Nonverbal Communication

Learning Objectives


4.1  Define nonverbal communication, identifying examples.

4.2 Compare and contrast verbal and nonverbal communication.

4.3  Describe the operation of nonverbal communication and coding systems.

4.4  Describe several types of nonverbal coding systems.

4.5  Explain the role of nonverbal communication in creating meaning and identity.




We make all kinds of meaning through nonverbal communication, or communication without words. People express that they are happy to see you through their hand gestures and facial expressions. Your family’s value of honoring tradition is evident in the way they decorate your home for the holidays. Grandpa’s hug tells you he loves you a lot, and Grandma’s greeting and cooking are her expressions of love and caring. The silence of a dinner prayer relays gratitude and perhaps deep-rooted spirituality. So much is said without saying a word. In this chapter, we look at all the ways in which we make meaning without speaking.



  • Activity: The Wordless Lunch

Choose a friend and agree to have lunch together but not speak a single word once your food is on the table. That means no talking to one another, to folks at neighboring tables, not even to the wait staff. When you’ve paid the bill you can resume verbal communication, so discuss the experience with one another. What was gained by not talking; what was lost? Would you willingly ever have another wordless lunch? Why or why not?

  • Activity: Journaling a Day of Nonverbal Communication

It would be pretty close to impossible to write down all your nonverbal communication in a single day. For example, making a journal entry in the presence of another person might communicate disinterest to that person, so you would have to journal your journaling! Instead, choose a specific nonverbal coding system, for example haptics, proxemics, kinesics and so on, and journal its use from the moment you get out of bed until you retire for the night. You’ll have to work hard no catch the often automatic or unconscious uses of your chosen coding system, but that’s the point of this activity, to get you to reflect on your nonverbal communication.

  • Activity: Be a Nonverbal Communication Researcher

Choose a non-obvious spot in a public space (e.g., Student Center, Library lobby, etc.) and identify 4 or 5 people, some of whom may be alone, but some of whom must be interacting with others. Now engage in a bit of interpretive research; that is, write those people’s personal and relational biographies given only what you can determine nonverbally. Explain your stories. What do they tell you about their social interactions?



1. What are the 4 distance zones typically practiced in American culture? Describe each and give an example of when it might be maintained.



Sample answer: Intimate space is 0-18 inches and implies an extremely personal connection, as between romantic partners. Personal space implies a closer relationship and is anywhere from 18 inches to four feet in distance. This is the distance you and your roommate would maintain. Social space is four to 12 feet apart and there is little, if any, intimacy in these situations. You might see this at a cocktail party. Public space is more than 12 feet apart and is the least intimate of all the distance zones, as when you’re walking through a mall.


2. One factor that differentiates verbal and nonverbal communication is that nonverbal communication involves all 5 senses. How can this happen? Give an example of the use of each of the 5 senses to make meaning.

Sample answer: There are many ways all five senses are involved in nonverbal communication. For example, you can see facial expressions and you can hear silence. You can feel a hug and you can taste a delicious meal prepared by someone who invites you into his apartment where you smell the incense he’s burning to create a mood. All these forms of nonverbal communication help you make meaning.

Go to the Source

Birdwhistell, R. Y. (1952). Introduction to Kinesics. Louisville: University of Kentucky Press.

Burgoon, J. K. (1994). “Nonverbal Signals.” In M. L. Knapp and G. R. Miller, eds., Handbook of Interpersonal Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent Messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Ramsey, L. (1979). “Nonverbal Behavior: An Intercultural Perspective.” In M. Asante, E. Newmark, and C. Blake, eds., Handbook of Intercultural Communication. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.


This site offers a concise how-to for reflecting on and improving your nonverbal communication skills, especially in the workplace.

The CNS is a private, nonprofit research center dedicated to advancing the scientific study of human communication in all its forms except for verbal language.

This commercial organization trains professionals in the skilled use of body language. The site has a wealth of information, including some good videos and a fun self-assessment.

·         Center for Nonverbal Communication (

This commercial organization trains professionals in the skilled use of body language, especially in the realm of career success.



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