liar working to seem genuine.
An even more developed theory is interpersonal deception theory (IDT), which uses
interpersonal communication principles to explain deception processes. It moves away
from too much reliance on leakage by assuming, as some interpersonal communication
scholars do, that communication is goal-directed, and that people work with some
degree of control to evade detection and promote believability. Would-be deceivers
oen therefore attempt to manage their communication performance, including their
emotions and other bases of nonverbal “leaks,” when trying to deceive another. At the
same time, however, they need to attend to ongoing concerns for their relationship,
engage in normal interaction management (e.g., turn-taking, feedback to the other),
and the myriad other functions of interaction, making the process of deception
e theory has several foundational claims. Included in this large set of claims are the
following. First, interactive deception diers fundamentally from noninteractive decep-
tion. at is, because of the complexity of deceiving during the course of an ongoing
interaction and relationship, more is involved than, for instance, lying while speaking
to a camera. Second, deception is manifested through a combination of strategic and
nonstrategic behaviors. IDT recognizes that, in the process of trying to present them-
selves as truthful, communicators may display nonstrategic behavior such as indicators
of arousal and nervousness, consistent with the leakage hypothesis and the four-factor
deception are also involved and their suspicion is also reected through a combination
of strategic and nonstrategic behaviors. Fourth, the interactants’ familiarity with and
regard for one another aect their behaviors, perceptions, and interpretations.Together
with the other tenets of this theory, a more complex model of the deception processes
emerges, and more understanding of why deception is so dicult to detect reliably.
Just as deception theories started with a very basic premise and grew in complexity with
additional data and theorizing, another set of theories specically created for under-
standing and predicting nonverbal cues regards the processes of adaptation, or how
one person responds behaviorally to another’s behaviors. Just as with IDT, the premise
people. erefore, the most robust theories are those that work to model this more
complex way of thinking about nonverbal cues.
theory. is theory’s concern is the ways in which interactants work to create and main-
tain a sense of comfort—of equilibrium—between them. e premise is that there is
typically a level of intimacy or involvement two or more interactants feel is appropriate
for their interaction. Intimacy, involvement, or immediacy (related but somewhat dif-
ferent concepts) is communicated through a small set of behaviors, including proxemics
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION 11
(distance), gaze patterns, and smiling, along with what is said (e.g., comfortable levels
of self-disclosure). Oen, the equilibrium is established and accepted, but other times,
one or more of the interactants uses more or less immediacy than is optimal for the
other. is theory posits that the discomted other will compensate or adjust his or her
behavior to restore the equilibrium he or she desires.
Other theories emerged, however, when a dierent pattern of adjustment or
adaptation occurred: In some cases, rather than compensate, the other individual
matched or reciprocated the unexpected behavior. ese theories brought into
their models the importance of aect, or how the other felt about the behaviors
the interactant used. Arousal-labeling theory suggested that a violation of expected
behavior incurs physiological arousal in another, which then induces a labeling
occurring. Depending on the interpretation made, and its accompanying aect, the
other will reciprocate (positive aect) or compensate (negative aect). Expectancy
violations theory followedthesamepremisebutinsertedtheimportanceofthevalence
positive valence would lead to reciprocity, and negative valence would bring about
e cognitive valence model, on the other hand, made its predictions in part on the
basis of the size of the behavioral violation. Specically, a small divergence from what
is expected does not cause arousal or subsequent behavioral modication. Large shis
are highly arousing and will always lead to compensation. Moderate shis, however,
require more sense-making, and a range of personal and relational assessments is
Discrepancy-arousal theory argued, however, that people are rarely so thoughtful in
their responses as these other theories suggest. Rather, we react more automatically
rather than think in any depth about behavioral violations. us, the arousal we
moderate arousal leading to reciprocity, but as moderate turns toward high arousal,
compensation is more likely to occur.
As with deception, these theories were replaced in large part by more complex mod-
els. ree of particular note are the functional model of nonverbal communication,inter-
action adaptation theory (IAT), and the parallel process model.efunctionalmodel
presents an elaborate illustration of the parts of an interaction process: determinants
(what people bring in to an exchange, such as their personality or biological predis-
positions), pre-interaction mediators (aect, expectations), and the interaction itself.
IAT focuses on three major determinants of adaptation, referred to in the theory as
required, expected, and desired behavior patterns, that together make up one’s inter-
action position (IP). Reciprocity is theorized to occur when one’s behavior is similar
to the other’s IP. As they become more dissimilar, compensation is predicted. Finally,
the parallel process model involves the determinants of the functional model but adds
earliest models), and much more involvement by social cognitive factors to predict the
ways in which people will respond to one another.
12 NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
Important applications and ﬁndings
e intellectual energy given to understanding both deception and interpersonal adap-
tation is warranted for many reasons, but most notably because of the consequentiality
positive assessments of us, greater regard from others, and oen more success in our
work and personal endeavors. us, many nonverbal scholars have emphasized the role
of “skill” in their work (see, e.g., Rosenthal, 1979). As with the use of other nonverbal
bination of these capacities. But whatever their origin, research has documented some
ere are actually many “skills” involved in the encoding and decoding of nonverbal
behavior (see Riggio, 2006). Decoding skills are oen referred to with the label “non-
verbal sensitivity.” Even within this category of skill, there is diversity. For instance, one
can be skilled specically in noticing cues, interpreting them accurately, and responding
in ways seen to be “appropriate.” People can be skilled in decoding particular nonver-
bal functions; that is, some are able to pick up on others’ emotions, deception, and/or
particular cues (e.g., face, vocalics) or can discern when cues are contradictory to one
instance, on how nonverbally expressive a person is (i.e., how well they can encode
messages, and people also dier on how able they are to control their own nonverbal
cues. Interestingly, in some cases one skill tends to be tied to another, but oen that
automatically good at detecting or enacting deception.
ere are other “skills” that involve both encoding and decoding simultaneously.
e function of “conversational management” or regulation, for instance, is a com-
plex skill that requires two or more interactants to coordinate their behaviors with one
another’s. is skill involves being able to pick up on when another wishes to speak
(oen through that person’s facial expression, vocalic inhalations, and body position),
knowing how to allow the other to do so (or not, as the speaker wishes), signal that
conversations are desired or that they should end, and the like.
Having the innate or learned ability to communicate nonverbally is tied to many impor-
tant “outcomes.” Many of these are related to the communication functions that non-
verbal communication can serve. For instance, persuasion, while oen thought of as
done primarily through what we say, is an ability also related fundamentally to partic-
ular nonverbal skills and abilities. Some of these are endowed; that is, we do not need
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION 13
to learn (although we can change) our attractiveness, but being attractive is related to
a greater ability to persuade others, even about one’s innocence in a courtroom (unless
jurors believe that the person was purposefully using his or her attractiveness in that
context). Rate of speech (a vocalic cue) is also related oen to greater persuasiveness,
as is the appearance of sincerity (usually a product of facial and vocal cues).
People with greater nonverbal social skills (particularly encoding) are hired more
oen, are in more (and more satisfying) relationships, are believed more oen, and
one decoding skill is referred to as “emotional contagion.” at is, some people are
particularly able to notice and empathize with others who are feeling a particular way.
If a person eectively and consistently “takes on” others’ emotions, and those emotions
are dicult (e.g., anger, grief ), the decoder can easily burn out, a common occurrence
for those in helping professions and for journalists whose stories focus on trauma.
e ways we interpret others’ nonverbal cues (and how they interpret ours) also can
have signicant ramications. Research has, for example, applied attribution theories
to how people make sense of potentially ambiguous nonverbal cues. It has found that
the particular ways that couple members give meaning to their own and their partner’s
nonverbal cues is aected by and can aect the couple’s relational satisfaction. e same
set of theories has looked at how men may interpret inconsistent nonverbal and verbal
messages by women and the ways in which dierent patterns of attribution may be
linked to dating or domestic violence. Likewise, the work mentioned earlier centering
on courtrooms shows that another’s attribution for the intention behind attractiveness
cues can lead to greater or fewer guilty verdicts and suggested terms for an oense.
result in signicant outcomes.
Related to interpretations is the signicance of stereotyping in our use of nonverbal
communication, in particular the ways in which our view of others and the groups to
which they belong inuence our interpretations of and responses to others. Stereotypes
memberships. ey are beliefs we have about others because they are male or female,
or trait, such as introversion, and the like. ese beliefs include what we think those in
that group are like, how they will act, and what values they hold.
Importantly, nonverbal cues, particularly appearance cues, are oen what lead us to
and roughly determine someone’s age. Skin color or hair quality may trigger categoriza-
tion of another into an ethnic category. Other cues, such as how a person walks, may
suggest a disability. When they act as the basis on which we assume another’s group (or
identity) membership, nonverbal cues are serving their impression-formation function,
and ample scholarship has focused on how this process works.
Much of the time, this stereotyping or categorization process is relatively benign.
It is how our minds work to help us delineate one person from another. But because
it happens so automatically, because it relies on cues that may not always be accurate
indicators of a person’s group (or personality), because it tends to simplify the character
14 NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
group may be erroneous and/or negative, our tendency to engage in stereotyping can
also be highly problematic. Moreover, our stereotypes based on others’ nonverbal cues
for example, that we may engage with more or less immediacy with someone on the
group. We may also approach (move toward, look at, touch) or avoid (avert our gaze,
move away) another because of the group into which we have categorized them. And
we are oen unaware of our own behavioral reaction. As such, stereotypes triggered by
and resulting in nonverbal cues have important social implications.
e consequentiality of nonverbal communicative processes is sometimes most clear
within scholarship that discerns the role the cues play within particular contexts or
applications. For example, scholars have looked at the nature and signicance of non-
verbal cues in the organizational context.Someexemplaryndingslookattheroleof
nonverbal cues in marking dierences in status and power, how nonverbal cues—used
by both applicants and employers—aect job interviews, the ways in which these cues
to do our jobs, particularly with regard to persuasion and group cohesiveness.
e focus on organizations is one of the ways in which scholars have explored sex and
gender similarities and dierences. Although there are many lines of work in this area,
one that is particularly germane has to do with leadership. For instance, scholars have
worked to identify the nonverbal cues likely to be tied to assessments of leadership.
Although changes occur, research has found that the nonverbal cues actually (or, in
most cases, perceived to be) used by men are more likely associated with leadership
than are those cues used by (or, again, perceived to be but not actually used by) women.
is is part of a larger body of theorizing that investigates the degree to which there are
observable nonverbal communicative dierences between men and women, with the
general conclusion that there are some, but not as many as people may come to believe.
Other scholars have focused on the context of computer-mediated communication
(CMC). As with many other questions in this part of the eld, some of which are
In particular, there was a range of theories that arose as people began communicating
online that worked to explain what are oen perceived to be inherent dierences
between communicating online and communicating face-to-face (FtF). One of the rst
was social presence theory, which states that online communication has fundamentally
less “social presence” than does FtF, as fewer nonverbal cues are available to online
communicators. e “lack” of nonverbal cues was also the basis of an hypothesis that
used the idea that nonverbal cues are necessary for establishing a social context. With
those cues missing or at a minimum, online users were predicted to encourage group
to act online in aberrant ways. More recent theorizing, however, such as that involved
in the social information-processing theory, suggests that people will use verbal cues
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION 15
to make up for nonverbal cues that are not available in the CMC context—and that
there are more nonverbal cues than we sometimes realize—which together make CMC
and FtF communication more similar than they are sometimes thought to be.
Another context in which nonverbal communication has been studied—again, in
part, because of its consequentiality—is healthcare. Particular attention has been paid
to physicians’ nonverbal cues, sometimes described as their “bedside manner,” which
has been found to sometimes have a more important role in patients’ satisfaction with
their doctor than does the accuracy of their diagnoses and treatment recommenda-
tions. Nonverbal cues have been found to play a large role in assessments of a clinician’s
ability to build rapport, how dominant they are found to be, their ability to get patients
to adhere to treatment regimens, and patients’ ability to recall information from their
visits with doctors. With the more frequent use of computers in healthcare settings,
doctors’ ability to engage interpersonally with their patients has also led to additional
research on such things as gaze patterns and immediacy. Nurses also have been studied
for their role in this context. In particular, scholarship has emphasized the importance
of decoding skills for nurses and other caregivers. e ability to be sensitive to and “pick
up” on nonverbal cues in healthcare interactions plays a large role in nurses’ eective-
feeling or what is going on for them. Good “listening” skills (dened here as attending
to nonverbal cues that can indicate something important is unspoken) have been tied
directly to the quality of care that nurses can oer.
Additionally, nonverbal cues have been studied within the educational environment.
In this context, some research has focused on the ways in which teachers may engage
more with some students than with others. is oen unconscious “favoritism” can
be reected in the teachers’ nonverbal cues (e.g., looking more toward some students,
Pygmalion eect. is occurs when students who are otherwise the same are treated
dierentially; over time, they come to see themselves in a way consistent with how they
aretreated.iseectispartofalargersetofscholarshiponnonverbal expectancies or
expectancies may, though do not always, bring about the very behaviors that another
anticipates. Another large body of nonverbal communication in the educational setting
has to do with immediacy, displayed in part through nonverbal cues of engagement
and warmth. Within the US culture, at least, students tend to favor teachers who act
with immediacy, and, this behavior tends to have an eect on the students’ aect about
to bring about greater learning in their students, although not all research supports
What it is not: Debunking some adages about nonverbal
In addition to all of what is discussed here that is vital and accurate about nonverbal
communication, and the signicance of nonverbal cues to our lives, it is also important
16 NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
munication. With any behavior that is so fundamental to our everyday way of being,
people develop ideas about how it works. at is denitely true when trying to under-
stand nonverbal communication. Over time, cultural narratives begin to form that,
usually in a simplistic and sometimes in an erroneous way, characterize how many peo-
ple think about that way of being. e most enduring inaccuracies are discussed here.
Perhaps more than any other belief, nonverbal cues are oen equated with the term
“body language.” A strong belief persists that this phrase, made popular by a book of
the same name, is an accurate substitute for “nonverbal behavior.” It implies several
problematic assumptions, however. In addition to the conceptualization of the nonver-
bal system as only referring to physical movements of the body (i.e., kinesics and not
the myriad other codes that are part of the larger system), the larger misconception
revealed in this term is that nonverbal behavior is used to display a simple, readable, set
of messages, identiable readily if one knows the “code.”
Whereas, as has been seen, there is a large and growing body of knowledge around
nonverbal cues that are tied to biological functioning, not all (for most scholars at least)
nonverbal cues are manifestations of this functioning. If they were, nonverbal cues
could potentially be “readable” by everyone. But as was discussed earlier, nonverbal cues
are also governed by and exist within our social world; some cues originate and take on
meaning only within the larger “communication community” in which they are used.
Moreover, most cues can take on multiple meanings, and they oen have what has been
referred to as this “polysemy.” So, for instance, a smile may mean one is happy, annoyed,
gives us clues to which meaning is more likely—and the physical features of smiles can
vary according to what they reect about an encoder—there is still rarely a one-to-one
correspondence between a behavior and its meaning. us, to see nonverbal means of
communicating to be a clear and easy-to-read system is not consistent with the oen
ambiguous nature of many cues as used in our everyday lives, nor with the complex set
of processes involved in communicating nonverbally, as this entry attests.
Percentage of meaning
Also common in our parlance around nonverbal cues are beliefs that we can quantify
cated comes via our nonverbal cues.” Others cite a slightly lower 65 percent. In both
cases, however, the claims are based on studies where the nonverbal cues (e.g., tone
participants were asked specically for “social meaning” (i.e., one’s attitude, feelings,
and the like).
Whereas no nonverbal scholar doubts the importance of nonverbal cues to the com-
munication process—and in particular to their importance in social meanings and to
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION 17
a percentage is typically misleading. Moreover, it articially separates out meaning sys-
tems from one another when, for most interactions (and when we watch or listen to
others via media), we are attending simultaneously to multiple cues—both language
and nonverbal behaviors—at the same time. Finally, it sets up an “us–them” debate
(nonverbal cues versus language) that does not take us far in our understanding of how
communication systems work. us, abandoning this narrative is helpful for moving us
forward in our understanding of how cues are used in the meaning-making process.
A universal language
is belief is a little more complicated. Whereas it is readily apparent that language
is tied directly to the culture(s) in which it is learned, nonverbal cues are oen seen as
separate from culture. And sometimes they are. e burgeoning scholarship on the bio-
logical foundations of certain nonverbal cues helps reveal the ways in which all people,
stem from their being biological creatures. is scholarship is vital to understanding
a universal language is usually based on a much less sophisticated understanding of the
Oen people point to the argument that emotions are expressed universally, and, as
has been seen, there is some evidence to support the cross-cultural ability to encode
and decode certain facial displays. But emotional expressions are also subject to display
rules, the prescribed ways of showing (or not showing) emotion in a particular culture.
control what behaviors they use and how they use them. e decision (at some level
of consciousness) to control behavior can be an individual’s choice (e.g., not to show
interest in another person), and it can be the result of a cultural way of being (e.g.,
learning to sit in a way “appropriate” for women). But given how few cues are taught
overtly, people may come to believe that such ways of being are innate. is assumption
vast set of research and theorizing about the nonverbal communication system.
SEE ALSO: Communication Accommodation eory; Expression; Face-to-Face Com-
munication; Hall, Edward T.; Interpersonal Interaction; Neuroscience; Performance;
References and further readings
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Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Burgoon, J. K., Guerrero, L. K., & Floyd, K. (2010). Nonverbal communication.Boston,MA:Allyn
18 NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
Burgoon, J. K., Guerrero, L. K., & Manusov, V. (2011). Nonverbal signals. In M. L. Knapp &
J. A. Daly (Eds.), e Sage handbook of interpersonal communication (4th ed., pp. 239–280).
ousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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Va l e r i e M a n u s o v is professor of communication at the University of Washington,
USA. She was the co-creator of the Nonverbal Communication Division of the National
Communication Association and served as one of its rst division chairs. She is also
the coeditor of e Sage Handbook of Nonverbal Communication and the editor of e
NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION 19
Sourcebook of Nonverbal Measures: Going Beyond Words. Her work focuses on the use
and interpretation of nonverbal communication in couples, intercultural interactions,
and media accounts.