Nonverbal communication

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We tend to think of communication as something that happens with words, either written or spoken. The truth of communication is that a great deal of how we communicate happens nonverbally, through our facial expressions, posture, gestures, and qualities of our voice. In fact, since verbal communication is much more difficult to control consciously, many people find nonverbal communication to be more honest and believable than verbal communication.

As with all forms of communication, nonverbal communication has both personal and cultural elements. A simple gesture that has meaning in one society may be rude, offensive, or meaningless in another. Like verbal communication, nonverbal communication works because of shared meaning. Nonverbal communication also shares its uses with verbal communication. Nonverbal communication can be used to express an emotion (a frown or a smile), to assist in creating meaning (hand gestures), and as substitutes for verbal communication (a nod or a shrug).

Our eyes are among our most important assets when it comes to nonverbal communication. Both where we look and how we look can indicate a great deal. In the United States, looking in the same place for too long can be seen as staring, rude, or upsetting. We also tend to look at someone who is speaking, but look away when we are talking. Our eyes can widen or narrow, be raised or lowered, can wink, or be closed. Each of these can have a variety of meanings depending on the context. Emotions can also be seen in the eyes. We are affected by the behavior of other people’s eyes, and like other forms of communication, our eye behavior follows cultural rules. Looking someone in the eye is seen as a sign of honesty in the United States and other Western countries. In many Asian cultures like Japan, looking someone else in the eye—especially a superior—can be seen as an attempt to challenge or intimidate.

Beyond the eyes, facial expression is also of critical importance in communication. The work of psychologist Paul Ekman suggests that there may be as many as 10,000 different human facial expressions. Some of these have specific cultural meanings, but many appear to be universal. Among those universal expressions are fear, anger, sadness, happiness, and disgust. These expressions appear to be inherent and do not have to be learned.

Our ability to correctly interpret the facial expressions of others often has important consequences for us. We are more able to determine if someone is likely to be friendly, aggressive, or upset based on their facial expression. Most of us have some control over our facial expressions when we concentrate on them, but many of our facial expressions happen spontaneously and are not under our conscious control.

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