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September 09, 2012

What is Nonverbal Communication?

Most of us confuse term 'Body Language' (BL) with 'Nonverbal Communication' (NVC). In fact, 'Body Language' and 'Nonverbal Communication' are two different scientific domains or areas but they are also very closely related with each other. Actually, majority of our responses, reactions, expressions, reciprocation and feedback during (face-to-face) interpersonal interactions, encounters and exchanges are corporeal or physical i. e. through body and its different parts. That's the reason why both terms or phrases are confused with each other by many. Hence if you're one of them then you should read this article till the end to know the truth and facts.

Body Language is exactly what body transmits, exudes, expresses, exhibits, conveys, displays, radiates, orchestrates, shows off, reacts and responds to without the help and/or in absence (spoken) words. Whatever an (living) individual is inherently and intrinsically capable of communicating with outer world, entities and people through body movements, body positioning, body orientations, body postures, hand gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice, touching, fidgeting, pacifying, adapting, soothing, reflexes, sympathetic reactions and para-sympathetic reactions is considered as Body Language.

Term 'Nonverbal' simply means “without, not involving, not using or in absence of words”. Therefore, Nonverbal Communication is what one communicates nonverbally. According to me, it is an unimaginably vast and enormously diversified area of studying, observing, tracking, analyzing, understanding and decoding behavior, actions, reactions, interactions, responses, expressions, exchanges, movements, gestures, conditions, states, iterations and patterns of both natural/biological and artificial entities, including human beings and all other creatures, through different contexts.
Universe, cosmos, nature and whole biological world are originally, fundamentally, explicitly and absolutely nonverbal. Everything that we (or any living being) sense, feel, observe, experience, see, smell, taste, consume, touch, hear (except words), measure, judge, grasp through and/or using different sensory organs and ultimately perceive, interpret and/or process inside our brains exists without, is totally free from and functions entirely independent of human words. Moreover, different entities continuously communicate or interact with, respond to and reciprocate each other without words. Languages we use were invented quite recently, in our long evolutionary history.

Matter of fact, words from any human language fall short or completely fail to describe, explain and illustrate most of the cosmos, universe, (nature of) reality, biological world, overall complexity and different entities along with their interconnections, interdependence and interactions and exchanges among them. Spoken/verbal and written languages are our own invented tools and thus they are relative, imperfect, evolving and also perishable. Nevertheless, the words we choose and the way we pronounce them do convey physical conditions, underlying emotions, sentiments, feelings, moods and attitudes.

Scientifically, Body Language is a field related with social cognition, affective neuroscience, evolutionary biology, social science, sociology and ethology. Kinesics is a field related with interpretation of different elements of body language in different situations. Sign-Language is also considered as nonverbal language.
Perhaps, most of us might have skill or ability to pick body language clues but may not be able to analyze, interpret or decode them precisely, correctly or accurately without knowing the key components of Nonverbal Communication.

Nonverbal Communication broadly has the following distinct components (four classical and two modern) and their corresponding contents:

A) Body Lingual: Postures, Body Movements, Body Orientations, Hand Gestures (Emblems, Illustrators and Regulators),
Facial expressions (Macro, Micro and Subtle), Oculesics (Eye contact, gaze and glance), Pupilometry (Interpretation of Psychological state by measuring pupil size), Haptics (Touch), Proxemics (Interpersonal/Social Distance), Reflexes,
Pulmonary Ventilation (Respiration) and Sympathetic-Parasympathetic Reactions

B) Contextual: Physical Environments, Social Situations, Locations, Terrains, Climates, Cultural Norms, Genetic Inheritance and Chronemics (Time)

C) Peripheral: Objects, Attires, Chromatics (Color), Olfactics (Smell), Thermal and Chemical Signals

D) Vocal (Para Lingual): Clarity, Tone, Volume, Tempo, Pitch, Pause, Rhythm, Annotation and also Silence
E) *Informational: Sketches, Paintings, Drawings, Photographs, Graphs, Charts, Animations, Images, 2D Models, 3D Models, Signs, Symbols, Icons, Insignia, Flags
F) *Textual: Positions, Decorations, Highlighting, Fonts, Font sizes, Colors, Emoticons, Text Faces and Emojis

Without considering, taking into account or emphasizing context, clustering and congruence (the referential and authenticating integrity among different nonverbal clues); both trying to understand, analyze and decode an
ordinary or trivial message can lead us to nowhere, let alone conveying one much effectively.

Also, the broader or umbrella term 'Nonverbal Communication' (NVC) can't be limited to humans and living beings at all. Nonverbal Communication limited and/or specific to humans should be called as 'Human Nonverbal Communication' (HNVC).
I sincerely wish and also quite hopeful about that next time anybody confuses body language with nonverbal communication and vice a versa, you would definitely be able to explain the difference and relation between both with great confidence.
By now, you might have clearly understood both terms and posses the enough knowledge to understand, explore, study, observe, analyze, decode, decipher and demystify the unimaginably vast “Nonverbal World” around yourself.
[Special Note: I kindly suggest that the term 'Human Nonverbal Communication' (HNVC) should be widely put in use at all levels and all areas, starting right from the educational institutions to body language and nonverbal communication books and articles.
As data, facts and information is represented, converted/compressed into and/or explained visually, I've added *Informational component to the list, on 31st December, 2021. Also, *Textual component was added on 1st January, 2022.]

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  1. An excellent article & an eye opener.

  2. From my perspective, this material seems pretty consistent with other overviews of nonverbal communication. (You do seem to repeat yourself a bit and make this subject a little more complicated than it needs to be, perhaps).

    “Body language” is more of a “pop” term; “nonverbal communication” is more all-encompassing and the better “umbrella” term. And the various categories you identify are appropriate.

    David Lapakko, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor, Director of Forensics
    Dept. of Communication Studies, Film, and New Media
    Augsburg University, MI, United States (USA)
    (Source: Dr. David's reply to my email)


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