The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

NonVerbal Communication

Jerry, the throat-clear is a nonverbal indication of doubt. --George, Seinfeld

To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe. --Marilyn vos Savant

Concept1. The process of sending and receiving wordless messages by means of facial expressionsgazegesturespostures, and tones of voice2. Also included are grooming habits, body positioning in space, and consumer product design (e.g., clothing cuesfood products, artificial colors and tastes, engineered aromasmedia images and computer-graphic displays). Nonverbal cues include allexpressive signssignals and cues (audio, visual, tactile, chemical, etc. [see AFFERENT CUE])--which are used to send and receive messages apart from manual sign language and speech.

Usage: Each of us gives and responds to literally thousands of nonverbal messages daily in our personal and professional lives--and while commuting back and forth between the two. From morning's kiss to business suits and tense-mouth displays at the conference table, we react to wordless messages emotionally, often without knowing why. The boss's head-nod, the clerk's bow tie, the next-door neighbor'shairstyle--we notice the minutia of nonverbal behavior because their details reveal a. how we relate to one another, and b. who we think we are.

Evolution. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson has noted that our nonverbal communication is still evolving: "If . . . verbal language were in any sense an evolutionary replacement of communication by means of kinesics and paralanguage, we would expect the old, predominantly iconic systems to have undergone conspicuous decay. Clearly they have not. Rather, the kinesics of men have become richer and more complex, and paralanguage has blossomed side by side with the evolution of verbal language" (Bateson 1968:614).

FAQ: A frequently asked question is, "What percent of our communication is nonverbal?" According to Kramer, "94% of our communication is nonverbal, Jerry" (Seinfeld, January 29, 1998). Kramer's estimate (like the statistics of anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell [65%; Knapp 1972] and of psychologist Albert Mehrabian [93%; 1971]) are hard to verify. But the proportion of our emotional communication that is expressed apart from words surely exceeds 99%. (See below, Media.)

Kinds of cues. Body-language signals may be a. learned, b. innate, or c. mixed. Eye-wink, thumbs-up, and military-salute gestures, for instance, are clearly learned. Eye-blink, throat-clear, and facial-flushing cues, on the other hand, are clearly inborn or innate. Laughcry,shoulder-shrug, and most other body-language signals are "mixed," because they originate as innate actions, but cultural rules later shape their timing, energy, and use. Body-language researchers do not always agree on the nature-nurture issue, however. Like Darwin, human biologists suppose that many body-motion signs are inborn. Like Birdwhistell, many cultural anthropologists propose that most or even all gestures are learned, while others combine the biological and cultural approaches. Research by psychologist Paul Ekman and his colleagues has shown that the facial expressions of disgust, surprise, and other primary emotions are universal across cultures.

Literature. "Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating." --O. Henry (Gift of the Magi)

Media. "To study language by listening only to utterances, say [University of Chicago professor of psychology and linguistics, David] McNeill and those who subscribe to his theories, is to miss as much as 75 percent of the meaning" (Mahany 1997:E-3). 

Nature vs. nurture. Many biologists consider nonverbal signals innate (i.e., unlearned; e.g., Darwin 1872). Cultural anthropologists think many nonverbal signals are learned by participation in a social group (e.g., La Barre 1947). Some anthropologists picture nonverbal signs as being organized into grammatical structures, like the words and phrases of speech (see Birdwhistell 1970, and Scheflen 1972, e.g., whose purely linguistic approaches have proven largely unproductive). Other anthropologists have combined nature and nurture approaches (e.g., Hall 1968). According to an erroneous view espoused by anthropologist Ashley Montagu, "What is 'innate' in man is an unmatched capacity for learning, and except for the instinct-like reactions to sudden withdrawal of support and to a sudden loud noise, he has no instincts" (Montagu 1973:442; cf. such well-known reflexive body movements as rhythmic searching, grasping, climbing, and swimming [Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1970]).

Power of nonverbal signs. "A convincing illustration of the power of nonverbal communication is the unparalleled political popularity experienced by Ronald Reagan, who very early in his presidency was dubbed the 'Great Communicator'" (Burgoon et al. 1989:4).

RESEARCH NOTE. The first scientific study of nonverbal communication was published in 1872 by Charles Darwin in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Since the mid-1800s thousands of research projects in archaeology, biology, cultural and physical anthropology, linguistics, primatology, psychology, psychiatry, and zoology have been completed, establishing a generally recognized corpus of nonverbal cues. Recent discoveries in neuroscience funded during the 1990-2000 "Decade of the Brain" have provided a clearer picture of what the unspoken signs in this corpus mean. Because we now know how the brain processes nonverbal cues, body language has come of age in the 21st Century as a science to help us understand what it means to be human.

RESEARCH REPORTS1. Psychiatrists have found that disturbances in nonverbal communication are "more severe and often longer lasting" than disturbances in verbal language (Ruesch 1966:209). 2. "We have defined over 80 [nonverbal] elements arising from the face and head and a further 55 produced by the body and limbs" (Brannigan and Humphries 1969:406). 3. In a study of language-disabled children, ". . . nonverbal performatives (e.g., pointing, showing, etc.) were not radically different from those of the normal subjects" (Snyder 1978:170).4. Women are superior to men in decoding nonverbal cues (Rosenthal and DePaulo 1979).
Neuro-notes. Nonverbal messages are so potent and compelling because they are processed in ancient brain centers located beneath the newer areas used for speech (see VERBAL CENTER). From paleocircuits in the spinal cord, brain stem, basal ganglia, and limbic system, nonverbal cues are produced and received below the level of conscious awareness (see NONVERBAL BRAIN). They give our days the "look" and "feel" we remember long after words have died away.

AntonymWORD. See also BODY LANGUAGE.




Photo of New York governor, Eliot Spitzer and wife Silda at a press conference on March 10, 2008. Without acknowledging he had patronized a prostitute, Spitzer apologized for what he characterized as a "private matter." (On March 12, 2008, Spitzer resigned as governor; picture credit: unknown)