Non-Verbal Communication: History and Concept


Non verbal communication refers to a process where people communicate by sending and receiving of messages which lack the word component, and the various means through which messages are communicated through the non verbal channels include gestures or object communication. In addition,, non-verbal elements referred to as paralanguage can also be found in speech, for instance, voice quality, emotion speaking style, rhythm and intonation.

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Non verbal elements that can be found in written text may include the style of handwriting or the arrangement of words. Non verbal communication has often focused on face to face interaction and can be classified into three; the physical characteristics of a communication, communicator’s behavior during interaction, and the environmental conditions in which communication takes place (Argyle, M. 1988).


Non-verbal communication has been looked at from various perspectives. It has been suggested that, the meaning construction between the subjects of interaction provides the basis for interpersonal communication. For the physical appearance cues, people usually have the perpetual filters for relationship building, which assists in reducing uncertainty about the other person. The Expectancy violations theory in communication suggests that people have expectations for nonverbal interaction, where the expectations are grounded in the culture, relationship and situational parameters.

Broaching of expectations prompts arousal in the communication partner, which then results to the focusing of the attention on the violation. The nonverbal behavior breaches are more often taken seriously by the interactants,accumulating to a deal of impression formation. Non verbal communication has seven signal codes, which include, kinesics, vocalics, physical appearance, haptics, proxemics, chronemics and artifacts (Knapp, M et al. 2007).

One means of communicating is the use of signs, which can be referred to as semiotics. The three fields of the sign theory include semantics, syntactics and pragmatics. In semantic, how signs relate to things is studied, syntactics involve the study of how signs relate to the other signs, while pragmatics is the study of how people use codes in their daily lives. The non-verbal code system comprises of certain features; analogic, universal meaning, iconicity, spontaneity, automatic response and simultaneous transmission, which area all common in the non-verbal code system.

According to BirdWhistell theory of Kinesics, six key assumptions can be made in non verbal communication. The assumptions suggest that in communicative contexts, all body movements have a meaning potential, which then makes behavior to be analyzed by patterns and repetitions. The use of body motion in the communication interaction is part of the social system and body activity in people (visual) which can influence others (BirdWhistell, R.1970). Other theorists, Ekman and Friesen proposed the analysis of non verbal behavior in three ways; origin, coding and the usage. Furthermore, they proposed that non verbal behavior is of five types; emblem, illustrators, adapters, regulators and affect displays (Ekman,P et al.1975).

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Non verbal communication has been studied for a very long time. In 1872, non verbal communication first scientific study was done by Charles Darwin. In his argument, Darwin stated that all mammals show their emotions very reliably on their faces, according to his book, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”.

Over time, non verbal communication study has been done in a number of fields that now include, social psychology, semiotics and linguistics. All cultures of the people in the world have either written or oral traditions that show the importance of understanding human beings through non verbal communication. For instance, the Chinese culture has been able to develop a set of rules which can help them judge an individual’s character and personality by observing the size, shape or the relative positions of their physical features such as the forehead, cheeks eyes or nose (Guerrero, L.K et al. 1999). The study of nonverbal communication can therefore be said to have its history from the peoples’ cultures.

Development of Non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communication uses one or more of the human senses. In the human development, the communication between the mother and a pre-verbal child or between the child and the environment is usually non-verbal. It is through the way in which the words are spoken that holds the content of the message between the mother and the child. The sense of touch also plays a big role in the development of non-verbal communication because a touch may be used to pass on various messages between the involved individuals. For instance, a child who is not stroked, held or cuddled may seem depressed or withdrawn (Ottenheimer, H.J. 2007).

Sight is also very vital in development, because people are able to understand the environment and people around them by looking where the facial expressions, body movements and the gestures are all important channels of non verbal communication. For example, the way one walks is said to say a lot about their way of life. The non-verbal communication has been used to develop other skills in people and has led to the development of social skills (Hargie, O. 2004).

For instance, photographs and communication pictures are used in children to develop their handwriting skills.

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Contributions to the field

Non-verbal communication study has made great contributions to the communication field, a good example being the cultures’ role that has developed ways of identifying a person’s personality. This has no doubt led to the development of skills in non-verbal communication. Universal understanding has resulted from non verbal communication channels. A good example is Paul Ekman’s study in 1960s where some facial expressions have been considered universal with facial expressions such as anger, joy and sadness considered universal. The constant use of these expressions have made non verbal to communication grow and to continue existing in our society.

The clothing and body characteristics such as height, weight, skin or gender have been used to study other aspects of life in people which makes it possible for people to relate the person’s features to the character, personality or even behavior. For instance, the height characteristic has been used to conclude that taller people are more impressive. Proxemics as a field of study in non verbal communication has been very instrumental in explaining the human behavior in relation to the personal space. The stage for communication is set by how we perceive time and react to it, a contribution that has been made by the study on the use of time, referred to as chronemics. The study of the body movements, gestures and facial expressions (kinesics) which was developed by BirdWhistell in 1950s has made non verbal communication be understood better.


Non-verbal communication is used in our diverse global societies, where people from different cultural backgrounds interact with each other.Unfortunately, this form of communication may sometimes cause confusion, because even the simplest communication can be made complicated by the non-verbal factors. In such a case, intervention is necessary so that the contradiction can be done away with. For instance, an intervention treatment may involve exposing students to an environment where they become more aware of the non verbal factors and how the factors are involved in interpersonal communication.


Non-verbal communication creates contradiction in some case, which is considered as one of its disadvantages. When communicators are trying to use non-verbal means to send a message, there is always the high risk of being misunderstood. In various cultures, a certain sign that is used in non verbal communication may mean different things for people from different cultures( Bull, P. 1987).A certain gesture may be used to mean well in a certain society while it may be insulting to people of a different culture. For example, a gesture of extending a hand flat to indicate the height of a child in Anglo culture is accepted, while the same gesture may be an insult in the Spanish culture where the gesture means an animal.

Clinical Assessment

Clinical assessment in relation to communication has led to scientific research on the communicators and how various factors affect them. For instance, drug addicts who use varying types of drugs have been observed to show varying receptive ability. Medical complications also affect people when it comes to non verbal communication, with diminished abilities to read cues has been observed in obese women or those with premenstrual syndrome.

Medical problems may change an individual’s level of accuracy on the non verbal receptivity level when facial expression may fail to transmit or receive non verbal facial cues. The non verbal communication also known as body language provides support for the clinical assessment. Research or clinical work that focus on adolescent and neurogenic communication disorders has been supported by the clear understanding of neural network that is known to support social communication.


Argyle, M. 1988. Body Communication. 2nd Edition Madison; International Universities Press.

BirdWhistell, R.1970.Kinesics in Context. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Bull, P. 1987. Posture and Gesture (Vol. 16). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Ekman,P and Friesen,W. 1975. Unmasking the face. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice- Hall.

Guerrero, L. K., DeVito, J. A., Hecht, M. L. Eds. 1999. The nonverbal communication reader. 2nd ed. Lone Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press.

Hargie, O. & Dickson, D. 2004. Skilled Interpersonal Communication: Research, Theory and Practice. Hove: Routledge

Knapp, M.L., & Hall, J.A, 2007. Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. 5th ed. Wadsworth: Thomas Learning.

Ottenheimer, H.J. 2007. The Anthropology of language: An introduction to linguistic anthropology, Kansas State: Thomson Wadsworth.

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