3.11 Types 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

  • Describe the eight general types of nonverbal communication
  • Explain the impacts of these nonverbal types of communications

Now that we have discussed the general principles that apply to nonverbal communication, let’s examine eight types of nonverbal communication to further understand this challenging aspect of communication:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Physical characteristics
  4. Body movements
  5. Touch
  6. Paralanguage
  7. Artifacts
  8. Environment

Space

When we discuss space in a nonverbal context, we mean the space between objects and people. Space is often associated with social rank and is an important part of business communication.

In his travels around the globe in World War II, Edward T. Hall noticed that people in different countries kept different distances from each other. In France, they stood closer to each other than they did in England. Hall wondered why that was and began to study what he called proxemics, or the study of the human use of space and distance in communication (Hall, E. T., 1963).

In The Hidden Dimension (Hall, E., 1966) indicated there are two main aspects of space: territory and personal space. Hall drew on anthropology to address the concepts of dominance and submission, and noted that the more powerful person often claims more space. This occupation of space plays an important role in modern society, from who gets the corner office to who sits at the head table at a conference dinner.

Territory is related to control. As a way of establishing control over your own room, you may have painted it or put up posters that represent your interests or things you consider unique about yourself. Families or households often mark their space by putting up fences or walls around their houses. This sense of a right to control your space is implicit in territory. Territory means the space you claim as your own, are responsible for, or are willing to defend.

The second aspect Hall highlights is personal space, or the “bubble” of space surrounding each individual. Distance between people varies depending on their relationship. Hall (Hall, E., 1966) identified four categories of interpersonal distances, as shown in Figure 3.11.1. Intimate distance ranges from touch to half a metre (about 1.5 feet). Personal or casual distances between friends and colleagues range from half a metre to just over a metre. Social space, used with acquaintances, is typically 1.2 to 3.6 metres with the minimum for social distance during the pandemic extended to 2 metres. Public distances (speaking from a podium, for example) are greater than 4 metres (12 feet).

Figure 3.11.1

Space: Four Main Categories of DistanceDepiction of the Four Main Categories of Distance (Intimate, Personal, Social, and Public Space)

The pandemic heightened our awareness of space. During the pandemic, our personal space bubbles were enlarged. Violations of this space were considered a violation of social etiquette as well as a threat to health. When meeting in business settings face-to-face, we could no longer use space to establish personal connections.

 

Image of two people sitting on opposite sides of a bench, as far apart as they can possibly be.

Expectations of distance vary greatly by culture. In your home, people may sleep one to each bed, but in many cultures people sleep two or more to a bed and it is considered normal. If you were to share that bed, you might feel uncomfortable, while someone raised with group sleeping norms might feel uncomfortable sleeping alone. From how close you stand to others in a cafeteria line to where you place your backpack in class to how many people you cram into an elevator, your personal expectations of space are often at variance with others.

Speaking in a public space carries certain expectations. In North America, eye contact with the audience is expected. Big movements and gestures are not generally expected and can be distracting. The speaker occupies a space on the “stage,” even if it’s in front of the class. When you occupy that space, the audience will expect you to behave in certain ways. If you talk to the screen behind you while displaying a PowerPoint presentation, the audience may think you are not paying attention to them. Speakers are expected to pay attention to, and interact with, the audience, even if in the feedback is primarily nonverbal. Your movements should coordinate with the tone, rhythm, and content of your speech. Pacing back and forth, keeping your hands in your pockets, or crossing your arms may communicate nervousness, or even defensiveness, and detract from your speech. In contrast, moving toward the audience can create a more intimate connection with your audience. Moving forward reduces the interpersonal distance and gives the impression of moving from a public to a social realm.

Time

Do you know what time it is? How aware you are of time varies by culture. Some people, and the communities and cultures they represent, are very time-oriented. The Euro Railways trains in Germany are famous for departing and arriving according to the schedule. In contrast, if you take the train in Argentina, you’ll find that the schedule is more of an approximation of when the train will leave or arrive. Some Mexican  friends may invite you to a barbecue at 8 p.m., but when you arrive at that time you are the first guest because it is understood that the gathering actually doesn’t start until after 9 p.m. Similarly in France, an 8 p.m. party invitation would be understood to indicate you should arrive around 8:30, but in Sweden 8 p.m. means 8 p.m., and latecomers may not be welcome.

“Time is money” is a common saying across many cultures, including North American Anglo-settler culture, and reveals a high value for time. In social contexts, time often reveals social status and power. Who are you willing to wait for? A doctor for an office visit when you are sick? A potential employer for a job interview? Your significant other or children? Sometimes we get impatient, and our impatience underscores our value for time.

Chronemics is the study of how we refer to and perceive time. Tom Bruneau at Radford University spent a lifetime investigating how time interacts in communication and culture (Bruneau, T., 1974; Bruneau, T., 1990; Bruneau, T., and Ishii S., 1988). As he notes, across Western society, time is often considered the equivalent of money. The value of speed is highly prized in some societies (Schwartz, T., 1989). In others, there is a great respect for slowing down and taking a long-term view of time.

When you order a meal at a fast food restaurant, what are your expectations for how long you will have to wait? When you order a pizza online for delivery, when do you expect it will arrive? If you order cable service for your home, when do you expect it might be delivered? In the first case, you might measure the delivery of a hamburger in a matter of seconds or minutes, and perhaps thirty minutes for pizza delivery, but you may measure the time from your order to working cable in days or even weeks. You may even have to be at your home from 8 a.m. to noon, waiting for its installation. The expectations vary by context, and we often grow frustrated in a time-sensitive culture when the delivery does not match our expectations.

In North American settler cultures, time is a relevant factor of the communication process in your presentation. The best way to show your audience respect is to honor the time expectation associated with your speech. Always try to stop speaking before the audience stops listening; if the audience perceives that you have “gone over time,” they will be less willing to listen, which will have a negative impact on your ability to communicate your message.

Suppose you are presenting a speech that has three main points. Your audience expects you to regulate the time and attention to each point, but if you spend all your time on the first two points and rush through the third, your speech won’t be balanced and will lose rhythm. The speaker occupies a position of some power, but it is the audience that gives them that position. By displaying respect and maintaining balance, you will move through your points more effectively.

In the same way, how long should it take to respond to a customer’s request for assistance or information? If they call on the phone, how long should they be on hold? How soon should they expect a response to an e-mail? As a skilled business communicator, you will know to anticipate normative expectations and do your best to meet those expectations more quickly than anticipated. Your prompt reply or offer of help in response to a request, even if you cannot solve the issue on the spot, is often regarded positively, contributing to the formation of positive communication interactions.

Physical Characteristics

You didn’t choose your birth, your eye color, the natural color of your hair, or your height, but people spend millions every year trying to change their physical characteristics. You can get colored contacts; dye your hair; and if you are shorter than you’d like to be, buy shoes to raise your stature a couple of inches. You won’t be able to change your birth, and no matter how much you stoop to appear shorter, you won’t change your height until time and age gradually makes itself apparent. If you are tall, you might find the correct shoe size, pant length, or even the length of mattress a challenge, but there are rewards. Have you ever heard that taller people get paid more (Burnham, T., and Phelan, J., 2000)? There is some truth to that idea. There is also some truth to the notion that people prefer symmetrical faces (where both sides are equal) over asymmetrical faces (with unequal sides; like a crooked nose or having one eye or ear slightly higher than the other) (Burnham, T., and Phelan, J., 2000).

We often make judgments about a person’s personality or behavior based on physical characteristics, and researchers are quick to note that those judgments are often inaccurate (Wells, W., and Siegel, B., 1961; Cash, T., and Kilcullen, R., 1985). Regardless of your eye or hair color, or even how tall you are, being comfortable with yourself is an important part of your presentation. Act naturally and consider aspects of your presentation you can control in order to maximize a positive image for the audience.

Body Movements

The study of body movements, called kinesics, is key to understanding nonverbal communication. Since your actions will significantly contribute to the effectiveness of your business interactions, let’s examine four distinct ways body movements that complement, repeat, regulate, or replace your verbal messages.

Body movements can complement the verbal message by reinforcing the main idea. For example, you may be providing an orientation presentation to a customer about a software program. As you say, “Click on this tab,” you may also initiate that action. Your verbal and nonverbal messages reinforce each other. You can also reinforce the message by repeating it. If you first say, “Click on the tab,” and then motion with your hand to the right, indicating that the customer should move the cursor arrow with the mouse to the tab, your repetition can help the listener understand the message.

In addition to repeating your message, body movements can also regulate conversations. Nodding your head to indicate that you are listening may encourage the customer to continue asking questions. Holding your hand up with the palm out may signal them to stop and provide a pause where you can start to answer.

Body movements also substitute or replace verbal messages. Ekman and Friesen found that facial features communicate to others our feelings, but our body movements often reveal how intensely we experience those feelings (Ekman, P., and Friesen, W., 1967). For example, if the customer makes a face of frustration while trying to use the software program, they may need assistance. If they push away from the computer and separate themselves physically from interacting with it, they may be extremely frustrated. Learning to gauge feelings and their intensity as expressed by customers takes time and patience, and your attention to them will improve your ability to facilitate positive interactions.

As a general rule when presenting, try to act naturally, as if you were telling a friend a story, so that your body will relax and your nonverbal gestures will come more naturally. Practice is key to your level of comfort; the more practice you get, the more comfortable and less intimidating it will seem to you.

Touch

Before giving your presentation, you may interact with people by shaking hands (often replaced in the post-pandemic era with placing your hand on your heart or slightly bowing your head) and making casual conversation. This interaction can help establish trust before you present. While speaking in a large public setting we do not often touch people in the audience, but we do interact with visual aids, our note cards, and other objects. How we handle them can communicate our comfort level. It is always a good idea to practice using the technology, visual aids, or note cards you will use in a speech during a practice session. Using the technology correctly by clicking the right button on the mouse or pressing the right switch on the overhead projector can contribute to your credibility.

Paralanguage

Paralanguage is the exception to the definition of nonverbal communication. You may recall that we defined nonverbal communication as not involving words, but paralanguage exists when we are speaking, using words. Paralanguage involves verbal and nonverbal aspects of speech that influence meaning and includes tone, intensity, pausing, and even silence.

Perhaps you’ve also heard of a “pregnant pause”, a silence between verbal messages that is full of meaning. The meaning itself may be hard to understand or decipher, but it is there nonetheless. For example, your coworker Jan comes back from a sales meeting speechless and with a ghost-white complexion. You may ask if the meeting went all right. “Well, ahh…” may be the only response you get. The pause speaks volumes. Something happened, though you may not know what. It could be personal if Jan’s report was not well received, or it could be more systemic, like the news that sales figures are off by 40 percent and layoffs may not be far behind.

Silence or vocal pauses can communicate hesitation, indicate the need to gather thought, or serve as a sign of respect. Keith Basso quotes an anonymous source as stating, “It is not the case that a man who is silent says nothing” (Basso, K. A., 1970). Sometimes we learn just as much, or even more, from what a person does not say as what they do say. In his book Gather (2021), Richard Van Camp writes that he uses silence in storytelling for effect and to capture the listeners’ attention. He says, “People who hear me share, know I take my time telling a story, giving it the time and dignity it deserves” (p. 114).

Artifacts

Image of a business person with tattoos and piercingsDo you cover your tattoos when you are at work? Do you know someone who does? Or perhaps you know someone who has a tattoo and does not need to cover it up on their job? In your line of work, a tattoo might be an important visual aid, or it might detract from your effectiveness as a business communicator. Body piercings may express individuality, but you need to consider how they will be interpreted by employers and customers. Hotson (2020) found that more conservative industries including financial services and banking are at the conservative end of the sliding scale of acceptability.

Artifacts are forms of decorative ornamentation that are chosen to represent self-concept. They can include rings and tattoos, but may also include brand names and logos. From clothes to cars, watches, briefcases, purses, and even eyeglasses, what we choose to surround ourselves with communicates something about our sense of self. They may project gender, role or position, class or status, personality, and group membership or affiliation. Paying attention to a customer’s artifacts can give you a sense of the self they want to communicate, and may allow you to more accurately adapt your message to meet their needs. Potential employers or colleagues may also use artifacts to determine your sense of self.

 
Annie Singer (2017) has written about tattoos in the workplace. Her research of academic sources found evidence that supports the increased acceptance of tattoos in the workplace:
  • 86% of young professionals did not think piercings and tattoos reduce the chance of getting jobs.

  • Grooming and business attire were more important indicators in the hiring decision than tattoos and piercings (source).

  • Heavily tattooed professionals felt that tattoos made them more accessible to younger coworkers.

Indeed’s Editorial Team (2021) states that some employers accept tattoos to affirm employees’ individuality, to appeal to some clients’ aesthetic sense, to promote diversity, and to inspire creativity.
Singer also found evidence of the negative effects of tattoos in the workplace. She notes these findings:
  • Visible tattoos had a predominantly negative effect on employment selection, driven by the hiring manager’s perception of customer expectations (source).

  • Tattooed professionals frequently experienced unwanted touching in the workplace.

  • Consumers showed a preference for non-tattooed front-line staff (source).

Singer concludes that “we can definitely see that there has been progress towards the acceptance of tattoos in the workplace, but highly visible tattoos can still have a negative impact, especially in customer-facing jobs” (para. 9). The social stigma of body modification will likely continue to evolve.

Environment

Environment involves the physical and psychological aspects of the communication context. More than the tables and chairs in an office, environment is an important part of the dynamic communication process. The perception of one’s environment influences one’s reaction to it. For example, Google is famous for its work environment, with spaces created for physical activity and even in-house food service around the clock. The expense is no doubt considerable, but Google’s environment creates value by facilitating the creativity, interaction, and collaboration that define the company’s success.

 

Check Your Knowledge

References

Basso, K. A. (1970). To give up on words: Silence in western Apache culture. In D. Carbaugh (Ed.), Cultural communication and intercultural contact (pp. 301–318). Hillsdale, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum.

Bruneau, T. (1974). Time and nonverbal communication. Journal of Poplular Culture, 8, 658–666.

Bruneau, T. (1990). Chronemics: The study of time in human interaction. In J. DeVito & M. Hecht (Eds.), The nonverbal reader (pp. 301–311). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Bruneau, T., & Ishii, S. (1988). Communicative silence: East and west. World Communication, 17, 1–33.

Burnham, T., & Phelan, J. (2000). Mean genes: From sex to money to food: Taming our primal instincts. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Cash, T., & Kilcullen, R. (1985). The eye of the beholder: Susceptibility to sexism and beautyism in the evaluation of managerial applicants. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 15, 591–605.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1967). Head and body cures in the judgment of emotions: A reformulation. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 24, 711–724.

Hall, E. (1966). The hidden dimension. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Hall, E. T. (1963). Proxemics: The study of man’s spacial relations and boundaries. In Iago Galdston (Ed.), Man’s image in medicine and anthropology (pp. 422–445). New York, NY: International Universities Press.

Hotson, E. (2020, January 13). How workplaces are phasing out the tattoo stigma. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200113-normalising-the-workplace-tattoo-taboo

Indeed Editorial Team, (2021, February 22). Your guide to tattoos in the workplace. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/starting-new-job/tattoos-in-a-workplace

Kinsman, M. (2001, August 20). Tattoos and nose rings. San Diego Union-Tribune, p. C1.

McLean, S. (1998). Turn-taking and the extended pause: A study of interpersonal communication styles across generations on the Warm Springs Indian reservation. In K. S. Sitaram & M. Prosser (Eds.), Civic discourse: Multiculturalsim, cultural diversity, and global communication (pp. 213–227). Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Company.

Philips, S. (1983). The invisible culture: Communication in the classroom and community on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Chicago, IL: Waveland Press.

Schwartz, T. (1989, January/February). Acceleration syndrome: Does everyone live in the fast lane? Utne Reader, 31, 36–43.

Seiler, W., & Beall, M. (2000). Communication: Making connections (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Van Camp, R. (2021). Gather: On the joy of storytelling. University of Regina Press.

Wells, W., & Siegel, B. (1961). Stereotypes somatypes. Psychological Reports, 8, 77–78.

 

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3.11 Types of Nonverbal Communication 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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