Nonverbal communication involves expressing oneself without the use of words. Because of its nature, nonverbal communication is more prone to misinterpretation than verbal communication. This is especially true when there is a difference between the culture of the speaker and the listeners. It is also possible that a speaker might unintentionally communicate something nonverbally. For example, in some cultures, gesturing using wide hand signals can mean that the speaker is being impolite. That example shows why understanding cultural associations to nonverbal elements of communication is especially crucial in preventing a breakdown in communication.
The following discusses different nonverbal communication individually:
Gestures play an important role in communication. They can help express a speaker’s point better. For instance, when a speaker describes something as being tall, the speaker may raise his or her hand to add emphasis to what is being spoken. When a speaker wishes to show that he or she feels strongly about what is being said, the speaker may show a clenched fist. In addition, a speaker may use hand gestures to try to visualize the physical appearance of what he or she is describing. In addition, wide arm gestures may send the message that the speaker is discussing broad or general topics while hand and arm gestures closer to the body may send the message that the speaker is giving precise details. Folding one’s arms together can send different messages ranging from relaxation, apathy, or even authoritativeness especially when complemented with other nonverbal actions.
A speaker must be aware of gestures that are not acceptable particularly when speak-ing in a cross-cultural context. For example, a speaker waving an outstretched index finger may seem to be scolding the audience. The speaker must indeed be aware of the cultural ideas an audience may associate with gestures. To sum it all up, a speaker must take extra care in his or her gestures and must be sensitive enough to the reaction of his or her audience to the way he or she executes them.
When a speaker maintains eye contact with his or her listeners, he or she gives the impression of being serious about what is being discussed. Lack of eye contact on the part of the speaker can mean several things. It could mean that the speaker is unsure of what to say or that he or she does not clearly remember what to say. Worse, it could give the impression that he is inventing falsehood in speaking to his listeners. In addition, the culture of an audience may also dictate the eye contact practiced by the speaker. For example, a speaker being humble and apologetic is not expected by an audience from an East Asian culture to look directly in the eye of his or her listeners but is expected by an audience with a Western orientation to look at them directly in the eye. Eye contact is a crucial element of nonverbal communication.
Good posture is beneficial not only for health reasons but also for relating to others when speaking. In some cultures, there are postures that are unacceptable because they seem to be too relaxed when the setting calls for seriousness. In general, standing with an erect body and head makes for good posture and is applicable in most settings. A sitting posture may be acceptable if the speaker has authority over the audience or is at an age in which standing for some time is very tiring.
A speaker’s facial expression must match the topic of discussion. For instance, when the topic is something serious, the speaker must also maintain a grim facial expression. For discussing academic topics, a speaker may have a pleasant or smiling facial expression only to the extent that it does not distract the listener. In informal and non-academic situations, smiling, laughing, and other facial expressions can help develop rapport with an audience. The amount and extent of facial expression depends on how academic, informal, or dramatic the speech situation is. A more personal, informal and dramatic speech situation calls for more intense use of facial expression than in an academic speech situation.
Speakers must make use of the space around them properly. The use of space in communication is called proxemics. One indication of distance is the closeness of the speaker to his or her listeners. A distance of three arm’s length is used between people who do not know each other well. A distance of two arm’s length is used between people who have known each other for some time. A distance of one arm’s length is used between people who are close to each other. A distance shorter than one arm’s length is used between people very close to each other. In addition, any large object such as a table between speaker and listener gives the feeling of distant relation. It may show authority on the part of either one of them.