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Nonverbal communication

Non-verbal communication forms part of communication.
© Universitat Pompeu Fabra
When signing or speaking, facial and body expressions provide important information to the addressee. In sign languages there are two kinds of facial and body expressions: the ones which are part of the basic components of signs (we will learn more about this in Week 4) and the ones which express emotions and feelings, which are equivalent to nonverbal communication in spoken languages. The following article introduces you to the essentials of nonverbal communication.
In the next step we will invite to give yourself a name sign. Before doing this, we recommend that you take a few minutes to study some elements of nonverbal communication. As Santi explained in Step 3.5, your name sign may represent some aspect of your physical appearance or characteristic movement. Your name sign has to be appropriate and comfortable. That’s why nonverbal communication elements are so important.


Like many other primates, human beings are considered a social animal species. Communication lets us satisfy our most basic relationship needs as it lets us have contact with our peers. monkeys
However, “although verbal communication, in a language form, is a powerful vehicle for transmitting specific information about people, objects, events and ideas —from past, present and future—, nonverbal communication often have a major impact, even during verbal interactions.” (Patterson, 2010)

Definition of nonverbal communication

“Nonverbal communication expression refers to every nonlinguistic signal or sign system which communicate or which is used to communicate.” (Cestero, 2006)

Basic features of nonverbal communication

  1. Nonverbal communication channel is always open (on-mode); even if it is not our turn to speak, we are still sending out nonverbal signals to our interlocutor.
  2. Emission and reception of nonverbal signals of all interlocutors are produced simultaneously. This is different from verbal communication, when just one person can speak per turn.
  3. This emission and reception is produced automatically and unconsciously. We do not think about it while we are interacting; however, we send and receive the message.
  4. Nonverbal behavior patterns focus on the here and now. We can only emit nonverbal signals during our present discourse or experience. This is different from, for example, a written text.

Systems involved in nonverbal communication

The phonic system and corporal system are considered basic systems due to their direct involvement in any inter-human act of communication. They are necessarily put into operation at the same time as the verbal system.
Nonverbal information involving phonic system can be expressed through:
  1. Physical characteristics of sound, such as pitch, tone, tempo, intensity, resonance, rhythm, etc.
  2. Phonic modifiers or voice types —which depend on the control we exercise at respiratory, lingual, labial, etc. level— such as whisper, nasal voice, hoarse voice, trembling voice, falsetto, etc.
  3. Some physiological or emotional reactions, such as laugh, sigh, shout, cough, hawk, yawn, cry, sob, gasp, spit, etc.
  4. Quasi-lexical elements such as vowels and consonant elements; for example: ooooh, eee, hmmm, ufff, etc.
  5. Pauses and silences.
Nonverbal information involving the corporal system can be expressed through:
  1. Gestures are understood as psycho-muscular movements with communicative value. Two basic types of gestures can be distinguished: facial expressions (smile, wink, sidelong glance) and corporal gestures (“come here”, “I”, “he is crazy”).
  2. Postures are static positions that are adopted by the human body and that also communicate (actively or passively): crossing your arms and legs, your posture while walking or eating, standing or sitting, etc.
  3. Ways are the manner in which we produce movements, gestures, or postures or realize habits of cultural behavior.
This activity can be perceived: visually (gestures), audibly (clap, snap fingers), tactilely (hug, kiss) and kinesthetically (when the movement is perceived through an object).
There are also secondary or cultural systems whose primary purpose is to reinforce or to modify the basic system’s meaning. They may also provide social or cultural information independently.
For instance, nonverbal communication can be found in “the way in which the space is conceived individually and socially, how the participants use the space where a communication exchange takes place and how they distribute them.” (Calsamiglia & Tusón, 2012)
It is worth mentioning that there are many more elements involved in nonverbal communication, such as, for example, physical characteristics (facial features, appearance, smell, dermal and thermal signals, colors…), personal components (age, personality, mood, culture, status…) or environmental factors (light, sounds, noises, furniture, architecture…), etc.
As we have seen so far, facial expressions in nonverbal communication are considered gestures through which we express emotions. In sign languages, however, there are some facial expressions, as well as body and head movements, which are part of the core grammar of the language!

Functions of nonverbal communication

  1. Add information to the content or sense of a verbal statement.
  2. Communicate, replacing verbal language.
  3. Regulate the interactions.
  4. Close verbal gaps.
  5. Intervene in simultaneous conversations.


Calsamiglia, Helena., Tusón, Amparo. (2012). Las cosas del decir. Manual de análisis del discurso. (3ª ed.) Barcelona: Ariel Lingüística.
Cestero, Ana Mª. (coord.) (1998). Estudios de comunicación no verbal. Madrid: Edinumen.
Cestero, Ana Mª (2006). “La comunicación no verbal y el estudio de su incidencia en fenómenos discursivos como la ironía”. In: ELUA. Estudios de Lingüística, 20: 57-77.
Patterson, Miles L. (2010). Més que paraules: el poder de la comunicació no verbal. Barcelona: Editorial UOC.
Poyatos, Fernando (1994a). La Comunicación no verbal. Vol. 1: Cultura, lenguaje y conversación. Madrid: Istmo.
Poyatos, Fernando (1994b). La Comunicación no verbal. Vol. 2: Paralenguaje, kinésica e interacción. Madrid: Istmo.
© Universitat Pompeu Fabra
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