Nonverbal communication is defined as a process of voluntarily or involuntarily signaling intent with the use of various forms of behavior other than words. Examples of nonverbal communication include some aspects of physical appearance, gestures, voice tone, or eye behavior. However, exchanging messages without using the voice does not imply that it is a nonverbal way of communication. For instance, sending text messages or speaking in the sign language is actually communicating verbally, since in both cases symbols are present.
Nonverbal communication is normally instinctive, unintentional, and can suggest more than one interpretation. In certain situations, it can be more important than verbal messages, namely when emotions are expressed, the motives of other people are assessed, the attitude to others is shown, and when we are trying to understand other people’s intent if we do not see many other behaviors.
There are several functions that nonverbal communication performs. First of all, it is used in order to reinforce verbal communication, clarify the meaning of verbal messages. Secondly, nonverbal signs can replace words. The nonverbal way of communication is also used to express a meaning opposite to what has been said verbally, as well as regulate or coordinate exchanging verbal messages. In addition, nonverbal communication can create immediacy, i.e. a sense of intimacy, closeness between people. Finally, it is a way of deceiving others, trying to make them think something that is not true.
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Nonverbal communication is performed through codes, i.e. symbols used to send messages instead of or in compliment to words. These are, first of all, gestures and body movements, classified into five main groups such as emblems, illustrators, regulators, adaptors, and affect displays. Facial expressions tell us about emotions that individuals feel. Certain facial expressions are common for all cultures on the planet. Also, nonverbal communication codes include eye behavior and voice with its paralanguage (sounds that go together with words), vocalizations (paralinguistic signs with information about the individual’s physical/emotional condition), and back-channel signals (messages that we send when we intend to speak or want others to speak). The next code is physical appearance, which has a particular significance in western society. Artifacts, i.e. decorative things we wear, such as rings or brooches, can tell a great deal of the meaning we want to signal. Space and environment also play an important role in nonverbal communication. Here, three factors can influence the effectiveness of nonverbal messages, they are proxemics with its four spatial zones (intimate, personal, social, and public), territoriality, i.e. constantly trying to show to other people that a certain space belongs to us, and finally, environment, as the layout of our homes or offices, the way we arrange things in them can give others some information about us or our intent. Another code of nonverbal communication is time orientation, i.e. how people use time in their interaction with others. Finally, the way we touch our communication partners indicates our relationship with them. There can be several kinds of touch, i.e. functional-professional, social-polite, friendship-warmth, love-intimacy, and sexual arousal.
Nonverbal communication is influenced by certain factors. These are, first of all, cultural peculiarities. Contact cultures attach a great importance to the touch as a means of communication. In noncontact cultures, on the other hand, physical interaction with communication partners is undesirable or even forbidden. Another factor is the medium of communication. Mediated communication, for instance, does not provide enough nonverbal signals. Finally, nonverbal communication is affected by the situational context, which has two dimensions such as public-private and informal-formal.
As an example illustrating the concept of nonverbal communication, I would like to tell you about my friend’s attempts to win the heart of a girl he fancied. The first attempt to invite her to a date for my friend was unsuccessful since he got a flat refusal. That did not discourage him, though, as he is not the kind to give up so easily. He decided to act in a more subtle way. Through the girl’s friends and neighbors, he found out some personal details about her, i.e. what she liked doing, wearing, watching, what was her favorite scent, flower, and so on. He began by putting an orchid on the porch of her house, as she had made that flower her personal symbol. The next thing he did was buying a formal suit with a necktie and cuff links, as he had learned that she adored the style. That cost him some derisive comments from his mates, but it definitely drew the girl’s attention (and not hers alone) to him. He made another attempt to ask the girl to go out with him, and this time she agreed. On the date, on several occasions, my friend touched the girl’s shoulder and hand, knowing very well that physical contact led to a more intimate relationship, and tried to keep as close to her as he could. Finally, the next day he invited the girl to dinner at his home. Knowing that she was a fan of the Japanese food and lifestyle, my friend had bought some traditional Japanese household objects and decorated his room in the Japanese fashion. As a result, the girl was conquered.
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This story is a good example of how nonverbal cues can make communication more effective. By using various nonverbal communication codes (touching, space and environment, physical appearance) my friend managed to achieve his aim.