Nonverbal communication can be incorporated in a person’s dress. In our society, a person wearing a police uniform is already communicating an important message before they say a word. Another example is a man’s business suit, which is perceived by some as communicating an air of efficiency and professionalism.
While each of these cues conveys a message, so does its absence. In some settings, failing to express a nonverbal cue also communicates meaning. A policeman out of uniform is called “plainclothes” and is seen as deliberately trying to conceal his role. To some, this may make him seem smart or efficient, while others may consider him sneaky or untrustworthy. In the same way, a businessman who does not wear a suit is conveying an air of casualness which some would consider slightly less professional. In the modern world, “dressing down” implies a relaxation of professional standards that is much more than just a change of clothes.
Many cues are based on learned cultural standards, but there are some elements of nonverbal communication that are universal. Paul Eckman’s landmark research on facial expressions in the 1960′s found that the expressions for emotions such as anger, fear, sadness and surprise are the same across all cultural barriers.
The setting where communication takes place also lends a meaning to words apart from their literal definition, and constitutes nonverbal communication. For instance, the word “tradition” means one thing when it is spoken in City Hall, and quite another when it is spoken in a church. The sign of a cross takes on great cultural meaning when used in a religious context, but on a road sign it just means that an intersection is coming up.
Some nonverbal communication accompanies words and modifies their meanings. For instance, our speed of speaking and the pauses we place between our words form a nonverbal element to our speech. A slight pause before a word can imply uncertainty or be interpreted as a request for confirmation from the listener, whereas a lack of pauses can be taken as a sign of confidence or the encouragement of a fast reply from the listener. If someone asks you a question in a hurried manner, you will probably get the feeling that they want a similarly quick reply.
The use of personal space constitutes a form of nonverbal communication. If someone leans toward their listener as they speak, it implies that they are communicating something personal or secret. Depending on the social nuances of the situation, this may be taken as a sign of friendship or an unwanted invasion of space.
The use of touching as an element of communication is called haptic communication, and its meanings are very culture-dependent. In American society, a handshake, a pat on the shoulder or a “high five” have certain definite meanings understood by practically everybody. In other societies, these might be enigmatic acts or an embarrassing invasion of personal space.
The use of the eyes as an element of nonverbal communication is an area of study in itself, and is called “oculesics.” Researchers have divided eye movements into separate elements such as the number and length of eye contacts, blink rate, dilation of the pupils and so forth. Here again, the interpretation of these cues is highly dependent on the culture of the participants. A prolonged stare may establish a bond of trust, or destroy it. It may elicit a reply from the person being stared at, or it may make them become uncommunicative from embarrassment.
This is how most of our communication takes place. When we consider the amount of nonverbal communication that passes between us and compare it with the mere words we say, it is obvious that the nonverbal part is by far the largest.