Top 10 Types of Non-Verbal Communication

Writer Zoe Louise Cronk | Published January 11, 2019

Non-verbal cues carry meaning over and above what we say. Here are the most common forms and how to use them, ensuring we present the best and most accurate impression of ourselves to the world.

  • Head position

    A simple movement of the head can express more than you realise. We can garner someone’s morale and mindset from how upright it is. In general, the higher the head position, the better the emotional condition of the individual. For example, we throw back our heads when we laugh heartily and bow our heads when we cry. As for nodding, popular literature (Reiman, 2007; Goman, 2008) suggests that when we do so in clusters of three, the recipient will see this as interest, which can encourage them to lengthen their response by up to 300 per cent. Conversely, nodding once while looking to the side indicates less interest, and can lead to a drastically shorter reply. Remember this next time you’re trying to escape a boring conversation with a colleague.

  • Paralinguistics

    The way you say something, rather than what you say, is referred to as paralinguistics. Intonation and emphasis on different words can change the entire meaning of a sentence. How fast or slow you talk, too, can make a difference. It makes sense that speaking at an optimal rate helps people understand what you’re saying, but the association they make relates to how they perceive your intelligence. The ideal speech rate is 100–150 words per minute. Push it over 191 words per minute and you’ll come across as nervous or awkward. Intonation can also help you gauge intent. If you giggle while teasing, this small change can reassure the recipient that you mean it light-heartedly. Without this vocal clue to add context, it could be misconstrued. This is how problems arise in email, SMS and social media without vocal or visual indicators on how a message should be interpreted, which is where modern creations like emojis can be useful.

  • Fidgeting

    When the mind struggles to cope with a situation, sometimes the body doesn’t know what to do with itself, which manifests as fidgeting, such as wriggling, twitching and shuffling. Those who fidget are perceived to be uncomfortable or distracted, while research suggests it’s more about nerves. According to Navarro (2008), repetitive behaviours such as touching your face, rubbing the skin on your hands and wringing your hands are soothing motions when we’re nervous. Other actions are not quite so clear-cut. Women playing with their hair, for example, can be interpreted as anxiety or a sign of flirtation. Emmons (2011) noted fidgeting is more accurately interpreted when looked at in clusters. Akin to reading a full sentence rather than a few words, playing with hair while speaking with exaggerated intonation is more likely to indicate anxiety. On the other hand, playing with hair and exposing the neck in an alluring gesture can be a sign of sexual interest. More easily read fidgeting actions include drumming your fingers on a surface, which tells those around you that you’re frustrated or impatient.

  • Proximity

    Proximity is all about a person’s position in relation to others. The ‘bubble’ of personal space that we have around us changes depending on who is threatening to invade it and the context of the situation. For example if a stranger sits too close to you on a public bench, it’s likely to make you feel uncomfortable yet if you’re on a crowded train, while not pleasant, you’re unlikely to consider it a problem. As defined in Edward Hall’s 1968 book The Silent Language, the four distinct distances that we subconsciously stick to range from 12–25ft ‘public distance’, the 4–12ft ‘social distance’, a ‘personal distance’ of between 18 inches and four feet, and the intimate distance of 6–18 inches. Next time you’re out and about, take a look at the natural proxemics people employ every day. You’ll be able to make educated guesses about their relationships simply based on their proximity to one another.

  • Haptics

    Haptics, or touch, is the most primitive form of communication, with its main functions being play, control and intimacy. But being one of the most emotional types (just think about kissing and cuddling, or the distaste you feel when your hand accidentally brushes a stranger’s), also means a lot of variation across cultures. The handshake, for example, dates back as far as the fifth century and is, in most places, a polite and respectful greeting. A firm handshake is the norm for conveying confidence and commitment in the West, while too firm a handshake in the Middle East is considered rude and intimidating. Looking at touch from an evolutionary standpoint, most academics agree that tactile communication in life’s early stages establishes an attachment bond between infant and caregiver that if missing, can have detrimental effects on the child. Even in adulthood, withholding touch is often perceived negatively and imply annoyance or dislike. Of course, as with all non-verbal communication, individual differences play a huge part.

  • Gestures

    Research conducted in 2008 (Arbib, Liebal & Pika) suggests that gestures played a key role in the emergence of speech in evolution. As humans began to communicate, they sought to find a universally understood language through hand movements. A study looking at TED talks found that the most popular speakers used nearly twice as many hand gestures as the less popular speakers. Often referred to as ‘talking with their hands’, people who do this are generally perceived as warm and agreeable, while those who are less animated come across as colder and less charismatic. To improve this, try showing the palm of your hands more while you speak. According to Pease & Pease (2006), it conveys that you’re trustworthy and non-threatening. Cross-cultural interpretations can have starkly different meanings. For example, the ‘peace’ sign has an aggressive meaning in Europe when flipped around with the palm facing inwards.

  • Posture

    Think about the first time you meet someone. As they walk towards you, you read the way they carry themselves for clues about their personality, attitude and well-being. In a 2012 study on introverts and extroverts, Guimond & Massrieh found that standing upright with a neutral head, spine and pelvis position was a stance far more common in extroverts. Most introverts, on the other hand, stood with slightly stooped shoulders and their pelvis tucked under. It’s possible that evolution has made us this way; with the strong posture of confident people being necessary for ‘fight or flight’. Going a step further, researchers at Columbia and Harvard Universities looked at the link between posture, power and decision-making. They measured participants’ appetite for risk when stood in either expansive poses or hunched poses. Not only did the powerful stance make people 45 per cent more likely to take a risk, but it also affected them biologically, decreasing cortisol (stress hormone) and increasing testosterone. These two hormones have been consistently linked to strong leadership – who knew the way you stand could have such an impact?

  • Physicality

    Interviewers often use a person’s physicality to look for undesirable traits in candidates. Folded arms and crossed legs can be a sign of a closed-off or resistant individual, while overconfidence is conveyed by sitting with legs exaggeratedly apart and leaning back in the chair. Foot and leg position have been shown as one of the sincerest indicators of our feelings. As Beattie (2009) explains, standing with feet pointing outside of a group conversation may be an indication of seeking an escape. Beattie also noted how people subconsciously angle their feet to face the person who has captured their interest. Mirroring another is a further indication of having made some kind of connection. Being aware of how people interpret these subtle actions is handy when trying to make a good impression. Turning your feet and body towards the person you need to impress can make a significant difference, without you – or them – even realising.

  • Eyes

    The saying goes that the eyes are the window to the soul, a phrase befitting of research by Iwasaki & Noguchi (2016). According to them, inconsistencies between what we say and mean are revealed by our eyes. Miniscule changes in eye shape (eg squinting or widening) and gaze direction are largely involuntary, yet are a giveaway to our true feelings about a situation. We’ve all experienced someone giving us a smile that doesn’t quite reach their eyes, suggesting their expression is not genuine. Eye contact too can expose us. It’s a key part of forming social ties and about striking the perfect balance. Too much eye can make the recipient feel uncomfortable, while too little can imply boredom or deception. Mutual likeability and a sense of connection is said to come from maintaining between 30–60 per cent visual contact during a conversation, and we often warm to people who get it just right. Eye contact is believed to have been imperative in evolution. Infants instinctively seek to visually connect with their caregivers in a form of communication and bonding that ensures they’re fed and protected (Farroni et al, 2002). Even as an adult, wide eyes and raised eyebrows are a natural response to claiming your innocence in a less-than-desirable situation.

  • Facial expression

    Of the many types of non-verbal communication, facial expressions are the most universal, with happiness, sadness, anger, fear and surprise expressed in largely the same ways across the world. These visual signals are often considered the easiest to interpret, yet the hardest to mask. Support for this comes from Porter et al’s (2012) research demonstrating that the more intensely emotive the response, the less we can disguise it. It’s what they call ‘emotional leakage’. Even more difficult to hide are ‘micro-expressions’. They’re said to be a sign of repressing or concealing an emotion, and are almost undetectable without the use of cameras and computers. While most facial expressions last between one and four seconds, these fleeting micro-expressions last just a fraction of a second. You may hear someone say they can ‘read’ a person that they know very well, but perhaps it’s simply that they’re so familiar with that individual’s face, that they can detect even the subtlest of micro-expressions.