10 Types of Nonverbal Communication

Robert Lyons
Robert Lyon

8 min read

10 Types of Nonverbal Communication

10 Types of Nonverbal Communication

Have you ever been told to stand up straight or look people in the eye so that they’ll take you seriously? Have you maybe seen someone let out a sigh and hang their head after hearing some news? 

All of these nonverbal cues express something that a person either consciously wishes to convey or subconsciously conveys without even being aware of it. 

We often tend to think of non-verbal communication simply as body language. Am I slouching? Am I crossing my arms? Certainly, body language is a huge part of nonverbal communication. However, it actually goes much further. We’re constantly giving non-verbal cues with gestures, personal space, what we’re wearing, and where we’re focusing our eye line. 

Knowing how to decipher and improve your own nonverbal communication can be a huge boost for your career.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is, in essence, communication without the use of words. 

We convey information through our body language, gestures, facial expressions, and even tone of voice. We continuously give physical cues that reveal our emotional state in any given circumstance.

These nonverbal cues can be either conscious, subconscious, or at times even both. Conscious actions that intentionaly communicate an idea might include handshakes, head movements, or leaning in. 

Nervous twitches, toe-tapping, and sideways glances are all subconscious reveals that betray emotional states unintentionally. 

Let's take a closer look at a few examples of nonverbal communication.

10 Types of nonverbal communication

1. Body language

Body language is how we send nonverbal signals with physical gestures and movements. It is the subtle way someone positions - and re-positions - their body in a given situation. Have you ever observed someone crossing or uncrossing their arms during a conversation? Twisting their body away from the person speaking? Shifting their wieght? Or putting their hands in their pockets? What did that tell you about that person’s emotional state? This little movements immediately communicate whether someone is engaged or distracted, feeling nervous or comfortable.

However, this type of nonverbal communication is complex and multi-faceted. There is an entire industry dedicated to understanding, interpreting, and mastering body language. The movements can be quite subtle and occur both consciously and subconsciously. 

Beyond that, discernment of body language can be somewhat controversial. For example, for many years postures such as arm-crossing and leg-crossing have been over-interpreted as defensive. More recent research shows these are more likely based on subconscious mirroring behaviors.

2. Posture

Posture is a specific aspect of body language. Are you sitting up in your chair or standing tall? Are you leaning back relaxed or hunched over? Your posture conveys your comfort level, attitude, and feeling towards a circumstance or conversation. Even on a subconscious level, your posture will also be interpreted as an expression of your demeanor and engagement.

3. Proxemics

The term proxemics comes from proximity. Even the physical distance between two people is a form of nonverbal communication. We humans are very aware of our personal space. So establishing that space or infringing upon it communicates a great deal about the dynamics and relationship between two people. When someone sits extremely close to you it could be cozy or disrespectful. If they intentionally move away, it could be out of respect or disgust. When someone leans over you, it could be threating or flirtatious. It all depends.

4. Kinesics

Also called body movements, kinesics are deliberate physical gestures. These can be hand signals, like a thumbs-up, waving, clapping, pointing, and even high-fiving. Head movements, like nodding yes or no, cocking the head to the side in disbelief, bowing in reverence, or throwing the head back in frustration or celebration are all kinesics. It also includes larger actions, such as standing up or sitting down at specific times to indicate an intention, saluting out of respect or irony, fixing your hair as a flirtation, and stretching to express boredom.

The interpretation of kinesic gestures can also rely heavily on culturally-specific context. For example, in some places, glancing at your watch simply suggests, “I’m running late.” In others, it’s considered incredibly rude. In some places, it might be acceptable to not stand when an authority figure enters the room. In other places, it could be an unacceptable faux pas.

5. Haptics 

Communicating through touch is called haptics. Touch almost always evokes an emotion. It is a powerful interaction between two people. But that touch may have different meanings, depending on the dynamics. A hand on the shoulder or on the arm have different meanings if it’s between family members or between a supervisor and a subordinate. All touch carries some kind of meaning: a hug, a handshake, a poke in the chest, a pat on the back. Touch can express dominance, affection, empathy, and other emotions. 

Our response to touch is often governed by upbringing, background, and gender. Research shows that women generally use touch to convey care and concern, while men are more likely to use touch to assert power or control. Touch is also often used to communicate status.High-status individuals tend to invade other people's personal space with greater frequency and intensity than lower-status individuals. 

6. Eye Gaze 

Eye contact is one of the primary ways we express emotion, interest, and intent. As the “windows to our soul”, our eyes give away how we feel. When a person looks around the room,  that suggests unease, disinterest, or even dishonesty. Maintaining eye contact usually shows confidence and comfort. Rightly or wrongly, we often associate fixed eye contact with honesty. Eyes can also reveal our emotions we’re trying to conceal. Fear leads to dialted pupils, excitement leads to rapid blinking. Glaring eyes can denote hostility and wide eyes can mean attraction, surprise, or hope.

7. Paralanguage 

Paralanguage concerns vocal qualities of speech. Para means “related to”.  Paralinguistic signals are “related to” speech, but refer to aspects of the voice beyond the actual words being spoken and their meaning. The pitch or even the “tone of voice” in which words are spoken are elements of paralanguage. As the saying goes, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Consider how just adjusting your tone, changes the the meaning of your words. Have you ever heard someone say, “It’s ok,” but they sounded sad or angry? In other words, it was definitely not “ok.” That’s paralanguage.

8. Facial expressions

Facial expressions are multi-faceted and complex constructions. Hundreds of muscles working subconsciously creating micro-expressions that reveal precisely what we’re feeling whether we want them to or not. This is what makes facial expressions one of the clearest indicators of our true demeanor. A frown, a smile, a furrowed brow, raised eyebrows, lips parting, pursed lips - all of these can be hard to conciously control. Therefore, they can reveal what we’re really feeling in spite of our best efforts to hide them. 

By and large, most emotions are universal experiences and also have universal facial indicators. Whole fields of science are dedicated to studying the ways in which our faces express happiness, sadness, anger, deceit, envy, or surprise. They are a powerful form of nonverbal communication. Understanding that the look on your face is the first thing most people will see, it’s important to be aware of what you’re expressing. 

9. Physiology 

Physiology refers to changes in the body like sweating, blinking rapidly, heavy breathing, or a dry mouth. These are nearly impossible to control intentionally.

10. Appearance

Your appearance is, well, how you look. It’s clearly something people notice immediately. Your hair and clothing choices - rightly or wrongly - all garner snap judgments. 

As a form of nonverbal communication, appearance is one that we can have more control over than other forms. Obviously, some aspects of our appearance we can’t control. But what we wear and how we present ourselves is, generally speaking, choices that we make. Research has even shown that different clothing colors can evoke different moods. That’s why experts suggest that job seekers and employees looking for a promotion dress carefully and intentionally for interviews and at work. 

The bottom line

Nonverbal communication figures strongly into our daily lives. Nonverbal communication happens whether we want it to or not. Developing an awareness for nonverbal cues goes a long way towards understanding what the person across from you is actually feeling.

At the same time, having more control over the nonverbal cues we’re sending can help us to better define how we come across to others. Not all nonverbal communication can be controlled, but some can absolutely be studied and optimized. Either way, understanding it’s key aspects is a first step in gaining control over the conscious elements and learning how to mitigate the subconscious ones. 

If you’re looking for more tips to advance in your career, check out our career advice blog at ZipJob.com.

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Robert Lyons

Written by

Robert Lyons, Freelance Writer

As a freelance writer, Robert has covered technology, travel, arts, the entertainment industry, and career development. Originally from the Midwest, he has lived in L.A. and Berlin but now is based in New York.

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