7 Examples Of Nonverbal Behavior And What We Can Learn From Them

Updated December 28, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Let’s face it: humans are complicated, and so is our communication. Facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, body language, and even the emojis we text to friends: all of these nonverbal tools allow us to convey information and emotions without uttering a word.

Even with limited verbal information, how can we understand so much about other people? How do we even define nonverbal behavior, and what can we learn from the growing field of research on human communication? 

If you’re digging for answers to these questions, read on for answers – as well as examples to help you understand the complexity and nuance of nonverbal communication. There’s lots to learn from the ways we tell information and assess other people, all without the use of spoken or written language.

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Nonverbal Behavior Vs. Nonverbal Communication

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes nonverbal communication as the act of conveying information without the use of words. People often using this phrase interchangeably with nonverbal behavior, which describes any actions that indicate an individual’s attitudes or feelings without speech. This includes facial expression as well as a person’s gaze, the distance they maintain between themselves and others, and even posture. In general, these two terms are often synonymous, but nonverbal behaviors or actions are not always intended for, or understood by, other people. For clarity, think of nonverbal communication as a subset of nonverbal behavior, which can be: 

  • Perceived consciously by the sender or receiver

  • Intended as a message by the sender

  • Interpreted as a message by the receiver

The delivery of nonverbal communication depends on several factors, including the relationship between people, the space they’re in, and broader cultural influences. 

Nonverbal Communication Across Cultures

Researchers have identified certain facial expressions that may be recognizable across cultures – or, at the very least, within cultures. Dr. Paul Ekman coined the term microexpressions to describe involuntary, fleeting facial movements that, based on his research, appear recognizable across Western and Eastern cultures, despite differences in verbal language. These expressions go on and off rapidly, sometimes as fast as 1/30th of a second. Based on Ekman’s research, microexpressions convey the following emotions: 

  • Surprise

  • Fear

  • Disgust

  • Anger

  • Happiness

  • Sadness

  • Contempt

Psychologist David Matsumoto is another notable contributor to this field of research. He has published a variety of work on the subject of microexpressions, including a 2009 study which found that congenitally blind individuals produce the same facial expressions as sighted individuals. In recent years, however, more researchers have challenged the universality of microexpressions.

Microexpression Controversy 

Because facial expressions are part of a system of social signals, some scientists argue that they don’t merely reveal someone’s internal emotions. To an extent, cultural norms also determine which facial expressions are appropriate or even punishable if displayed. Ultimately, this means that in some cases, we may alter our facial expressions to meet social standards rather than express our true emotions. 

Today, many companies, governments, and even airports use Ekman’s microexpression model to build technologies that supposedly indicate stress, deception or fear. This concerns many researchers and educators, since facial expressions can be extremely difficult for real people – let alone, artificial intelligence – to interpret accurately and consistently.

In short: more research is needed, as there isn’t enough information to suggest that emotional expressions are universal. Ultimately, the face is not the whole picture, which is why we need to look at other forms of nonverbal behavior – including tone, whole body movements, and even changes in skin tone – to understand how we communicate with one another without words. 

Examples Of Nonverbal Behavior

From microexpressions to emojis, research shows that nonverbal communication is complicated; and, contrary to popular belief, our actions and expressions may not be as universal as scientists once thought. 

With this reality in mind, there are certain patterns of behavior that can help us better understand and support one another, as well as ourselves. As you consider the following nonverbal behaviors, keep in mind that nonverbal communication is a form of behavior. To qualify as “communication,” scientists generally agree that there must be a transmission of information between two or more people. 

  1. Body Movement

Body movement, more generally referred to as body language, is the broadest term used to describe nonverbal communication. If your arms are crossed, for instance, others might perceive that you’re closed off or defensive. Alternatively, if someone turns away from you, or if their body is completely still after someone makes a pointed remark, you may interpret their body movement as an expression of annoyance or anger. 

  1. Posture

Posture is closely related to body movement. By slouching, stiffening, or otherwise repositioning our bodies, we can communicate a range of emotional states: alertness, intrigue, indifference, or even nervousness in response to another person. When it comes to posture, the shoulders are especially telling: depending on the situation, they may alternate from tense and raised, to relaxed and lowered. 

  1. Hand Gestures

What’s in a hand gesture? Believe it or not, a subtle movement of the fingers can reveal a great deal about a person. Sign language is a formalized system of gestures for communication, but there are plenty of informal ways to communicate with our hands and other appendages. Depending on where you live, you use the “thumbs-up”, peace sign, or an “OK” hand signal on a regular basis. Of all the forms of nonverbal communication, hand gestures may have the most cultural variability. If you’d like to learn more about how different cultures use gestures to communicate and tell stories, consult this handy resource

  1. Eye Contact

According to the APA, eye contact is essential to communication between therapists and clients, as well as in intimate relationships. It’s not always easy to keep someone’s gaze, and it may take practice – but by looking someone in the eyes, we show that we’re paying attention and invested in the interaction. 

  1. Touch

With consent, some people may use physical touch as a form of nonverbal communication. This could be a hug, a pat on the hand, or another gesture that befits the situation and the intimacy of the relationship. 

  1. Space

When we ask for “personal space,” what do we mean? You can imagine your personal space as a roughly four-foot radius around your body. This is an area of defended space, and usually, it’s only accessible to close friends and loved ones. The APA notes that personal space varies culturally, and to an extent, it’s a learned behavior. By recognizing and respecting someone’s personal “bubble,” we’re better positioned to build trust and develop a closer, more intimate relationship over time. 

  1. Voice

Getting to know someone’s voice takes time, but this nonverbal behavior can be a rich source of emotional information. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are especially interested in how digital technologies may precipitate the loss of nonverbal cues such as tone, speech pauses, inflection, and other speech mannerisms.

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Can A Therapist Help With Communication Skills?

If you’re interested in learning more about nonverbal communication, a therapist can help you understand these behaviors, communicate more effectively, and ultimately improve your relationships with both loved ones and strangers.

Through counseling, you can develop awareness of how you communicate – and potentially alter your behavior to interact with greater clarity and respect for other people. While these skills are essential in all spaces, they’re especially relevant in romantic relationships. In a 2020 study of brief, web-based counseling for low-income couples, researchers found that online therapy effectively reduced conflict and improved communication between the romantic partners. 

In general, online therapy is often a more convenient and affordable option for a wide range of people – not just couples! Whether you’d like to communicate better with a partner, friend, or work acquaintance, our licensed, online therapists have the expertise and tools to guide you. You can start the process from the comfort of your home and learn how to apply science-backed communication strategies to your most important relationships.

Takeaway

Words and actions can carry tremendous weight. With practice and the support of a therapist, we can learn how to use all modes of communication – both verbal and nonverbal – to interact honestly and respectfully with others. 

Awareness, patience, and a willingness to learn: with these three tenets in place, it’s possible to become a more thoughtful, effective communicator, and to connect meaningfully with other people and cultures along the way.

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