Nonverbal Communication: Information Conveyed Through the Use of Body Language
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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DUNN, L.J. (1999). Nonverbal Communication: Information Conveyed Through the Use of Body Language. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 2. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Nonverbal Communication: Information Conveyed Through the Use of Body Language
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
Nonverbal communication is a silent infiltrator, having broad influence over our social environment. It provides us with a mode for conveying messages without the use of verbal language. It may enhance or detract from a verbal communication. It regulates relationships by affecting the likelihood of introduction and continued interaction. We are able to infer emotion through nonverbal communication and influence other`s perception of our competence, power and vulnerability. It also plays a role in the perception of the actual message we are trying to convey. It affects our lives in a mirriad of ways from childhood throughout adulthood, and as long as we intend to communicate with others.

Communication is a dynamic process with the interacting components of sending, receiving and feedback. Nonverbal cues may provide clarity or contradiction for a message being sent. If an ironic statement is made with a smile, the receiver knows to find it humorous instead of disconcerting. If we are sending a verbal message intending to deceive and avert our eyes the receiver knows we may be lying. Nonverbal cues also influence how we perceive and are perceived. Familiar faces may make us more likely to start a relationship and continue it. Nervous facial expression hinders other`s perception of our competence and persuasiveness. Nonverbal cues can provide information we may not want dispelled. Our decoding ability arises at a young age and increases as we get older, influencing our daily lives whether we are aware of it or not. Nonverbal communication has many functions in the communication process. It regulates relationships and may support or replace verbal communication. Among the many factors contributing to nonverbal communication are sending and receiving ability and accuracy, perception of appropriate social roles, and cognitive desire for interpersonal involvement or assessment (Burgoon & Saine, 1978). Difficulties may arise if communicators are unaware of the types of messages they are sending and how the receiver is interpreting those messages. Discrepancy may also arise if the sender`s message does not fit the receiver`s perception of social norms for the particular situation. All parties involved must desire interaction in order for reciprocal communication to occur. Research in nonverbal communication provides awareness and possible solutions to many communication problems.The ambiguous nature of emotion creates a wide variety of possible interpretations for both sender and receiver. Our ability to nonverbally communicate accurately is inhibited by internal and external properties. Humans do not display pure emotion. Our affective states are a mixture of varying quantities and strength of emotion. The neurophysiological composition of the human body defines our ability to convey opposing and overlapping emotions at the same time. For example, anger, is often accompanied by anxiety and fear. The emotional overlap often creates confusing messages for the receiver. Generally there is not a thorough understanding of our own affect states (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989). Studies have shown a few emotions, happiness, sadness, anger and fear can be distinguished cross-culturally. Hall, Chia, and Wang (1996) elucidating on former research found evident difficulties in the universal differentiation of affection, anticipation, disgust, contempt and acceptance. Other behavioral manifestations of emotion lie on a continuum, defined by the communicator`s cultural background.In general humans are able to communicate complex emotion through behavioral cues allowing the recipient opportunity to infer the sender`s prevailing psychological state. The vocalization and context of the experienced emotion are integral components to the accurate expression and interpretation of the sender`s affective state. It is possible, however, to decode a sender`s conveyed emotion relying on nonverbal cues only. When the behavioral cue is out of context there is less emotion decoding accuracy (Motley, 1993). Communication is not a static event. It implies sending, receiving and feedback. Emotional expression is a communication process. By choosing one emotional message cue, as is often done in the experimental setting, disregarding previous and subsequent messages may negate the overall intended communication. Motley (1993) explains there is evidence for accurate interpretation of a sender`s affective facial expressions, but further research shows less identification accuracy when the facial behavior is spontaneously given. His research reinforces the idea that affective facial display is mainly used to support verbal communication. The facial display is used to convey the appropriate meaning of the verbal message and is similar to a verbal interjection. The interactive effect of facial cues may hold true only in cases where emotion is decoded. Aguinis, Simonson and Pierce (1998) suggest facial expression, visual behavior and body posture have additive rather than interactive effects on perceptions of power. Facial expressions had an effect on the subject`s perceptions of five power bases: reward, legitimate, expert, referent, and credibility. When direct eye contact was added to facial expressions an increased rating was given for credibility. Facial expression and other nonverbal cues used to project internal states also influence our personal relationships. Researchers have found that facial characteristics may compel one to desire communication interaction with another. The introduction and management of interpersonal relationships often rely on nonverbal communication. Facial characteristics of a significant other are used as a template for evaluating new people. Anderson, Reznik and Manzella (1996) found the emotions and character attributed to a significant other can be transferred to a new acquaintance based on the similarity of facial characteristics. When a facial similarity to someone already liked is recognized, those good feelings are transferred to that new person. We are more likely then to approach and to desire acceptance by the new person. Facial features also elicit negative feelings if the significant other being compared evokes negative feelings. Many times these comparisons happen at an unconscious level and are manifested at the conscious level by the willingness to approach a new person. Concurring with other researchers, Palmer and Simmons (1995) suggest to conduct successful interpersonal relationships the ability to interpret nonverbal cues is needed, because social constraints often hinder explicit verbal messages.The ability to interpret nonverbal communication is acquired at a very young age. Triadic eye gaze was considered in a study addressing the age at which children are able to infer a sender`s desire. Results showed a two-year-old child is able to identify the direction of the eye gaze and to what specific object or person the gaze is referring (Lee, Eskritt, Symons, & Muir, 1998). Other nonverbal cues like pointing and dyadic eye gaze, are used by children from an even earlier age. This early onset of nonverbal communication ability highlights the importance of understanding another`s desires. How much ability is due to an innate developmental process or learning has yet to be decided. Whatever the cause, it provides children with one mode among many for conveying internal desires and understanding others without the use of verbal communication. As we grow older our nonverbal communication ability increases. Researchers have compared gender and age as variables, showing some noticeable differences in nonverbal communication. Lancelot and Nowicki (1997) found as age increases the decoding proficiency increases for postures and gestures, but not facial expressions. There have been contradictory results showing older students are more proficient at decoding gestures, but not postures or facial expressions. It has been consistently found, however, that adult women are better than men at decoding nonverbal communication (Hall, 1984). Research indicates a woman`s superior ability in decoding for a variety of nonverbal cues regardless of the age or sex of the sender. What remain are the indeterminate causes for this gender discrepancy in decoding ability. One suggestion for a causal factor is cross-culturally, nurturance is fostered in girls and care giving is their expected gender role rather than boys. Research has shown girls display more nurturance communication behavior than boys and this would account for a higher sensitivity to nonverbal cues (Bullis, & Horn, 1995). It has also been suggested that the greater interpersonal sensitivity may be due to disadvantaged status. The disadvantage creates a greater motive for women to accurately interpret nonverbal cues. If there were high motivation for the receiver to decode the message properly, then they would be more likely to attend to all communication cues, verbal and nonverbal. It would also indicate women should have higher skills in verbal decoding ability, but this has not been shown. Hall (1984) found there is communication specialization between men and women, men being more accurate with vocal and women with visual communication. Woods (1996) also found sex was not a significant determinant of decoding ability. What was correlated with decoding ability was interpersonal cognitive complexity. Males or females with higher cognitive complexity showed greater decoding ability. These two variables working in tandem also create higher persuasive power for the sender. Women`s nonverbal communication ability may be based on interpersonal cognitive complexity rather than status or value placed on learned nurturance. It has been suggested women`s lower status may negatively influence perceptions of power and therefore hinder credibility and persuasiveness. Although gender was not investigated in a study by Aguinis, Simonsen and Pierce (1998), it was found that nervous facial expressions and indirect eye contact hindered perceptions of power and credibility. Researchers (Carli, LaFleur, Loeber, Connell, & Geiser, 1995) found the task style used by the sender and the perceived competence, were better predictors of persuasiveness than the sender`s gender. One difference in gender influence was women using a task style were considered less likeable and therefore less persuasive than men. Another difference was found when the audience was male. Likableness along with competence were then better predictors for women`s persuasive ability. Differences in gender may affect the types of persuasive styles and modes of nonverbal communication needed to increase perception of power and influence. As women`s roles in society change and they move to higher positions of power in the work place, finding the most effective influential measures is needed. The nonverbal information we acquire and use affects the perceptions of us by others and also may direct interpersonal relationships. To investigate regulation of intimate relationships, Manusov (1995) relied on the equilibrium theory as a basic model. The premise of equilibrium theory is interactants in a relationship expect certain behaviors from each other. If the expectancies are met, then reciprocity of the nonverbal cues occur. If, however, there is a discrepancy between what is expected and what is interpreted or presented, then compensation is made to create intimacy equilibrium. For example when a person stands too close, creating a discrepancy in social norms, the other person will compensate by moving further away. Manusov (1995) found in intimate relationships nonverbal cues tend to be reciprocated, even when there are slight norm discrepancies. Nonverbal behavior, both positive and negative were reciprocated regardless of a couple`s relationship satisfaction. Other studies had suggested higher rates of negative nonverbal behavior reciprocation would occur between unsatisfied couples. The research found compensation occurs much more frequently in cross-cultural relationships. This may be due to differences in cultural expression of affect, creating a greater discrepancy between the expected and observed communication behavior. Researchers have also found friends with similar communication skills were likely to be satisfied with their relationship. A positive correlation was shown between peer attraction, relationship satisfaction and similarity in quality of interpersonal communication skills. They also believe these findings support Byrne`s rewards of interaction model. Theorists that support this model maintain that similarities in certain attitudes, values, interests and behaviors enhance the quality of interpersonal interactions, thus rendering them more rewarding for participants (Burleson & Samter, 1996).A positive correlation was also found between elementary school children`s cognitive complexity, functional communication skills, attraction and friendship formation (Burleson & Samter, 1996). This may pose a problem for female children because Hall (1984) found girls of all ages` show a greater interest and place greater value on social stimuli than do boys. If the female child places positive value on socialization and is unsuccessful at communication it may lead to social problems. In support of this, a negative correlation was found between scores of receptive nonverbal social-processing ability and externalizing problems in girls (Lancelot & Nowicki, 1997).Nonverbal communication may be related to other problems we have in society. We have become more aware of the sexual harassment cases in the United States and these problems are being addressed by a wide variety of institutions an the legal field. Part of the problem may arise from diverging perceptions of what is appropriate behavior for the context. Research found half of the sample subjects in the work place reported having sexual attraction for a co-worker friend of the opposite sex, even though the relationship was platonic. In other studies a majority of college students reported experiencing misinterpretation of their friendly behavior as sexual invitation. Egland, Spitzberg, and Zormeier (1996) investigated these results, but found college students have clear conceptions of appropriate behavior and can identify the general boundaries drawn for appropriate flirtation. Flirtation behavior is exhibited in romantic and platonic relationships to varying degrees. In many cross sex platonic relationships there may be an underlying current of sexual attraction and tension. If the sender does not always recognize nonverbal cues, it may provide an unconscious avenue for communicating sexual attraction. Palmer & Simmons (1995) found 75% of their subjects were unaware of the specific nonverbal behavior used to convey the specified message. Although the cues were unconsciously encoded, the decoder could successfully interpret the sender`s intention. This study implies that generally we are not trying to consciously manipulate our environment through nonverbal communication. These findings provide some insight to possible sexual harassment causes.

We may also be unaware of other nonverbal cues we are sending. Assault victims` movements tend to be disjointed and awkward while, nonvictims` movements tend to be smooth and organized (Murzynski & Degelman, 1996, p.1618). Victim and nonvictim profiles were composed of varying features; stride length, weight shift, body-limb movement, and foot movement. The profiles were video taped and shown to college students and police officers. The victim profiles were judged more susceptible than nonvictim profiles to be vulnerable to sexual assault. Further research with actual assault victims may provide even more support for the role of nonverbal communication in vulnerability. An awareness of such a simple thing as how we are walking could mean the difference between being attacked and being left alone. The nonverbal cues sent may, provide predators with information we do not wish to convey. Nonverbal cues can be used to bear intended and unintended messages and when compared to verbal communication, our bodies do not lie.Combinations of body and vocal language help an individual discriminate between truthful and deceitful messages. Cross modal deceptive language was researched by De Paulo, Green and Rosekrantz (1980) to determine the part verbal and nonverbal language plays in detecting deception. The result`s showed an ability to accurately detect lies through nonverbal cues. As the deception becomes more ambiguous the receiver must rely on all modes of language to discriminate between truth, ambivalence and lies. Donaghy and Dooley (1994) analyzed head movement by computer, and correlated sending deceptive messages. The results indicated sender`s use more head movement when lying than when telling the truth. It also found no gender relevance to the quantity of head movement when the sender is lying. The gender aspect was investigated to dispel or substantiate the often-made statement that it is easier to identify a woman who is trying to deceive than a man who is trying to deceive. These two studies convey the warning to be careful if telling a lie, because our bodies may give us away and a receiver can detect this deception. Communication is a complex dynamic system. It involves all modes of sending receiving and feedback. It appears at a young age and decoding ability increases with age. At times nonverbal cues may be used to emphasize a message we are trying to convey. On other occasions it replaces verbal communication. Communication is used in everyday life, from greeting a stranger to touching a lover. The nonverbal behavior an individual uses is a product of characteristics endowed at birth and socially learned norms. Knowledge of the effects nonverbal communications introduce is needed, because our awareness may enhance favorable communication. Nonverbal cues may be unconsciously acted and reacted upon, regulating proximity, gestures, eye gaze and touch. Each component of nonverbal behavior affects our relationship and interpersonal environment in intricate ways. Nonverbal cues provide insight into affect states, influence another`s perception of an individual`s competence, persuasiveness, power, sincerity and vulnerability. In a new age where increasing population is decreasing personal space, it is imperative to understand cultural and personal communication differences and similarities.

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