3.10 Principles of Nonverbal Communication

[Author removed at request of original publisher] and Linda Macdonald

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to

  • Identify and explain the principles of nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal communication is an important aspect of business communication, from interpersonal interactions to public presentations. Nonverbals are a dynamic, complex, and challenging aspect of communication.

When your audience first sees you, they begin to make judgments and predictions about you and your potential, just as an employer might do when you arrive for a job interview. If you are well dressed and every crease is ironed, your audience may notice your attention to detail. Wearing jeans with holes, a torn T-shirt, and a baseball cap would send a different message. Neither style of dress is “good” or “bad”, but simply appropriate or inappropriate depending on the environment and context. Your skills as an effective business communicator will be called upon when you consider your appearance. As a speaker, your goal is to create common ground and reduce the distance between you and the audience. You want your appearance to help establish and reinforce your credibility.

Nonverbal communication is the process of conveying a message without the use of words. It can include gestures and facial expressions, tone of voice, timing, posture, clothing, and where you stand as you communicate. It can help or hinder the clear understanding of your message. Chances are you have been in situations where words were misunderstood or where the meaning of words was unclear. With nonverbal communication, meaning is even harder to discern. We can sometimes tell what people are communicating through their nonverbal communication, but there is no foolproof “dictionary” of how to interpret nonverbal messages, especially in culturally diverse contexts.

In order to be a successful business communicator, you will need to continually learn about nonverbal communication and its impact on interactions with others. Understanding the principles of non-verbal communication can help in understanding this impact.

Nonverbal Communication Is Fluid

In a speech, nonverbal communication is continuous in that it is always occurring, and because it is so fluid, it can be hard to determine where one nonverbal message starts and another stops. Meaning is delivered continuously both consciously and unconsciously. Awareness of the impact of non-verbals in public speaking is essential because “actions speak louder than words.” People often pay more attention to your nonverbal expressions than your words. As a result, nonverbal communication is a powerful way to contribute to (or detract from) your success in communicating your message to the audience. If your words claim that the audience should have confidence in a new product, but your body language communicates nervousness, the audience may doubt your claims.

Nonverbal Communication Is Fast

Let’s pretend you are at your computer at work. You see that an e-mail has arrived, but you are right in the middle of tallying a spreadsheet with numbers that just don’t add up. You see that the e-mail is from a coworker and you click on it. The subject line reads “uh oh.” You could interpret the subject line to mean something is wrong with the data, and your body may reveal your alarm.

Your emotional response is immediate. Nonverbal communication gives our thoughts and feelings away before we are even aware of what we are thinking or how we feel. People may see and hear more than you ever anticipated. Your nonverbal communication includes both intentional and unintentional messages, but since it all happens so fast, the unintentional ones can contradict what you know you are supposed to say or how you are supposed to react.

Nonverbal Communication Can Add to or Replace Verbal Communication

People tend to pay more attention to how you say something than what you actually say. Even when you are presenting a speech, this statement is true.

We communicate nonverbally continuously and, therefore, more than we engage verbally. We often use nonverbal expressions to add to, or even replace, words we might otherwise say. We use a nonverbal gesture called an illustrator to communicate our message effectively and reinforce our point. Your coworker Andrew may ask you, “The Lower Deck pub after work?” as they walk by, and you simply nod and say “yeah.” Andrew may respond with a nonverbal gesture, called an emblem or illustrator, by signalling with the “OK” sign as they walk away.

In addition to illustrators, we also use regulators. Regulators control, maintain or discourage interaction nonverbally.  For example, if someone is telling you a message that is confusing or upsetting, you may hold up your hand, a commonly recognized regulator that asks the speaker to stop talking.

If you are in a meeting to introduce your company’s latest product and your audience members nod their heads in agreement on important points and maintain good eye contact, it is a good sign. Nonverbally, they are using regulators encouraging you to continue with your presentation. In contrast, if they look away, tap their feet, and begin drawing in the margins of their notebook, these are regulators suggesting that you better think of a way to regain their interest or else wrap up your presentation quickly.

Affect displays are nonverbal communication that express emotions or feelings. An affect display that might accompany holding up your hand for silence would be a frown and or a shake of your head from side to side. When you and Andrew are at The Lower Deck pub, smiling and waving at coworkers who arrive lets them know where you are seated and welcomes them.

Adaptors are nonverbal tools to help you fill more comfortable or secure in your environment. A self-adaptor meets your need for security through self-touch. Playing with your hair, repeatedly rubbing your hands together, or biting your lower lip are examples of self-adaptive behaviours. These behaviours are evident in stressful situations. Nonverbal messages that conflict with verbal communication can confuse the listener, so using a self-adaptor when you are persuading a client to make a purchase will work against your goals.

An object-adaptor involves the use of an object in a way for which it was not designed. You may see audience members tapping their pencils, chewing on them, or playing with them, while ignoring you and your presentation. Or perhaps someone pulls out a comb and repeatedly rubs a thumbnail against the comb’s teeth. They are using the comb or the pencil in a way other than its intended design. In this case, the object-adaptor may communicate a lack of engagement or enthusiasm in your speech.

Intentional nonverbal communication can complement, repeat, replace, mask, or contradict what we say. When Andrew invited you to The Lower Deck pub , you said, “yeah” and nodded, complementing and repeating the message. You could have simply nodded, effectively replacing the “yes” with a nonverbal response. You could also have decided to say no, but did not want to hurt Andrew’s feelings. Shaking your head “no” while pointing to your watch, communicating work and time issues, may mask your real thoughts or feelings. Masking involves the use of nonverbal communication to substitute for communication you do not want to display.

Nonverbal Communication Is Confusing, Contextual, and Cultural

Nonverbal communication can be confusing. We need contextual clues to help us understand, or begin to understand, what a movement, gesture, or lack of display means. Then we have to figure it all out based on our prior knowledge (or lack thereof) of the person and hope to get it right. Nonverbal communication is everywhere, and we all use it, but that doesn’t make it simple or independent of when, where, why, or how we communicate.

Culture affects our understanding and use of nonverbal communication. According to Matsumoto and Hwang (2013), many nonverbal communications are similar across cultures. For example, an intense direct gaze would be considered aggressive in most cultures and a touch is considered intimate. But, Matsumoto and Hwang claim, “culture influences nonverbal behaviour in important and profound ways” (p.717). The forms of nonverbal gestures differ across cultures. The index finger is used for pointing in some cultures, while the middle finger is used in others. The use of the middle finger might be interpreted as rude in Canada. The intensity of a gesture also varies by culture. For example, in Latin and Middle Eastern cultures, large expressive hand gestures are appropriate, while in East Asian cultures large gestures are not considered appropriate. The length of a gaze or a touch also varies in levels of appropriateness.  More expressive cultures use bigger and more frequent gestures and facial expressions and hold direct gazes longer than reserved cultures, which might use fewer facial expressions and gestures, and limit direct gazes. Culture affects our understanding of nonverbals and our own nonverbals may be interpreted in unintended ways by various audiences.

Nonverbal Communication Can Be Intentional or Unintentional

Suppose you are working as a salesclerk in a retail store, and a customer communicated frustration to you. Would the nonverbal aspects of your response be intentional or unintentional? Your job is to be pleasant and courteous at all times, yet your wrinkled eyebrows or wide eyes may have been unintentional. They clearly communicate your negative feelings at that moment. Restating your wish to be helpful and displaying nonverbal gestures may communicate “no big deal,” but the stress of the moment is still “written” on your face.

Can we tell when people are intentionally or unintentionally communicating non-verbally? We often assign intentional motives to nonverbal communication when in fact their display is unintentional, and often hard to interpret.

Nonverbal Messages Communicate Feelings and Attitudes

Steven Beebe, Susan Beebe, and Mark Redmond have shown that you often react faster than you think. Your nonverbal responses communicate your initial reaction before you can process it through language or formulate an appropriate response. If your appropriate, spoken response doesn’t match your nonverbal reaction, you may give away your true feelings and attitudes (Beebe, Beebe, and Redmond, 2002).

Albert Mehrabian asserts that we rarely communicate emotional messages through the spoken word. According to Mehrabian, 93 percent of the time we communicate our emotions non-verbally, with at least 55 percent associated with facial gestures. Vocal cues, body position and movement, and normative space between speaker and receiver can also be clues to feelings and attitudes (Mehrabian, 1972).

When you interview for a job position, you will want to communicate confidence in your ability to do the job. You will want your audience to see you as capable, trustworthy, and enthusiastic. Because you will likely be sitting, your face and hands will demonstrate your attitudes and feelings and should match your spoken responses.

We Believe Nonverbal Communication More than Verbal

 Most people tend to believe nonverbal messages over the verbal message.

Because we tend to believe the nonverbal over the verbal, you need to identify any of your nonverbal behaviours that appear inconsistent with your verbal message. For example, if you are claiming that your recommendation for a new social media campaign should be adopted but your body language shows a lack of confidence, you will undermine your proposal.

Nonverbal Communication is Key in the Speaker/Audience Relationship

When we first see each other, before anyone says a word, we are already sizing each other up. Within the first few seconds we have made judgments about each other based on what we wear, our physical characteristics, even our posture. Are these judgments accurate? That is hard to know without context, but we can say that nonverbal communication certainly affects first impressions, for better or worse. When a speaker and the audience first meet, nonverbal communication in terms of space, dress, and even personal characteristics can contribute to assumed expectations. The expectations might not be accurate or even fair, but it is important to recognize that they will be present. There is truth in the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Since beginnings are fragile times, your attention to aspects you can control, both verbal and nonverbal, will help contribute to the first step of forming a relationship with your audience. Our eye contact with audience members, use of space, understanding of cultural influences, and degree of formality will continue to contribute to that relationship.

As a speaker, your nonverbal communication is part of the message and can contribute to, or detract from, your overall goals. By being aware of them and practising with a live audience, you can learn to be more aware and in control. Remember, too, that you are continuously communicating non-verbally in meetings, in conversations, and in the classroom. Your nonverbal behaviour tells a great deal about you, including your level of engagement, your level of professionalism, and your attitude.

Check Your Knowledge (5 Questions)


Beebe, S. [Steven]., Beebe, S. [Susan], & Redmond, M. (2002). Interpersonal communication relating to others (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Matsumoto, D., & Hwang, H.C. (2013). Culture and nonverbal communication. In J. Hall & M.L. Knapp (Eds.), Nonverbal communication. De Gruyter.

Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal Communication. Aldine-Atherton.

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Building Relationships With Business Communication Copyright © 2021 by [Author removed at request of original publisher] and Linda Macdonald is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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