Nonverbal communication (NVC) is usually understood as the process of communication through sending and receiving wordless messages. Such messages can be communicated through gesture; body language or posture; facial expression and eye contact; object communication such as clothing, hairstyles or even architecture; symbols and infographics. Speech may also contain nonverbal elements known as paralanguage, including voice quality, emotion and speaking style, as well as prosodic features such as rhythm, intonation and stress. Likewise, written texts have nonverbal elements such as handwriting style, spatial arrangement of words, or the use of emoticons.

However, much of the study of nonverbal communication has focused on face-to-face interaction, where it can be classified into three principal areas: environmental conditions where communication takes place, the physical characteristics of the communicators, and behaviors of communicators during interaction.

Verbal vs oral communication

Scholars in this field usually use a strict sense of the term "verbal", meaning "of or concerned with words," and do not use "verbal communication" as a synonym for oral or spoken communication. Thus, vocal sounds which are not considered to be words, such as a grunt, or singing a wordless note, are nonverbal. Sign languages and writing are generally understood as forms of verbal communication, as both make use of words — although like speech, both may contain paralinguistic elements and often occur alongside nonverbal messages. Nonverbal communication can occur through any sensory channel — sight, sound, smell, touch or taste. NVC is important as:

"When we speak (or listen), our attention is focused on words rather than body language. But our judgement includes both. An audience is simultaneously processing both verbal and nonverbal cues. Body movements are not usually positive or negative in and of themselves; rather, the situation and the message will determine the appraisal."
Interaction of verbal and nonverbal communication

When communicating, nonverbal messages can interact with verbal messages in six ways: repeating, conflicting, complementing, substituting, regulating and accenting/moderating.


"Repeating" consists of using gestures to strengthen a verbal message, such as pointing to the object of discussion.


Verbal and nonverbal messages within the same interaction can sometimes send opposing or conflicting messages. A person verbally expressing a statement of truth while simultaneously fidgeting or avoiding eye contact may convey a mixed message to the receiver in the interaction. Conflicting messages may occur for a variety of reasons often stemming from feelings of uncertainty, ambivalence, or frustration. When mixed messages occur, nonverbal communication becomes the primary tool people use to attain additional information to clarify the situation; great attention is placed on bodily movements and positioning when people perceive mixed messages during interactions.


Accurate interpretation of messages is made easier when nonverbal and verbal communication complement each other. Nonverbal cues can be used to elaborate on verbal messages to reinforce the information sent when trying to achieve communicative goals; messages have been shown to be remembered better when nonverbal signals affirm the verbal exchange.


Nonverbal behavior is sometimes used as the sole channel for communication of a message. People learn to identify facial expressions, body movements, and body positioning as corresponding with specific feelings and intentions. Nonverbal signals can be used without verbal communication to convey messages; when nonverbal behavior does not effectively communicate a message, verbal methods are used to enhance understanding.


Nonverbal behavior also regulates our conversations. For example, touching someone's arm can signal that you want to talk next or interrupt. For example, a person who is verbally expressing anger may accent the verbal message by shaking a fist.

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This definition is part of a series that covers the topic of Body Language. The Official Guide to Body Language is Robert Phipps. Robert is one of the world’s best known body language experts, he is media news consultant to; ABC, BBC, GMTV, SKY, CNN, Reuters, Associated Press plus many more.

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