Nonverbal communication

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Nonverbal communication (also averbal communication , communication without words ) describes that part of interpersonal communication that is not conveyed through literal language. Sign systems and communicative actions, which are referred to as language, also exist in the animal kingdom . The term also includes communication between humans and animals (e.g. with pets) that does not take place through words of humans. Nonverbal communication can be intentional (intentional) or unintentional. Spoken communication also has non-verbal aspects ( para-language ).

Charles Darwin undertook the first systematic investigations, namely into interculturally universally expressed basic emotions .


Nonverbal communication (from the Latin non = not, verbum = word and communicare = to communicate; non-verbal communication) is any communication that is not verbal, i.e. neither via spoken language nor via sign language or written language . Understanding systems in which linguistic signs are "translated" from one of these systems into another modality, for example Lormen or signs accompanying spoken language , are also not counted as non-verbal communication, since they are codings of the respective verbal systems from which they are derived are. However, the typeface, pitch of the voice and speaking behavior can also convey essential - non-verbal - para-linguistic messages about a person, just as there are also non-verbal parts in addition to the verbal parts of picture fonts and sign languages ​​that supplement the verbally transmitted message.

On another level, the use of different signs is also called non-verbal communication. A distinction is made between signs, signs (rising smoke for fire), imitative signs (e.g. information graphics, symbols) and indicative signs (e.g. traffic signs ). Another reading of the term is the equation of non-verbal communication with non-vocal communication and verbal communication with spoken language communication. This reading is common in everyday language, but does not correspond to the way the term is used in linguistics.

In a broader sense, the term non-verbal communication denotes any non-verbal behavior that provides information about the inner states of the living being. In this reading, there is non-verbal communication as soon as the recipient of the communication draws conclusions from the behavior of the other or from perceptible results of the other; in this case, the sender does not need to have a communicative intention. Examples of this are blushing as a communication of embarrassment or a guilty conscience, design of the appearance such as clothing and accessories , the hairstyle, tattoos and decorative scars - to home furnishings and design measures in architecture that are intended to express a group membership or a certain attitude towards life .

The carriers of the message are then not only deliberately controllable expressions such as gestures , facial expressions , eye contact or non-verbal vocalizations such as laughter, but rather any behavior in this usage of the term can be considered non-verbal communication. The well-known saying by Paul Watzlawick that one cannot not communicate refers to this fact. Based on Watzlawick, non-verbal communication is sometimes also referred to as analog communication and verbal communication as digital .

Channels of non-verbal signals

Nonverbal information can be coded in a variety of ways. The most frequently noticed modes of expression include facial expressions , gestures , posture and movement, tone of voice (flattering, aggressive, etc.), touch and feel, smell (sweat, perfume, breath alcohol, pheromones , working materials, etc.), attachment to body and clothing (Make-up, dirt, lubricating oil, dust, cobwebs, snow, ...), eye contact , interpersonal distance , impression management (through clothing, hairstyle, etc.) and the like. a.

Functions of non-verbal communication

Nonverbal signals are used to express emotions, to convey attitudes (for example antipathy with a contemptuous facial expression), to display personality traits (for example shyness) or to modulate a verbal message (add, clarify, replace, restrict or even, in the case of sarcasm , contradict).

An example of non-verbal communication that influences the perception of oneself and others is power posing. This is a phenomenon in which adopting a certain posture (power posing) causes one to appear more powerful on other people and therefore also to feel more powerful.

Harvard professor Amy Cuddy writes in her book "Presence" about the interaction between body and emotions. Accordingly, the thinking and perception of emotions can change through the appropriate body language and posture.

In one example, she speaks of so-called power posing. It is similar to the picture of "Wonder Woman", who rests her arms on her hips in a firm stance and performs a clear, self-confident pose with her head held high.

This posture of the body is said to be effective against stress emotions and to change the hormones testosterone and cortisol in the blood. Accordingly, the proportion of the body's own testosterone would have to increase and the production of the stress hormone cortisol would be weakened. According to Cuddy, a feeling of self-confidence and increased self-confidence arises, according to the motto "Fake it till you become it".

Decoding of non-verbal communication

The decoding of non-verbal signals also takes place in a variety of ways, consciously and unconsciously, based on knowledge or, with the help of the mirror neurons , through empathic compassion.

Outline of non-verbal communication

Unconscious non-verbal communication

In addition to the visually recorded information ( facial expressions , gestures , micro- expressions ), the other senses are also of great importance for the behavior controlled by non-verbal communication.

Partially conscious non-verbal communication

Certain body language signals are subconscious. So we notice i. d. Usually certain changes in our facial expressions ourselves, but we do not perceive these changes over long distances and cannot consciously use them for communication. Friedrich Nietzsche has already put this in a nutshell: “You probably lie with your mouth; but with the mouth that you make, you are still telling the truth. "

Certain autonomous body functions such as welding education, blushing , pupils change or pulse , which strike the opposite can not be consciously controlled, but are quite self-perceived in part.

Similar to the olfactory signals, the body language also depicts forms of expression of a genetically predisposed behavioral control . When there is danger, for example, these lead us to increased performance and perception (skin perception due to perspiration, increased performance due to changes in pulse, changes in perception of the visual field in the event of danger, etc.) or they help us to prepare for reproduction in order to obtain the best possible genetic material (the strong male appearance as a sign of assertiveness or the expression of the secondary sexual characteristics of women for caring for children). Since these assessments are partly unconscious, they are often culturally denied.

Long-term changes in the way people live are also expressed in body language. Examples include the condition of fingernails and hair, diet-related changes in the skin or fat deposits or muscle build-up, postural disorders in the spinal area due to lack of vitality or facial changes due to long-lasting one-sided emotional life situations (the "grouchy appearance", the "laugh lines", the " prominent chin ").

The ability to decode such signals, as well as the unconscious non-verbal transmission of such signals and the body language form of expression, has proven useful in the course of evolution . On the one hand, in order to secure the best genetic material for species conservation in competition (“gene shopping”). On the other hand, to gain advantages in social interaction with one another.

A particularly important example in this context is the smile.

Conscious non-verbal communication

Victory pose

The gestures of the people expressed through arms, hands and upper body from the facial expressions on the face, especially eyes and mouth. Here there are nuanced forms of expression. The ability to “read” a face is also part of our genetic predisposition from a time when language was not yet developed. However, this ability varies greatly depending on whether we are familiar with a person's culture or not, see also cross-race effect .

As part of the social language, the conscious use of gestures, facial expressions and postures is part of every human culture. In different areas of the world, similarly executed gestures sometimes have completely opposite meanings:

  • the "OK sign" (ring made of thumb and index finger, remaining fingers stretched) means "money" in Japan, "zero" in France, "sex" in Mexico, "homosexuality" in Ethiopia, etc.

In contrast to the partially conscious forms of expression of non-verbal language, it is possible to learn non-verbal forms of expression in the conscious areas of body language.

Examples for this are:

  • the other person's smile to make contact
  • the " poker face " of the card player
  • the supporting gestures with the hands in dialogue
  • the “confident handshake” of the seller

"Making it beautiful" through the targeted use of fragrances and dyes (perfume, lipstick, mascara, etc.), as well as carefully selected clothing, is a cultivated combination of various signaling actions of conscious non-verbal communication. It serves as an expression of a “well-groomed” and therefore attractive appearance in a social environment.

In sign language linguistics , the “non-linguistic” communication components accompanying body movements are referred to as “non-verbal communication”. Examples of this are waving and waving the arms or tapping the other person to get their attention . The facial expressions , however, inasmuch as it meets linguistic functions (eg. As distinguishing gestures that do not differ in the manual articulation) as part of the sign language corpus considered.

Clothing and other measures of body design (such as jewelry, hairstyle, beard, tattoos, headgear, etc.) as elements of body language, as well as measures of further environmental design (apartment, house, car, garden, etc.), represent another area of ​​conscious non-verbal communication dar ( clothing as a system of signs ). Colloquially, the statements "Clothes make the man" or " The emperor's new clothes " or the story of the " Captain von Köpenick " are examples of the importance attached to the value and function of human clothing as specific expressive elements of non-verbal communication.

Computer mediated non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communication does not only take place in face-to-face communication, but nowadays also via digital communication media.

The basis for computer-mediated non-verbal communication was created in 1963 by the American commercial artist Hervey Ball. He invented the smiley , which is the graphic representation of a facial expression.

In 1982 emoticons followed . They were invented by the American computer scientist Scott Fahlman with the original function of identifying irony. Basically, this was a significant step forward, as emoticons could already be used via digital language. However, emoticons only consist of characters (comma, hyphen, colon, etc.), which is why the use of limited characters was considerably restricted.

The emojis have existed since 1998/99 . These are pictorial symbols that can represent people, emotions, states or objects. These are the invention of the Japanese Shigetaka Kurita.

Emojis are an integral part of computer-mediated communication today. They allow communication on many different topics, convey emotions, mark irony and either emphasize or soften statements.

Individual differences

There are significant individual differences in the ability to encode and decode non-verbal signals. On average, extroverts are better than introverts and women are better than men. The exception to this is recognizing signs that a person is lying; men are better at that. A study in eleven countries showed that the more suppressed women are, the more likely they are to ignore non-verbal signs of falsehood and instead pay attention to signs of the desired message.

Cultural differences

In addition to individual differences, cultural differences can also occur in the reception of non-verbal signals. Some discrepancies can be found with regard to various gestures and paraverbal communication.

While in the USA a circle made up of thumb and forefinger means something like “good performance”, in Japan this gesture is used to represent money.

The paraverbal part of communication also varies. Depending on whether you raise your voice at the end of a sentence, this means the formulation of a question in Europe, but a statement is formulated in southern areas of India.

Distance zones

Proxemics deals with the situation-dependent spatial relationship between the communication partners as a special aspect of body language . Distance, body height, body orientation and forms of contact play a role here. This spatial behavior depends not only on the current situation, but also on culture-specific norms, the gender and occupation of the communication partner and individual factors such as introversion or extraversion . Since the extent of the individual distance zones depends on the culture, the distance can vary to a certain extent. The following rule has been found in non-verbal communication seminars since the 1970s, but it has not been proven experimentally. In the area of ​​the intimate and personal zone in particular, the experimental means have often been chosen far too roughly. The dimensions mentioned here must be checked more specifically.

  • intimate zone: direct body contact (under approx. 35 cm) mostly only with family or partner
  • personal zone (approx. 35 to 120 cm) with friends and acquaintances in private situations
  • social / societal zone (from approx. 120 to 400 cm) is an appropriate distance in everyday conversations
  • public zone, also escape distance (from approx. 400 cm) in front of a larger audience.

If the intimate zone is breached by strangers or unknown persons, this is perceived as a threat or danger.

When people who are assigned to a less intimate distance exceed the limits of the respective distance zones, this is perceived as unpleasant. By backing away, the interlocutor is informed that a limit has been exceeded. The distance, which is perceived as pleasant, develops between the ages of four and 22 and increases steadily during this time.

Modern psychology makes use of other experimental means (computer-aided movement analysis). This showed that the so-called “intimate” and “personal” zones as such are no longer tenable. E.g. the distance between the hands of two people is different from that of the feet, hips, heads etc.

Role behavior

Since the non-verbal parts of communication are mainly controlled by the emotions and motivations of those involved, it is hardly possible to consciously control them. Character actors do not convince primarily because they are good at pretending, but because they identify with their role, put themselves in the role, and can take on the role.

Formal relationships such as those between business partners (customer and bank employee, client and psychotherapist) are characterized by clear objectives and a higher degree of structure than informal or “close” relationships. However, every social role is defined by complex role expectations ( role behavior and role attributes ). If a social role is only assumed for the sake of form and consciously attempted to control it, this is rarely successful in all aspects.

Jacob Levy Moreno developed a view of human role behavior on psychodrama and sociodrama as "therapy in the group, with the group, for the group". The aim is, among other things, to leave rigid role structures or no longer up-to-date role reserves behind and to develop role behavior appropriate to the situation through innate spontaneity and creativity and to enable the (re) establishment of authentic relationships.

Other forms


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Web links

Commons : Nonverbal communication  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

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