Non-verbal communication is a communication process carried out by means other than linguistic means. It involves all those stimuli within a communication setting, both humanly generated and environmentally generated, with the exception of verbal stimuli, that have potential message value for the sender and receiver. Non-verbal codes often accompany verbal codes (such as spoken language) in human communication. In fact, non-verbal codes have long been regarded as having an essential role in human communication.
Non-verbal codes, several of which will be discussed below, serve five important functions in communication carried out by speech.
First, non-verbal codes are used to repeat verbal messages. For instance, you hold up two fingers as you tell the green grocer you want two kilograms of the favorite vegetable.
Second, they can substitute for verbal messages. Your silence coupled with a sad expression on your face, for example, should send a powerful enough message to your inquirer as to how you feel about an unfortunate incident you have been involved in.
Third, people use non-verbal codes to emphasize what they say. For instance, we stretch our arms far apart to emphasize the long length a rope that we are describing to our listener.
Fourth, non-verbal codes can often contradict verbal message, either intentional or unintentionally. The expression "okay," if said in an unwilling tone of voice, for example, has a meaning that is the "opposite" to what the verbal message "okay" means; that is, it is not okay.
Fifth, we also use non-verbal codes to regulate verbal communication; it is what is called "conversation regulators." For instance, some people like to smoke a few puffs of cigarette to pause from a conversation the moment they are asked some tough questions; they use the act of smoking (or doing something else) to punctuate the conversation and to gain time searching for the proper answer.
Seven Non-Verbal Communication Codes
According to prevalent literature in non-verbal communication, there are eight non-verbal code systems. They are
6) oculesics, and
Chronemics and proxemics refer to the temporal frame of reference and the spatial frame of reference we analyzed above, respectively, so we will begin this part of our discussion with vocalics.
Vocalics, also known as paralanguage, refer to the non-verbal elements of the voice, such as people's "tone of voice" or the volume of the voice when they speak. What is important to stress here is that very often our vocalics "out loud" what we say verbally. This is what people mean when they say "How you say what you say is more important than what you say." In this specific discussion, the "How" in our example refers to the tone of voice in which the verbal message is communicated.
Another important concept about communication should be addressed here. There are two dimensions to every communication process, namely, the content dimension and the relational dimension. The content dimension is the message that is constructed by the sender through verbal means (e.g., spoken or written words). The relational dimension, also known as meta-communication (i.e., communication about communication), refers to the part of the communication that signals or signifies how the sender should receive the verbal content of the communication.
In other words, it defines the relationship between the sender and receiver in the communication process (e.g., whether or to what extent the receiver is a "subordinate" in this communication). And, more likely than not, vocalics play a big role in defining the relational dimension of human communication. For example, "Can you pass me the pen?", said in a gentle voice, signals a more or less equal relationship in which the speaker is asking the listener for a favor. But if the same question was said in a very loud scream, then the same verbal content would have carried a totally different connotation, in that it was an order and the receiver was demanded to relate to the screamer as a subordinate in an unequal relationship.
In certain societies, vocalics are used as a signifier of people of a certain gender in the social hierarchy. For example, in the traditional sectors in Japan, females are expected to speak in a higher pitch to signify their femininity as it is defined by a male-dominant culture.
Kinesics in this context refer to bodily movements or gestures as non-verbal means for communication. Bodily movements or physical gestures using various parts of the human body have long been an important means for human communication. Of course, kinesics are culture-bound, as in the case with the other non-verbal codes, and the same bodily movements or physical gestures may carry different meanings and interpreted differently across cultures. Italians are known for their bodily movements and in-your-face gestures while they speak with each other, for example. To the Italians themselves, such bodily movements signals the active involvement of the people engaged in the communication. But to people from another culture with no prior knowledge of the Italian kinesics, they may find such bodily movements and gestures as excessive, if not offensive.
Bodily movements and gestures can speak volumes about the people who use them. In fact, "body language" as a term assigns an important "linguistic" function to kinesics. Indeed, scholars in kinesics have compiled a lot of data as to how we may read meanings from body gestures, from how we sit to how what hand gestures we use. In the West, for example, people who sit with the legs crossed are considered to be reserved, inactive, or even passive, while those who sit with the legs open or spread are considered to be aggressive, active, or out-going. Of course, these various meanings are socially constructed. In Asian cultures, for example, adjectives such as graceful, proper, or impolite may be drawn to describe people sitting with their legs crossed; meanwhile, people sitting with their legs open or spread may be viewed as being rough, improper, or impolite.
Olfactics refers to people's sense of smell and we discuss this topic for its relevance in human communication. To begin with, our sense of smell serves an important biological function. Delicious smell from food facilitates our appetite. Bad or fishy smell keeps us away from rotten food so we will not get sick from eating them. Certain bodily odor or scent invokes or induces sexual arousal thereby enhancing our species' continued procreation and, in the process, our physical pleasure.
As the sense of smell plays an important role in our sensory life, it has also become one of the most commodified of our human sensoria. If the marketing and selling of perfumes, colognes, and deodorants is of any gauge, people in the U.S. spend perhaps the most time and money on smell than anyone else in the world. And if you pay a bit of attention to the common themes of print advertisements or radio and television commercials for perfumes, colognes, and deodorants from the U.S., you would be better prepared in knowing how the Americans relate smell or scent to various things in life, especially the sexual and the social. A common theme running through most ads for perfumes is the products' sex appeal or their ability in sexual arousal. Of course, having a distinct taste for expensive scents is also a testimony of one's social class status. Meanwhile, bodily odor is often portrayed ads for deodorants as a barrier to social acceptance.
In the context of our discussion, oculesics refers to the use of the eyes as a means for human communication. The eyes are perhaps among the most expressive venues we have for communicating not only our physical condition but also our innermost feelings. Our blood-shot eyes can clearly indicate to even the least observant person that we are tired, deprived of sleep, or otherwise physically under stress. Meanwhile, as the old saying goes, the eye is the window to one's soul.
I believe it was Confucius who once said that "Look into a person's pupils; he cannot hide himself." But Confucius was not alone in making such an observation. In fact, peering into the pupils of someone's eyes while having a conversation is a common practice in the Arab world. The assumption behind this practice is the belief that the movement of the eyes and the dilution and contraction the pupils signal the psychological condition of the person. The more rapid the eyes move, the more unstable the person's emotion is likely to be. The more diluted the pupils, the more relaxed or calm (and therefore the more honest) the person is; meanwhile, the more contracted the pupils, the more tense or nervous (and dishonest) the person is.
In addition, eye contact serves a wide range of other social functions. In the West, constant eye contact is socially perceived to signal a willingness to communicate with or to relate to others; otherwise, those who do not maintain constant eye contact are viewed as being aloof, insincere, and perhaps having something to hide. A firm stare, if done with by a parent to a child, may serve as a tool for disciplinary action, e.g., a warning signal to the youngster to refrain from continuing his mischief. A firm and steady stare may invoke hostility between two strangers in the street which may result in physical confrontation. An occasional yet steady gaze with a wink or a smile may serve as a "mating call" from a suitor to his or her desired mate at a single bar.
But the meanings of eye contact vary from culture to culture. In Japan, for example, subordinates are not expected to maintain sustained eye contact with their superiors because doing so is viewed as a potential challenge on the part of the former to the latter's authority; on the other hand, superiors may liberally lay their eyes on their subordinates. In such a cultural context, eye contact is regulated as a marker of social status. In the West, however, constant eye contact is expected across different strata of co-workers, for reasons we have mentioned above. This difference in the intercultural expectation and interpretation of eye contact is one of the subtle yet profound reasons as to why many ill-informed corporate executives or simply co-workers in the U.S. often regard their Asian counterparts as being aloof, unengaged, or unwilling to relate to others.
Haptics refers to tactile communication or human communication through the sense and use of touch. Nowadays, with heightened awareness about sexual harassment, this should prove to be a "touchy" subject. The sense of touch has been used throughout human civilization as a means to express feelings, to define relationships, to signal approval or disapproval, and a host of other functions in human communication. But similar to all other communication codes we discuss in this forum, the uses and meanings of tactile communication are socially defined; they are also culture and context-bound. What a pat on one's shoulder in one context at a given moment of time in a certain society may signal a friendly approval, the same physical tactile contact may be construed very differently under a different set of conditions, contexts, or frames of reference.
Hand shake, one of the most common forms of tactile communications in many parts of the world, is an excellent example as to how haptics carries a great deal of social significance. A firm hand shake is often interpreted by many a sign of sincerity, friendliness, and earnestness. A hand shake that does not show strength or touch, on the other hand, gives people a sense of the person's indifference or lukewarm attitude toward the interaction. The extent to which a hand shake is firm or soft can also be used to signify class status. Queens Elizabeth II of Great Britain always wears a pair of white gloves when shaking hands with her visitors, guests, or subjects. People lining up to shake her hand are always told that the hand shake is to be light and brief. What is also interesting to note is the fact that the duration of any given hand shake is always mutually determined by the two parties engaged in the action. People with adequate social decorum skills are those who can quietly and tacitly sense and "negotiate" the proper duration of the hand shake with their counterparts.
Hugging, on the other hand, can be an issue of contention. In the West, social hug, a light and brief embrace involving mostly the upper torso, is a commonplace practice as a gesture of greeting or farewell between friends, male or female. But it is not a common practice in many cultures in the East. To a noticeable extent, tactile communication practiced in Asian cultures is quite different from that in Western cultures. Such a difference can certainly create intercultural misunderstanding and distress.
I had a U.S. born Korean American woman student who once complained bitterly about how her immigrant parents never hugged her ("They never hug you," she lamented to me after a class discussion in multicultural communication). My student in fact suffered from what is known among experts in haptics as "touch deprivation." She expressed her misfortune by suggesting the common practice within American families where tactile communication is more liberally practiced between parents and children. We must see this as an intercultural issue, because my student is and considers herself an American (even though she is of Korean descent) while her parents are Koreans; the parents and their daughters maintain two different sets of value and expectation of touch or tactile communication in the maintenance of their