Different Types of Non-Verbal Communication

When we talk about communicating, we generally think of speech. However, communication can be carried out in many other ways. In this article, we examine the different types of non-verbal communication that exist.
Different Types of Non-Verbal Communication

Last update: 09 December, 2021

The first axiom of communication is that everything communicates (Watzlawick, 1993). In fact, with every one of your daily interactions with others, you convey a message. Even silence speaks. A look, a gesture, a body posture, movement, physical appearance, everything, absolutely everything, communicates.

You tend to communicate in two ways. Firstly, verbal – over which you have more control – and non-verbal – over which you have less control.

Non-verbal communication refers to the set of signs and non-linguistic sign systems that communicate or are used to communicate (Cestero and Penadés, 2017 ). On the one hand, this includes cultural habits and customs (cultural signs and systems), and on the other, the non-verbal communication system. Both elements have universal and particular properties of each language and culture.

Non-verbal communication has different functions. The purposes of these functions are to:

  • Emphasize non-verbal language. For this purpose, illustrators are used. Their function is to reinforce your message. Illustrations are usually carried out with your hands, although your eyebrows and upper eyelids also participate, for emphasis (Ekman, 2009).
  • Express feelings and emotions. You can communicate that you’re sad, happy, or distressed. For this, you mainly use your face.
  • Substitute a word. When you make a gesture with your thumb to express that something is right or wrong.
  • Guide the way in which the verbal message should be interpreted. Your message can be understood in one way or another according to the tone of voice you use, your expression, or the gestures you make.
  • Regulate communication. When you use gestures or facial expressions to regulate the verbal message that you’re transmitting.
Friends talking

The three types of non-verbal communication

For Patterson (2011), non-verbal communication is made up of two components. Firstly, the fixed characteristics that are related to design, the arrangement of space, and physical appearance. The fact that they’re described as being fixed doesn’t mean that they can’t change, but that at the exact moment of communication they don’t vary constantly, as the other component does.

Secondly, are the dynamic characteristics that result in “fluid exchange between people in different social settings” (Patterson, 2011). These include distance and orientation, looks, facial expression, posture, movement, body contact, vocal behaviors, and olfactory cues.

All these forms of non-verbal communication can be classified into three broad categories: paralinguistic, kinesia, and proxemic.

1. Paralinguistics

Paralinguistics studies the non-semantic aspects of language. They generally depend on the emotions and intentions of the issuer. Among these are:

Tone of voice

This is the degree of elevation of your voice. For example, it might be serious or high-pitched. It’s related to the feelings and the content of what you’re saying. High-pitched voice tones tend to be associated, depending on the context, with indecision or doubt. While a bass tone is linked to confidence.


This involves verbal fluency or the number of words you say per minute. If you speak very fast, this is described as shorthand. On the other hand, if you speak very slowly, it’s known as bradylalia. If you’re desperate or anxious you might speak very quickly, while when you’re calm and relaxed you tend to speak more slowly.

The volume

This refers to the intensity with which you speak. Low volume is related to shyness, sadness, or submission. On the other hand, a high volume conveys security, authority, and dominance.

The timbre

This is the spectrum or specific register of your voice. It allows you to recognize a person by their voice. It’s a singular characteristic of the voice of each person.

2. Kinesia

Kinesia is the study of what you express through body movements, gestures, and postures. In this form of communication, the following are included:

Facial expressions

These are the gestures that you transmit with your face. A smile is a type of facial expression. Some common types of smiles have been identified. For example, the tight-lipped smile, the twisted smile, the drop-jaw smile, and the sideways-looking-up smile (Allan & Barbara, 2006).

The looks

Through your eyes, you transmit a lot of information. For example, looking at a person for a long time can be a sign that you’re interested in them. On the other hand, it could also be a sign of hostility. It all depends on the context. If you lower your gaze, it may be an indicator of insecurity or that you don’t like what you’re seeing.

In the same way that eye movements convey your attitudes and feelings, they can also express your personality. Some people watch more than others. Those who are naturally more affectionate tend to stare a lot, as do individuals who have the greatest need for affection (Davis, 1998).

The posture

This is the position your body assumes when you’re walking, sitting, lying down, or standing. It tends to reflect your emotional state, especially if you’re tense. When you’re anxious or nervous, you tend to assume rigid postures or constantly move from one side to the other. The parts of the body that are analyzed the most are the arms, hands, and legs.

Man with folded hands, a type of non-verbal communication.

The gestures

Gesture is another form of non-verbal communication that communicates a certain message in place of or in conjunction with speech. With them, you can communicate your feelings of contempt, hostility, approval, affection, etc. They can also indicate your moments of cognitive instability and reflect your thinking that you’ve yet to put into words (Goldin-Meadow, 2014).

The most common gestures include waving, pointing, and using your fingers to indicate numerical quantities. Other common gestures are clasping your hands, rubbing your chin, ears, or eyes.

3. The proxemics

Proxemics refers to the space and distance that you assume when you communicate. In fact, everyone has a minimal living space that they protect. Sometimes, you feel your space is invaded when another person gets very close to you. The areas that mark the distance at which you allow a person to be are:

  • Intimate distance (up to 45 cm). This is the distance reserved for close friends and family.
  • Personal distance (45 cm – 120 cm). This, again, is reserved for familiar people. For example, colleagues from work or school, neighbors, etc. However, they’re not intimate encounters.
  • Social distance (120 cm – 360 cm). This is the distance you maintain from strangers as a way of protecting yourself.
  • Public distance (more than 360 cm). This is used for conferences, speeches, or public events.

The meaning of each of the types of non-verbal communication can’t be understood in isolation from context. Indeed, the meaning of a gesture can vary from one culture to another, and even from one situation to another. Nor can they be understood separately from other non-verbal and verbal indicators. Therefore, all interpretations must be made connected to the social and communicative context in which the non-verbal expressions appear.

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In most situations, nonverbal communication is a determining factor in what we say and how we say it. It's also the perfect companion for words.

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