What is Nonverbal Miscommunication?

As explained in the previous post, the majority of misunderstandings come from the first Dimension pair: Nonverbal Communication contradicting Verbal Communication mainly because of tradition, habitual practice, or culture and gender attitudes.

So, let us learn what Nonverbal Communication encompasses:

  1. Paralanguage – the”how” of saying something; 
  2. Language of flowers – the use of flowers based on the meaning of each type of flower; 
  3. Language of colors – the use of colors based on the meaning of each color; 
  4. Language of time (Chronemics) – the use of time based on position or power; 
  5. Language of space (Proxemics) – the use of space to show importance; 
  6. Language of touch (Haptics) – the use of touch to express what cannot be said; 
  7. Language of gestures
    a. Emphasizing – “YES!” (fist pounding the table)
    b. Regulating – “shh” (forefinger in front of lips)
    c. Illustrating -“this large” (hands set apart)
    d. Emblems – clenched fist upraised 
  8. Facial expression – the configuration of eyes, eyebrows, lips, cheeks, nose, and forehead to show how the person feels; and 
  9. Posture and personal appearance – the way one carries and dresses oneself.

All of the above types of Nonverbal Communication are ways to deliver a Message and to convey meanings, intended or not. A Speaker may think he/she is being clear about the Message, but he/she may not realize that his/her nonverbal signals are saying something else. 

The most influential factor, as we learned in the discussion of the Dimensions of Communication, is that of culture. Many of our customs and traditions about everything from raising children to getting married, from planting and harvesting to cooking and serving food, are governed by culture.

One of the customs that still exists in Philippine society is the tradition of mano po, which involves touching the hand of an elder to one’s forehead to show respect. Mano po is now seldom practiced, which has led some elders to think that the young folks are rude and they wonder why their parents no longer teach their children good manners. Another example is the way we ask permission to pass through two or more people who are conversing. We signal with our hand while saying pasintabi po, as we duck our head and shoulders. Many no longer practice this because they do not know this conduct. Pasintabi po has been replaced by “Excuse me” or by saying nothing at all when passing between two people talking to each other, which can leave hurt feelings and the belief that the person who passed through was rude.

If we compare our culture with other societies, we find that in Arab countries, especially among the nomads, everyone eats, while seated on the ground or floor which is covered by a carpet, from one big plate, using only the right hand to pick up the food, as the left hand is considered dirty because it is used for bodily functions. 

On the other hand, cheek kissing and mere shaking of hands between men and women are not practiced in certain countries due to religious restrictions. Other than culture, gender is a factor that also governs communication. Please take note of the definitions: “Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that differentiate men and women. According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, “gender” refers to what society considers appropriate for men and women in terms of actions and behaviors. “Male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories. 

Gender comes into communication when we categorize certain ways of speaking or using words as being masculine or feminine. Or when we react to such communication precisely because we think they are masculine or feminine. We expect a male speaker to have a low-pitched voice, while we expect a female speaker to have a high-pitched voice. In certain settings, some employees find it difficult to take orders from a female boss, believing that a male executive, simply by being male, is a born leader and can direct his staff. The idea that men should not engage in certain activities classified as “women’s work” used to be a sign of machismo. Unfortunately, this can still be observed in rural areas and even in some urban areas. However, with an increasing number of Filipino women working abroad as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), the men are left to care for the children and the home, doing “women’s work.”


Paralanguage is about “how” something is said, not what is said. Saying “I love you” with an angry tone is a contradictory message. Words of protest may lose their fire when said in a meek and soft voice. Tones or voices must match the content of the Message if the Message is to be understood at all. It must also reinforce the Message: a Message with strong points to deliver must be emphasized with strong paralanguage. Asians are often misrepresented as being accommodating and conciliatory because of their paralanguage. This is merely a stereotype as we have read of the exact opposite in newspaper articles both here p and abroad of Filipinos who have acted in an unstereotypical manner.


Flowers say for many of us what we cannot say ourselves. These meanings are also influenced by culture and gender. Supposedly, only Filipino men send flowers, women do not. Red roses are to be sent only to a female sweetheart or a wife, no one else, and only on Valentine’s Day and birthdays. But now, with flower shops pushing the idea that it is okay to send flowers on any occasion, men and women can send any kind of flower to anyone, whether there is an occasion or not. Nonverbal communication using flowers can become problematic when we move outside of Philippine Culture. 

Hawaii’s State flower is the plumeria otherwise known as kalachuchi in the Philippines. Many Filipinos may not feel welcomed in Hawaii at all by a lei made of plumerias because kalachuchi has a disagreeable smell to Filipinos. Italians send chrysanthemums for special occasions, but Filipinos generally see them in funeral arrangements.


Colors have certain meanings based on the dictates of culture and gender. Hospitals (and parents) prepare everything in blue for baby boys and pink for baby girls. Since babies can wear any color, why limit them to one? Some colors supposedly make us happy or sad or angry. ln fact, disturbed or violent people with mental problems are confined in rooms painted with a tinge of pink, a color which is said to calm them. ln Thailand, only the King can wear yellow. Tourists who dare to wear the royal color are punished.


Chronemics shows how time is viewed differently in various countries. Filipinos tend to see time as being elastic. “Filipino time” means that an appointment is scheduled”between” 1 :00 and 2:00 pm. A meeting starts at”around”8:30 am.Time in the West is always exact and to the point. An appointment is “at” 1:00 pm, while a meeting starts “exactly” at 8:00 am. Time is most often used in the Philippines to convey how powerful a person is. Here, someone in authority may show that his/her time is more important than that of the visitor by making them wait. In the West, an appointment, even with the president of a big company, means being brought into the office right away, no matter who the visitor may be. When Europeans have to meet someone (for personal or business reasons), they will wait only 5 minutes beyond the appointed time. Filipinos will wait for someone to arrive for as long as an hour (sometimes even longer!). 


Proxemics or the use of space provides us with ideas about how close or how far people are from the center of power or where a person is on the social ladder. This type of Nonverbal Communication is similarly used as in Chronemics by people who want to show who they are, especially in business. The biggest office in a company building is reserved for the president or the chief executive officer (CEO) and is usually situated on the top floor or penthouse of the building. When employees are promoted, they are given a bigger table and a larger space. Their new office may be situated nearer office windows or a higher floor closer to the president’s office. They might even be given access to coffee and snacks or to the executives’ restroom. 

Houses of millionaires are usually huge and would include a landscaped garden, a big garage for more than one car, and, most likely, a giant swimming pool. A middle-class house will have enough space according to the budget of the couple, balanced by their needs. lt will at least have a small garden and a garage for a car (in the future). In Hong Kong and Singapore, living spaces are usually in high-rise buildings and condominiums. Very few actually own houses with a garden.


Haptics or the use of touch is one of the most powerful of the types of Nonverbal Communication. Like the language of flowers and colors, it can say what cannot be said verbally by the Speaker. What differentiates this from among other types of Nonverbal Communication is the fact that there is contact between the Sender and the Receiver of the Message. Touch can comfort, it can aggravate, it can encourage, or it can dissuade. Filipinos, like many Latin nationals, are always touching but without embarrassment. We are not afraid to touch someone, even strangers. 

We touch babies and children, those we know and those we do not. However, in Indonesia, no one pats the top of a child’s head.They believe that this is where the spirit of the child resides. Filipinos also like to touch friends, relatives, and loved ones who touch us back. Of course, there are a few exceptions, particularly in countries where men and women are segregated (a woman is not supposed to see, talk to, or touch a man until they are married). Filipinos hug each other a lot, too. All these say that, as a people, we are very affectionate, quite demonstrative, and friendly.


Gestures are the most often used type of Nonverbal Communication. Speech, to be understandable and interesting to a Listener, must be accompanied by different gestures. 

Emphasizing gestures that punctuate what we want to highlight are examples of this type. Hitting the lectern or the table is a gesture that interjects force, helping emphasize a point being made. But for Thais, such an action is considered rude. 

Regulating gestures are used to control the flow of communication such as nodding one’s head so that someone will continue talking. This gesture might also mean understanding or a way of saying “yes”. In the Middle East, however, nodding means “no” while shaking the head means “yes”. 

Illustrating gestures are used to show size, height, distance, or similar qualities like using one hand to mimic a certain height or two hands to show distance or size. Emblems are gestures associated with specific meanings. Here again, cultural differences in the meaning of gestures make for problems in communication. A clenched fist is associated with activism and protest, but this is an insult in some parts of Europe. 

Pointing a finger to one’s head can be read as either being smart or being crazy, which may be very confusing depending on one’s culture. Greeks and other Europeans do not wave goodbye with the palm of the hand facing forward. See how the Queen of England makes a half wave, known as the royal wave.

Facial Expression

Facial Expression is the type of Nonverbal Communication that assists the Listener in understanding the Message better. It is important to the Communication Process that the Listener monitors any and all the facial expressions of the Speaker. This will be the Listener’s gauge as to whether the Speaker is sincere and serious and whether the Speaker treats the Listener with affection or with contempt. Eye contact is number one. Looking at the Listener is crucial for connecting with the Listener, especially when there is more than one Listener. 

Facial Expression, however, is not just the use of the eyes. A frown on the forehead of a Listener may mean that what was said was confusing or not understandable. Raised eyebrows might mean either surprise or incredulity. A wrinkled nose could be dislike for what was said. Scrunched cheeks and pursed lips are signs of displeasure for Filipinos. 

When Filipinos greet each other, they usually kiss only one cheek of the other person; people in Latin countries kiss both cheeks (which Filipinos sometimes do nowadays). The Dutch and Swedes kiss the cheek of the person they are greeting three times (right cheek-left cheek-right cheek), while the Moroccans and Croatians kiss the cheeks four times.

Posture and Personal Appearance

Posture and Personal Appearance are the last type of Nonverbal Communication. How one stands or sits in Communicative Situations tells the people around how one sees oneself as a Speaker, one’s attitude towards the Message, and how one looks at the Listener. When one carries oneself well and with confidence, people will want to listen. Listeners pay attention because they are made to feel important. Personal Appearance also says a lot about the Speaker and the Message. Especially in Formal Communicative Situations, being appropriately dressed shows the Speaker’s readiness and ability to deliver the Message. Being dressed well also adds to one’s self-confidence.

All of the above types of Nonverbal Communication assist a Speaker in imparting the Message to the Listener. Seldom does communication take place without being accompanied or substituted by one or more of these types of Nonverbal Communication. What must be remembered is that all of these are culture-bound or specific to some cultures but not in others. Miscommunication occurs when these cultural concepts clash or simply do not meet. Remember Schramm’s model where communication takes place if and only if there is an overlap of the fields of experience? In summary, miscommunication may occur in all the Dimensions of Communication, especially in the Nonverbal Dimension due to our unfamiliarity with gender practices in other cultures and their societies’ customs and traditions.