Principles of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is another mode of communication which makes use of symbols other than written or spoken language. Joseph De Vito (1986) lists seven principles of nonverbal communication. 

1. Nonverbal communication is contextual.

As in verbal communication, the meanings of nonverbal symbols are ambiguous, arbitrary, and abstract; and may vary across cultures and time. In interpreting the meaning of nonverbal symbols, we must also consider the context as cultures attach different meanings to gestures, actions, or facial expressions. For instance, a smile may convey happiness or an attempt to hide sadness or embarrassment.

2. Nonverbal behaviors occur in groups.

Nonverbal symbols may be used to complement language or together with other nonverbal symbols. Meaning then must be taken as a sum of all symbols used within context. Congruence refers to the state in which all nonverbal symbols work together to communicate the same thing. However, it is also possible for symbols to contradict each other, making it harder for meaning to be deciphered.

3. Nonverbal symbols always communicate.

One cannot not communicate. Even silence or non-participation in a class activity, for instance, says a lot about how a student feels. If one feels uncomfortable and refuses to say so, it manifests through nonverbal symbols such as shallow or erratic breathing or through turning stiff in one’s seat.

4. Nonverbal communication is governed by rules and is culture-bound.

Cultures require certain customs and traditions. Nonverbal symbols, therefore, are learned and not governed by instincts. For instance, in the Philippines, kissing the hands of elders symbolizes respect. Sometimes, teachers clap their hands to call students’ attention. On the other hand, a student cannot call on a teacher or someone important by clapping his or her hands or by producing the hissing sound “psst.”

5. Nonverbal communication is motivated.

Nonverbal behaviors are influenced by how one feels or what one thinks of at a given time. We may sometimes think people are smiling out of nowhere but there is always a reason behind every nonverbal behavior. It may be intentional such as when we attempt to project an image to a person we like, or unintentional such as when we remember something funny.

6. Nonverbal communication appears to hold more credibility than verbal communication.

When nonverbal cues contradict the verbal message, the meaning of nonverbal gestures is given more importance. Eye contact, for instance, is a nonverbal symbol used to detect dishonesty even if the verbal message says otherwise.

7. Nonverbal communication reinforces or contradicts other forms of communication.

For instance, when somebody asks you how you are feeling and you lie and say you’re okay, your nonverbal behavior (e.g., how you look, how you act, the tone of your voice, etc.) will contradict your words and reveal the truth. Nonverbal behavior may repeat, highlight, complement, contradict, and replace verbal messages.