11 types of nonverbal communication

Verbal messages are just one type of communication. Anything from body language to eye contact and even the amount of personal space you give others matters just as much as your words. Sometimes, it matters more.

In fact, studies tend to show that when your words contradict your nonverbal communication, audiences consider the latter to be more accurate and authentic.

So, what exactly does it mean to communicate nonverbally? How does it impact your daily life, especially in the workplace? And what types of nonverbal communication and behaviors can communicate meaning?

Let’s dive into these unspoken cues, facial expressions, haptics and more that make up effective communication.

What is nonverbal communication?

At its simplest, nonverbal communication is the process of transferring messages and meaning to someone else without using words.

In personal and professional social interactions, it encompasses all the subtler forms of communication, intentional or not.

Consider eye contact as an example. Continually avoiding eye contact with someone you are speaking to may suggest that what you’re saying is either untrue or too sensitive to address directly. Significant eye contact, on the other hand, is one of the many forms of communication people can interpret as an intense expression of emotion that emphasizes your words’ meaning.

Importantly, nonverbal communication isn’t always intentional. Even in direct communication, you probably don’t always pay attention to your body language or eye behavior. This makes being aware of this subtle form of communication even more important.

Why communicating nonverbally matters in the workplace

Nonverbal communication cues from your body language take on a special importance in specific social contexts – especially in the workplace.

You can expect a workplace culture that prioritizes nonverbal communication skills to increase job satisfaction. A study by the Journal of Positive School Psychology demonstrated this and pointed toward enriched relationships as a result. In fact, the same study even found tangible increased productivity as a result of subtle body cues like head nods, active listening and eye contact.

This form of communication is still immensely powerful in a workplace environment, despite many organizations relying less on offices. Nonverbal awareness cues don’t just rely on face-to-face interactions. Studies show that they matter just as much, and can be just as powerful, in remote work environments.

11 common types of nonverbal behaviors and communication

Understanding the nonverbal behaviors you and those around you exhibit is a crucial first step if you want to improve your personal relationships or communication in the public space.

With an understanding of even subtle concepts like eye behavior in mind, you can become more mindful of how you communicate and build more positive relationships. Your verbal communication will also have more of an impact.

The 12 types of nonverbal communication are:

1. Facial expressions

Think about how your face changes based on your emotions. Those facial expressions are perhaps the clearest way to communicate beyond the words you use.

Here are the seven core emotions and their typical accompanying facial expressions:

  • Surprise: raised eyebrows and pursed lips
  • Anger: furrowed eyebrows, narrowed eyes and flared nostrils
  • Disgust: a tense mouth and raised cheek muscles
  • Fear: widened eyes and raised eyebrows
  • Interest: one or two raised eyebrows and pursed lips
  • Sadness: the stereotypical pouty bottom lip and dropped eyebrows
  • Happiness: smiles and laughter

Context matters. The same general eyebrow movements can mean different things depending on the other nonverbal cues and words accompanying them.

You should also consider the movement’s authenticity. Most of us will recognize a forced smile as a form of communication that doesn’t show happiness. Instead, we’d view this as politeness or even fear.

Meanwhile, a smile to a romantic partner will mean something very different to a smile to a supervisor.

2. Vocalics

Your tone of voice can communicate significant meaning to listeners.

Don’t underestimate the importance of vocalics. A subtle shift in how you say things can make a significant difference in how the receiver will interpret your words. For example, consider a simple sentence like, “Thank you for your work today.” Your tone of voice can easily make this a sarcastic remark the recipient won’t interpret as a compliment.

Most academics break down vocalics into five distinct factors:

  • Tempo (the speed at which you talk): speaking more quickly can suggest excitement or anger, while a slower tempo can indicate confidence or calm.
  • Volume (intensity): people tend to interpret a louder voice as more emotional or excited. Speaking at a lower volume may be an intentional effort to calm things down.
  • Timbre (the pitch of your voice): while relatively insignificant in most everyday environments, an unusually high or low pitch can assign meaning like excitement or fear.
  • Verbal fillers (also known as disfluencies): overuse of these fillers, such as “um,” “uh” or “like,” can suggest a lack of knowledge or confidence in a particular subject, especially when they interrupt the conversational flow. 
  • Pauses and silences: you can use these to create unique meaning or anticipation. However, too many pauses can create confusion or suggest that the speaker is thinking of things to say.

3. Oculesics

Think of “oculesics” as a fancy word for eye behavior. It describes how your eye movements can influence the meaning of an interaction.

Eye contact in particular can play a crucial role. It can clarify who the speaker is addressing at any given time when there are multiple people. Avoiding eye contact when talking to someone, on the other hand, can suggest social anxiety or even dishonesty.

How you look at others, or your gaze, also matters. Looking at someone for too long suggests you are too interested in them or trying to intimidate them. In contrast, a quick glance may make you come across as uninterested.

Try maintaining the five-second rule, as this feels appropriate for most people.

4. Gestures

You probably won’t notice most of your gestures in your day-to-day interactions, but others will. Other people will use your gestures to find meaning behind your words.

Here are the four types of gestures:

  • Emblematic gestures: these represent a deeper meaning that’s easy to pick up in a cultural context.
  • Affect displays: these show positive feelings toward others. Think about gestures like blowing a kiss or high-fiving someone.
  • Illustrators: these emphasize and build on a verbal message. They are often subconscious, like pinching your fingers together to illustrate something small.
  • Regulators: these help with the flow of a more complex conversation. If you don’t want to interrupt someone who is talking, you might show you are following along and approve by giving them a thumbs up or a head nod. A shoulder shrug, on the other hand, could signal that you don’t understand or agree.

Some cultures emphasize gestures more than others. But, no matter where you are, they’ll play a key role in helping communicate meaning beyond words.

5. Proxemics

You’ve likely heard of the “bubble of personal space,” and felt uncomfortable in crowded situations. You may have also noticed when someone tried to speak to you from too far away. The study of proxemics looks into these scenarios.

Proxemics explores how the space around us and the distance between us and those we are interacting with impacts how they understand and interpret our messaging.

Expectations for physical space change depending on context. In romantic relationships, sharing intimate space can signify affection. In a professional environment, entering that same space can become uncomfortable and even suggest intimidation.

6. Physical appearance

The people we interact with also interpret our communication based on our physical appearance. Consider how you might interpret the following:

  • clothing type
  • clothing colors
  • jewelry or tattoos
  • haircuts and facial hair
  • makeup

Crucially, these cues tend to communicate broader meanings rather than emphasize specific words. An inappropriately dressed colleague will lose credibility in the workplace, for example. It’s also why we usually pay so much attention toward dressing the right way for a first interview.

7. Body posture

Body posture is another core part of nonverbal communication. It often works as an unconscious display of emotions that words may otherwise hide.

A tense body posture with stiff limbs, for example, suggests tension or stress. Meanwhile, a more relaxed posture, like leaning back or crossing your legs while sitting, suggests confidence and calm. Crossing your arms sends the message that you’re closed to new ideas, while open palms suggest the opposite.

8. Haptics

Haptics is another core form of nonverbal communication. It describes the use of touch to transfer meaning and messages. In fact, physical contact is a form of direct communication that tends to be much less subtle than some of the other types on this list.

It starts at a deep level. Our longing for touch is innate, to the point where the absence of touch can cause stress, anxiety and depression. Psychologists have developed a 20-point scale as a standard measure of touch deprivation to evaluate a patient’s mental health.

But touch also matters in individual communications as a central immediacy behavior. Actions like handshakes, hugs or patting someone on the back can communicate very specific things, which can differ from culture to culture.

If you’ve ever perceived a handshake to be just a little too forceful or not long enough to appear trustworthy, you’ve experienced the importance of haptics in communications. Scientists tend to measure intensity, duration and frequency to estimate how a conversation partner may interpret your touch.

9. Chronemics

Another subtle form of communication – chronemics – is the way your orientation toward time can influence how you perceive meaning.

Culture has a big impact on chronemics. Most cultures perceive the communicative meaning of time differently.

Here are two different attitudes toward time:

  • Monochronic time describes a tendency to interpret time as linear. Cultures that tend toward monochronic time look to accomplish one task, then another. Timeliness is important. For example, a one-hour meeting at 8AM means you should be there at 8AM or, preferably, a bit sooner. The meeting will end punctually.
  • Polychronic time is a more fluid approach. Multiple tasks may occur at the same time, and arriving on time to a meeting or keeping to a schedule doesn’t carry the same cultural importance. A meeting starting at 8AM could very well start 10 minutes later when everyone is present. The end time is flexible and depends on discussions and progress.

Of course, tendencies toward monochronic time or polychronic time are never universal. Even if your culture prefers to follow monochronic time, you might adapt to polychronic time if your organization favors it.

10. Olfactics

People tend to think about olfactics – the use of scent to intentionally or unintentionally communicate meaning to others – less often.

The right scent can induce a whole range of emotions, and your individual scent can affect how other people perceive you.

11. Artifacts

Artifacts describe any objects that could add to or distract from verbal messages. They might be anything from the jewelry or other accessories you wear to your style of eyeglasses or even the choice to wear glasses instead of contact lenses.

Artifacts can communicate power, relaxation and anything in between.

Examples of nonverbal messages in the real world

Whether intentional or unintentional, nonverbal messages are all around us in any type of communication. Knowing how to control and read them can enable you to understand the subtleties of any interactions. It also allows you to control the flow of conversation.

Nonverbal behaviors at home

Think about your interpersonal relationships. Nonverbal communication is likely a constant piece of the puzzle. Here are some examples:

  • Tone of voice plays a key role in how children perceive how their parent is communicating with them and the emotions they are displaying.
  • The presence or absence of touch in romantic relationships can communicate the degree to which both partners are happy or upset with each other.
  • More casual clothes communicate a sense of comfort and relaxation around people living together in the same space.

People still derive meaning from their direct communication with each other. Nonverbal messages and behaviors merely emphasize that meaning and help everyone involved understand each other’s true feelings.

Nonverbal interpersonal communication in the workplace

Nonverbal messages will shape your day-to-day interactions with colleagues and supervisors. In fact, the nonverbal parts of the communication puzzle matter at every level of the organization.

  • Leaders encourage a culture of transparency and respect through open body language, encouraging gestures and more.
  • Employees looking to move up the career ladder can build stronger relationships and gain their supervisors’ trust through the right tone of voice, active and empathetic listening and eye contact.
  • Teams looking to work better together can improve their collaboration by ensuring their nonverbal cues match their verbal messages in their day-to-day interactions.

Meanwhile, nonverbal expressions of emotion play a massive role in either regulating the professional environment or suggesting potential trouble. As others in the workplace use nonverbal messages to form a judgment of emotion around them, they will react accordingly, even if those emotions were never expressed through direct communication.

Nonverbal social interactions

Nonverbal messaging can also influence the more casual interpersonal interactions and relationships we encounter outside of the workplace.

Consider what might happen when you interact with a police officer in public, for example. Every single type of communication above, up to and including physical contact, may play a role in how you interpret this public authority’s words and actions.

The same is true, though in significantly different ways, with physician–patient relationships.

How to improve your nonverbal communication skills

The first and most important way to improve your nonverbal communication skills is to become intentional about them. Become aware of each of the nonverbal messaging types above, from emblematic gestures to verbal fillers, eye behavior, body cues and more. Then, think about how others may interpret those cues based on the context and situation.

It also helps to consciously look for nonverbal cues in those around you. Rather than letting your subconscious do the work, learn to become actively aware of others who may be consciously or subconsciously using these cues to contradict or emphasize their messages.

A heightened awareness of both sides will decrease the psychological distance between you and those around you. You’ll also be able to apply a more critical voice to the intentional and unintentional nonverbal messages you communicate to others.

And of course, you can train yourself to become more in-tune with your behaviors as you learn to present effectively or tell better stories. The Pip Decks Storyteller Tactics Card Deck won’t just help upgrade your presentations as a whole. It will also improve the nonverbal communications that influence how your audience perceives your presentation.

Learn how to craft a more memorable story that will influence and inspire those around you with more than just words.

FAQs

Are text messages nonverbal?

Most experts consider texting to be both verbal and nonverbal. The words themselves are verbal, while emojis, tone of voice and other elements are nonverbal. A simple change in punctuation, for example, can turn a message from friendly to sarcastic or critical.

How much communication is nonverbal?

Experts estimate that between 75% and 90% of all communication is nonverbal. That means a significant amount of your daily interactions are nonverbal, which is important as you try to build positive relationships in your personal and professional lives.

Is nonverbal communication universal?

While all cultures significantly value nonverbal communication, the signals these unspoken messages send are by no means universal. Examples of significant changes in meaning depending on the culture include the following:

  • different orientations toward time, including an emphasis on either monochronic or polychronic time,
  • differences in ideal or perceived physical and psychological distance, as well as the nonverbal immediacy behaviors to reduce that distance and make it comfortable, and
  • different meanings of gestures, colors and haptics, depending on cultural backgrounds.

What are negative examples of nonverbal communication?

Not all nonverbal messages are positive.

Avoiding eye contact, for example, can suggest shyness or dishonesty in some cultures. The absence of touch in a romantic relationship can suggest emotional distance. Even typically positive nonverbal cues can turn negative when they contradict their verbal counterpart, sending mixed messages.


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