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Nonverbal communication is the process of communication through the sending and receiving wordless messages. This can be exhibited through several different mediums (Anderson, 2007).” The first category involves haptic communication, or communication through gestures and touch. This type of communication is important when trying to advance toward physical intimacy (Mehrabian, 2007). Nonverbal communication can also be conveyed through object communication, in which hairstyles, clothing, and physical symbols give nonverbal cues about a person (West & Turner, 2007). What may be the most surprising category, however, refers to the nonverbal elements of speech. Volume, intonation, rhythm, stress, and emotion can all play a prominent role in how thoughts or ideas are communicated (Andersen, 2001). Even written nonverbal communication can be expressed when handwriting and spacing come into focus. The internet also plays a role. According to Redfern & Naughton (2002), “There is evidence of crude simulation of body language in today’s text-based CMC environments: for example, emotional icons are used extensively in chat rooms and newsgroup messages to give users the ability to express emotion.” These “emoticons” can influence the entire mood of a web-based conversation and often replace entire words or sentences. The purpose of this paper is to explain how nonverbal communication applies to relationships. When investigated thoroughly, the role of nonverbal communication can play out as one of the most vital in a relationship, particularly a romantic relationship, in which two people are constantly in close proximity to each other.
Nonverbal communication dates back to the late 1800s, in which Charles Darwin argued that animals and humans openly and often unintentionally show some level of emotion (Darwin, 1872). He believed that animals could only communicate nonverbally, and humans as direct descendants shared many of these characteristics. As a result, so much of what is being said is a result of haptic communication. Touch is regarded as a sense that humans value enormously in terms of defining their relationships (West & Turner, 2007). Romantic gestures, such as hand holding, kissing, and sex, are nonverbal ways of cementing a relationship status. “In extreme cases, spousal abuse is often nonverbal: striking, punching, or kicking to express the spouse’s anger (Mehrabian, 2007).” What is considered acceptable in terms of touching differs by culture. The Netherlands is evasive in terms of touching, while Greece embraces this form of nonverbal communication. The culture boundaries extend to the gesture end of haptic communication. Gestures vary greatly depending on the culture. A casual gesture in the United States could be construed as obscene in a different country (West & Turner, 2007). Gestures are a direct component of language, and almost arbitrary. Waving is a very common way to greet people in our society, and so ingrained into modern culture that people rarely think about how significant that wave is from a nonverbal standpoint.
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Another form of nonverbal communication is object communication. Object communication, like the gestures of haptic communication, relies heavily on symbols. Height, weight, clothing, skin color, and gender all send out variables of nonverbal communication (West & Turner, 2007). Grammar, Renninger, and Fischer (2004) note a direct correlation between what a woman wears to a party and the message she is trying to send. A woman dressed in tight clothing, revealing the midriff, indicates that she is of a sexual nature and wants a relationship with a great deal of physical intimacy. In contrast, a woman dressed modestly may be seen as unapproachable and serious. The latter would benefit more in a job interview setting, but in terms of romance, she sends off the message that she prefers intellect to intimacy. While this study may be little more than a stereotype, it does hold merit. People can often discount others as potential friends or lovers based on appearance alone. While the perception can be changed once the true identity of that person is revealed, there is ultimately a stigma attached (Grammar, Renninger, & Fischer, 2004).
Another subtype of nonverbal communication has a direct tie with verbal communication. The old adage “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” is imperative in this category, because speech is directly influenced by pitch, volume, stress, intonation, rhythm, and emotion (Andersen, 2001). Psychologist Michael Argyle (Hinde, 1975) conducted a study using videotapes of selected subjects to determine the speed and significance of verbal vs. nonverbal communication in everyday environments such as the workplace. He determined that nonverbal cues were 4.3 times quicker and more effective when communicating. When a romantic couple argues, the nonverbal communication is in the forefront. Yelling is a direct indicator of anger or annoyance. Speech usually quickens as a result of needing to say twice as much to the significant other as one would say normally.
Nonverbal and verbal messages tend to interact six ways: through repeating, conflicting, complementing, substituting, regulating, and accenting (West & Turner, 2007). Repeating often involves using gestures to reiterate what the speaker is vocalizing, such as pointing to themselves when stating “I.” Conflicting occurs when the verbal and the nonverbal messages do not coincide. When someone promises that they are telling the truth while fidgeting or raising their pitch, it is usually a good indicator that they are not being truthful (Andersen, 2001). Conflicting messages expose emotional leakage, usually that of ambivalence or fear. Complementing, another element in verbal/nonverbal communication, is much easier to clarify. When nonverbal signals verify what is being said, such as a nod or a smile, the goals of what the person is trying to communicate are reached (West & Turner, 2007). Sometimes those goals can also be reached through substituting. Body movements and positioning relate to different intentions throughout the verbal interaction. Often nonverbal substitution can be used in place of verbal communication and the message is conveyed just as effectively. Regulating, like substitution, involves body movement; more specifically, touching. When a couple wants to engage in intimacy, a touch of the arm can indicate that the person wants to take things to the next level (Andersen, 2001). In a relationship accenting becomes an important variable as well. Touch, voice pitch, and gestures can be used to accent what the person is trying to communicate. They can also tone down verbal communication. When a person is nervous, for example, they might accent that nervousness by fidgeting or biting his nails.
These forms of nonverbal communication almost seem to indicate that verbal interaction is not necessary. Indeed, in a world where technology is at its peak, many correspond through email and Facebook rather than meeting face-to-face. Certain nonverbal cues in writing or type, such as using all capital letters when angry, signify anger or passion, while a text with a smiley face as its subject convey love or appreciation. Emoticons have replaced full sentences. In a chat room, a simple J can show that the receiver is pleased with what the sender has expressed. Redfern & Naughton (2002) argue that this poses a problem for modern society, that it has diminished the verbal skills of young students. They argue that the internet limits human interaction because web correspondence limit’s the nonverbal cues used during a face-to-face conversation. “In communication,” they argue, “an ability to express non-verbal social cues is needed to communicate an understanding of material discussed” as well as ideas, philosophies, and opinions. Without the “social cues” much of what is intended to determine the focus of a conversation is lost in internet translation.
The media provides several direct correlations with verbal and nonverbal communication. The television show “Lie to Me” is a very clear representation of how nonverbal cues can help determine whether a person is guilty or innocent of a crime and whether or not they are keeping a secret or lying about what they know. Cal Lightman, played by Tim Roth, is a deception expert (Baum). He studies facial expression and involuntary movements to uncover the truth behind the lies, which often helps the FBI determine the guilty party. His ability to zone in on common gestures used by deceivers he is often able to crack the case and know the true story in a very short period of time. In the pilot episode, Lightman and his group of experts are called in to investigate the murder of a high school teacher, Mrs. McCartney.
Lightman interrogates fifteen-year-old James Cole, a suspect due to circumstantial evidence. James does a great many things which indicate that he’s not being entirely truthful. His fidgeting, repetition, slumped posture, and hostile tone of voice make him seem at first like the classic case of a young man guilty of his teacher’s murder (complimenting). However, facial cues, such as the look of genuine sadness among hearing about her passing (conflicting), indicate that he is not guilty of the murder, but that he had been to his teacher’s house despite earlier denying this.
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Lightman later visits the high school where the victim worked, and interviews a young Jacqueline Mathis, who displayed similar nonverbal cues as Cole, without the genuine shock and sadness he exhibited (complimenting). Lightman then travels to Cole’s house and discovers pictures he hid of McCartney. One of pictures shows McCartney and Cole in an intimate position; another shows her engaging angrily with someone in a car. When he returns to the school and asks the principal whether he knows to whom the car belongs to, his nonverbal cues show that he does but he denies knowing (conflicting).
Cole, overwrought with guilt, considers suicide. Unbeknownst to him, Lightman has obtained his pictures. The person in the car is later revealed as Mathis who admits to having an argument with Mrs. McCartney as well as carrying the principal’s baby. Through a deception tactic of his own, Lightman tells Mathis that Cole had committed suicide, and out of guilt she revealed that she was responsible for the murder. Her rate of speech slows down a great deal and her movements become less erratic once she finally tells the truth (accenting).
This show brings to the forefront the weight that nonverbal cues hold. Lightman is able to build a profession based on haptic gestures and verbal/nonverbal correlations. From the object communication of body language in the different suspect to their varying pitches, he was able to compile the evidence and determine the guilty party.
The difference between assuming one is telling the truth or lying and actually solving the mystery therein involves unmasking nonverbal cues. Once one knows the common nonverbal characteristics associated with a lie, it is much easier to determine whether or not he or she is being the victim of deception. This may be a large part of why most successful salesmen are great nonverbal communicators. They are able to deliver guarantees that may not be 100% accurate, but their tone of voice and ease of gestures sets the buyer at ease, letting them think they are investing in a quality product (West & Turner, 2007).
As touched on previously, romantic relationships can strengthen or fall apart depending on how well both people understand nonverbal communication. As banal as repetition and accenting may seem from a textbook standpoint, they are extremely important in maintaining a certain level of intimacy. Reiterating what is important to the individual helps best determine what the other person can do to fulfill those needs. Touch through haptic communication is perhaps the best indicator in the progression of a relationship. Several couples start their relationship through casual brushing of the arm. Over time, they often progress to hand-holding, kissing, and sex. Through those intimate practices the status of a relationship can be determined without words (Mehrabian, 2007).
Nonverbal communication is involuntary in today’s culture. Through the use of symbols, gestures, and emphasis we are able to further emphasize the point we are trying to make. As technology proves more and more necessary to daily life, verbal communication becomes less and less important. Some communication scholars, such as Redfern & Naughton (2002) disapprove of this disintegration of physical conversations, while others, such as Andersen (2001) understand its relevancy. Whatever the opinion regarding form and function, it cannot be argued that nonverbal cues have become the number one indicator of emotion and importance in communication as a whole.
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