Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication includes facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, gestures displayed through body language (kinesics) and the physical distance between the communicators (proxemics). Non-verbal communication is a vital part of understanding and communication.

Some estimates suggest that speech only makes up about 20 to 30% of communication. The rest of the information is conveyed non-verbally, by tone of voice, facial expressions, eye-contact, gestures, how we stand, and so on.

Non-verbal communication helps people to:

Reinforce or modify what is said in words.

For example, people may nod their heads vigorously when saying “Yes” to emphasise that they agree with the other person, but a shrug of the shoulders and a sad expression when saying “I’m fine thanks,” may imply that things are not really fine at all!

Convey information about their emotional state.

Define or reinforce the relationship between people.

 Provide feedback to the other person.

 Regulate the flow of communication

For example by signalling to others that they have finished speaking or wish to say something.

The Importance of Non-verbal Communication

When we communicate, non-verbal cues can be as important, or in some cases even more important, than what we say. Non-verbal communication can have a great impact on the listener and the outcome of the communication.

People tend to have much less conscious control over their non-verbal messages than of what they’re actually saying. This is partly because non-verbal communication is much more emotional in nature, and therefore much more instinctive. If there is a mismatch between the two, therefore, you should probably trust the non-verbal messages, rather than the words used. A lack of non-verbal message may also be a signal of sorts, suggesting that the speaker is carefully controlling their body language, and may be trying to hide their true emotions.

Types of Non-Verbal Communication

There are many different types of non-verbal communication. They include:

Body Movements (Kinesics), for example, hand gestures or nodding or shaking the head;

Posture, or how you stand or sit, whether your arms are crossed, and so on;

Eye Contact, where the amount of eye contact often determines the level of trust and trustworthiness;

Para-language, or aspects of the voice apart from speech, such as pitch, tone, and speed of speaking;

Closeness or Personal Space (Proxemics), which determines the level of intimacy;

Facial Expressions, including smiling, frowning and even blinking; and

Physiological Changes, for example, sweating or blinking more when nervous.

Body Language or Body Movements (Kinesics)

Body movements include gestures, posture, head and hand movements or whole body movements.

Body movements can be used to reinforce or emphasise what a person is saying and also offer information about the emotions and attitudes of a person. However, it is also possible for body movements to conflict with what is said.

There are several different categories of body movement, these include:


Gestures that serve the same function as a word are called emblems.

For example, the signals that mean ‘OK’, ‘Come here!’, or the hand movement used when hitch-hiking. However, be aware that whilst some emblems are internationally recognised, others may need to be interpreted in their cultural context.


Gestures which accompany words to illustrate a verbal message are known as illustrators.

For example, the common circular hand movement which accompanies the phrase ‘over and over again’, or nodding the head in a particular direction when saying ‘over there’.


Gestures used to give feedback when conversing are called regulators.

Examples of ‘regulators’ include head nods, short sounds such as ‘uh-huh’, ‘mm-mm’, and expressions of interest or boredom. Regulators allow the other person to adapt his or her speech to reflect the level of interest or agreement. Without receiving feedback, many people find it difficult to maintain a conversation. Again, however, they may vary in different cultural contexts.


Adaptors are non-verbal behaviours which either satisfy some physical need.

Adaptors include such actions as scratching or adjusting uncomfortable glasses, or represent a psychological need such as biting fingernails when nervous.

Although normally subconscious, adaptors are more likely to be restrained in public places than in the private world of individuals where they are less likely to be noticed. Adaptive behaviours often accompany feelings of anxiety or hostility.


Posture can reflect emotions, attitudes and intentions. Research has identified a wide range of postural signals and their meanings, such as:

Open and Closed Posture

Two forms of posture have been identified, ‘open’ and ‘closed’, which may reflect an individual’s degree of confidence, status or receptivity to another person.

Someone seated in a closed position might have his/her arms folded, legs crossed or be positioned at a slight angle from the person with whom they are interacting. In an open posture, you might expect to see someone directly facing you with hands apart on the arms of the chair. An open posture can be used to communicate openness or interest in someone and a readiness to listen, whereas the closed posture might imply discomfort or disinterest.


Notice the way a loving couple relate to each other. You might like to observe a close relationship in person or on television. You will see that the partners’ postures will match, as if one partner is a mirror reflection of the other. For example, if one partner drapes an arm over the back of a chair this might be replicated in the other person’s position. If one partner frowns, it could be reflected in the other partner’s facial expression. This ‘mirroring’ indicates interest and approval between people.

Closeness and Personal Space (Proxemics)

Every culture has different levels of physical closeness appropriate to different types of relationship, and individuals learn these distances from the society in which they grew up.

The study of personal space is called proxemics.

In today’s multicultural society, it is important to consider the range of non-verbal codes as expressed in different ethnic groups. When someone violates an ‘appropriate’ distance, people may feel uncomfortable or defensive. Their actions may well be open to misinterpretation.

In Western society, four distances have been defined according to the relationship between the people involved.

The Four Main Categories of Proxemics

Intimate Distance (touching to 45cm)

Personal Distance (45cm to 1.2m)

Social Distance (1.2m to 3.6m)

Public Distance (3.7m to 4.5m)

Eye Contact

Eye contact is an important aspect of non-verbal behaviour. In interpersonal interaction, it serves three main purposes:

  1. To give and receive feedback

Looking at someone lets them know that the receiver is concentrating on the content of their speech. Not maintaining eye contact can indicate disinterest. Communication may not be a smooth process if a listener averts their eyes too frequently. It has also been suggested that if someone maintains constant eye contact, then they are trying too hard, and may well be lying.

  1. To let a partner know when it is their ‘turn’ to speak

This is related to point one. Eye contact is more likely to be continuous when someone is listening, rather than speaking. When a person has finished what they have to say, they will look directly at the other person and this gives a signal that the arena is open. If someone does not want to be interrupted, eye contact may be avoided.

  1. To communicate something about a relationship between people

When you dislike someone, you tend to avoid eye contact and your pupil size is often reduced. On the other hand, the maintenance of positive eye contact signals interest or attraction in a partner.

Dilation of the pupils is an involuntary reaction to the sight of someone attractive, so increased eye contact could be a biological mechanism to help make that dilation signal clearer to a potential partner.

Para-language, or Voice Signals

Para-language relates to all aspects of the voice which are not strictly part of the verbal message, including the tone and pitch of the voice, the speed and volume, at which a message is delivered, and pauses and hesitations between words. These signals can serve to indicate feelings about what is being said.

Emphasising particular words, or the use of particular tones of voice can imply whether or not feedback is required. For example, in English, and other non-tonal languages, a rising tone at the end of the sentence can indicate a question.

Facial Expression

Affect displays are facial expressions or gestures which show the emotions we feel.Affect displays are often unintentional and can conflict with what is being said. Such expressions give strong clues as to the true emotional state of a person, and should generally be trusted over words if there is a mismatch between the two.




10 Things Body Language Says About You


Check if you know what body language means

Body language