Spoken communication is both social and functional. At a social level, it helps to build relationships and is instrumental in helping a team to carry out its task. the actual information that is exchanged and the language and timing are also important. However, the content of speech on its own is often insufficient for effective communication. It may be not what is said that is important but how it is said.
Non-verbal communication is the way people communicate, either deliberately or unintentionally, without using words. it is a major signal of emotional state, as well as conveying other information. this is often referred to as body language and there are many books available with good examples (e.g. Morris, 2002; pease and pease, 2005). Malandro et al. (1989) identified four classes of non-verbal communication that are relevant to the workplace: (1) facial expression and eye behaviour; (2) body movement and gestures; (3) touching behaviour; and (4) voice characteristics and qualities.
In addition to conveying emotion, researchers have identified five ways in which non-verbal communication complements verbal communication:
- 1. repeats what is being said (e.g. saying ‘no’ and shaking your head)
- 2. adds to or reinforces verbal communication (e.g. saying ‘I’m angry’ and frowning)
- 3. highlights verbal communication by emphasising certain words or phrases (e.g. Are you sure that’s right?)
- 4. contradicts the verbal message (e.g. saying ‘I’m angry with you’ while smiling)
- 5. substitutes for verbal behaviour (e.g. shrugging your shoulders to indicate you don’t care).
However, just as with verbal communication, non-verbal communication can be ambiguous and open to misinterpretation, especially when communicating with
someone from a different culture. As workplaces become much more multicultural, recognising that gestures that have one meaning in some cultures can have a completely different meaning in others becomes particularly important. For example, a thumbs up in most Western countries means good luck or approval, whereas in Middle Eastern cultures this is an obscene gesture. The ‘oK’ sign frequently used in scuba diving (forming a circle between forefinger and thumb with the other fingers raised) can be seen as an obscene gesture in Germany. The simple head nod is accepted as meaning ‘Yes’ in western Europe, China and North America, whereas in Sri Lanka and many eastern European countries, a nod actually means ‘No’ (see Morris, 2002, for other examples).
Non-verbal cues can also be subtle. A random gesture may be given a certain meaning when none was intended. Similarly, people often use non-verbal cues to discern if someone is lying (Zuckerman et al., 1981) but even professional interviewers are surprisingly inaccurate in detecting deceit from communication (Vrij et al., 2004).