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The definition of nonverbal communication can be as short or as elaborate and specific as one wants to make it. In general – the nonverbal communication describes any and all communication that occurs outside the realm of written or spoken words and is expressed by generation of either intentional or subconscious cues and their recognition. Commonly, nonverbal communication is divided into subcategories describing individual areas that transmit communication cues. These areas, among others, include kinesics, paralanguage, proxemics, haptics, oculesics, and physical appearance. Understanding and effective application of nonverbal communication skills is becoming increasingly important in the modern world. Also, do these nonverbal cues have the same meaning all over the world? Are these nonverbal cues just modified to fit cultural ideals? I will be explaining the different types of nonverbal communication, the importance of them, and how it’s used throughout different parts of the world.
There are different types of nonverbal communication. The first is kinesics which is the study of body language, facial expression, and gestures. Movement is strongly connected to communication style. For example, Knapp & Hall notice that movement is related to interaction synchrony, the matching and meshing behaviors that accompany conversations and discussions between two or more people. Matching and meshing usually connote a sense of pleasure with the conversation and can indicate feelings of rapport. Matching can occur through postural congruence and mirroring the person’s body language. Also, motor mimicry is a form of matching, such as when a person places her hand on her heart to connote sympathy during another person’s sad story. Knapp & Hall state that “emotional contagion” usually occurs in conjunction with mimicry in conversations, meaning that the conversation partners are sharing their feelings and interacting in empathetic ways. Knapp & Hall describe two fundamental types of physical gestures, those that accompany speech and those that do not. Gestures in general are “movements made by the body or some part of it”. Speech-independent gestures can include anything from a shake of the head to “the finger” to wrinkling the nose. These non-verbal gestures often mean different things in different contexts or in different cultures. No gesture is absolutely universal although many are commonly recognized, at least throughout the same cultural context. Some personal examples of speech-independent gestures include the thumbs-up that means “everything is good”. For example, in Brazil and in Denmark the American “Ok” hand sign is a gesture of vulgarity, and in France the same sign signifies zero and in Japan that sign means money. Cultural differences in kinesic behaviors are as significant and complex as cultural differences in verbal language. Factors like attractiveness, appearance, gesture, movement, face, eye, and vocal behaviors differ from place to place. An understanding of cultural differences and basic awareness of those differences when communicating with persons from other cultures can enormously improve cross-cultural relationships and eliminate misunderstandings.
Another among these is paralanguage. This is the study of the nonverbal cues of the voice. Various acoustic properties such as tone, pitch, and accent, collectively known as prosody, can all give off nonverbal cues. George L. Trager developed different classifications in paralanguage. The first is voice set, which is the context in which the speaker is speaking. This can include the situation, mood, age and persons culture. Another is voice qualities. These are the volumes of your tone, pitch, tempo, rhythm, and accent. This is very important in getting certain points across in conversation. Vocalization consists of three subsections: characterizers, qualifiers and segregates. Characterizers are emotions expressed while speaking, such as laughing, crying, and yawning. A voice qualifier is the style of delivering a message – for example, yelling “Hey stop that!”, as opposed to whispering “Hey stop that”. Vocal segregates such as “uh-huh” notify the speaker that the listener is listening. These cues define in general the point you are trying to get across in conversations.
Study of space as a part of nonverbal communication referred to as proxemics further analyses physical and psychological space between individuals in the interaction. Proxemics could be divided into the elements of territory and personal space. Territory refers to the general area in which the interaction occurs, while personal space is just that a space immediately around a person. One of the most important elements of proxemics is the study of haptics or in more conventional terms, touch. According to various researches, touch “enhances one’s interpersonal involvement, positive affect, social attachment, intimacy, and overall liking”. The persuasive power of touch is further evident in the findings of Patterson et al, stating that people tend to associate positive characteristics with the individual who touched them. That is either speaking in terms of being friendly or intimate. For example, friendliness would be more described with handshakes. A more intimate example would be a kiss. But in some cultures, greeting with touch can be disrespectful in some ways. For example, in parts of Africa, trying to shake ones hand with your left is considered disrespectful. For the most part, touch of one another shows comfort and respect in America.
Sign language is another aspect of nonverbal communication. The written history of sign language began in the 17th century in Spain. In 1620, Juan Pablo Bonet published Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos ‘Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak’ in Madrid. It is considered the first modern treatise of Phonetics and Logopedia, setting out a method of oral education for the deaf people by means of the use of manual signs, in form of a manual alphabet to improve the communication of the mute or deaf people. Sign language is a language which, instead of acoustically conveyed sound patterns, uses visually transmitted sign patterns such as manual communication, body language and lip patterns to convey meaning, simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to fluidly express a speaker’s thoughts.
The last aspect of nonverbal communication discussed in this research is physical appearance. Although, in the greater sense, attractiveness describes characteristics that go beyond the physical appearance alone, physically attractive people are perceived as “more persuasive, successful in changing attitudes, and are perceived to be warmer, more poised, and more socially skilled than less attractive people. According to Peterson and argyle, the way one dresses is also an important element of physical appearance as a source of nonverbal cues, in big part because a person has much more control over his or her clothes, as opposed to the features of the face or the body size. An example of this is the casual business clothing. It is considered distinguishing and positive status. But if you see someone in rags on the streets, you can presume that one is of lower and poorer status. Even though you can’t always judge a book by its cover, physical appearance can sometimes depict who someone is.
In addition to the benefits of nonverbal communication, some problems exist as well. As the research suggests, little correlation exists between one’s self-rated accuracy of decoding of the nonverbal cues and the actual performance. Some individuals also tend to concentrate more on their strongest areas of nonverbal communication while neglecting the other aspects. As in the example presented by Diane Arthur, the kinesic cues, contradictory to other verbal and nonverbal behavior, significantly undermined the credibility and effectiveness of the presenter. Another problem area within the realm of nonverbal communication is the ambiguity of generated and transmitted cues. Since the appropriate meaning and interpretation of nonverbal cues are highly contextual in nature, the same gestures, facial expressions or posture can and do mean different things in different interaction environment and settings. Often, perceivers tend to venture farther than available context allows and interpret the signals according to their mental map, or to put it in other word – their previous knowledge, experience, stereotypes and others perceptual filters. Problem is further escalated due to the natural tendency of humans to be overly confident of the purely subjective judgments reached according personally-relevant information. This idea develops into yet another obstacle in the interpretation of body language. Differences in cultural backgrounds of those involved in the interaction may interfere with correct decoding the encoded message. Most common cultural differences would probably be in kinesics. For example, a nod in the United States, as well as in many other cultures, signifies understanding or agreement. However, in the Middle East, a single nod represents disagreement or rejection. Similarly, other commonly used gestures or other aspects of nonverbal communication may have completely different meanings in various cultures. With this said, one must realize that the term culture does not refer to the various ethnic and geographical groups exclusively. Culture can describe anything from sex to interorganizational culture. Therefore, in order to correctly decode the nonverbal cues one must not only analyze the ones that are relative to the context of what is being communicated, but also to attempt to interpret them in light of the decoder’s cultural background. The task of understanding nonverbal cues clearly is extremely complex and misunderstandings are common.
In conclusion, nonverbal communication is very important in depicting the message you are trying to deliver. The different kinds of communication are effective in so many ways. Some gestures are universal in meaning and some are not. But they do give a message. Without this, verbal language would show no meaning and be dull. Ones gestures and movements do bring life to conversation.
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