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Non-Verbal Behavior


Explanations > Theories > Non-Verbal Behavior

Description | ResearchExample | So What? | See also | References 



The communication without words. The face is used a great deal. Hand signals, shrugs, head movements, etc. also are used. It is often subconscious. It can be used for:

  • Expressing emotion (e.g. smiling to show happiness)
  • Conveying attitudes (e.g. staring to show aggression)
  • Demonstrating personality traits (e.g. open palms to show accepting qualities)
  • Supporting verbal communication

Non-verbal behavior also varies across cultures (such as the ‘ok’ finger O), although the six major emotions (anger, fear, disgust, sadness, happiness and surprise) are common across the world.

Non-verbal behavior is commonly called body language.


Mehrabian (1971) found that non-verbal aspects were a significant part of communication, particularly when mixed messages are sent.

Later studies  showed the situation to be more complex, with percentages varying with the situation or even with individual things being said. For example, if a person is not moving, then words and tone take far greater proportion. 


Try the difference between listening to someone with your eyes closed and listening/watching with your eyes open. It is much easier to understand when you are watching them.

So what?

Using it

Read the other person’s non-verbal behavior. Watch for changes in response to your communications. Also spot mixed messages for when the voice says one thing body says another—this can be a sign of attempted deception.

Beware of popular myths about body language (such as crossing arms signifying defensiveness). Many such anecdotes are at best dangerous  half-truths. Body language is most significant when they appear in clusters, at the same time as a significant event (such as being asked an embarrassing question) and when it is unlikely that the other person is trying to control their non-verbal behavior.

Watch your own body language too for signs of what your subconscious is thinking. Be careful when controlling it, as this can lead perceived mixed messages from you.


Watch your own and other’s non-verbal behavior. Use it to improve your understanding of what is going on, especially at the subconscious level. Make conscious decisions.

See also

Expectancy Violations Theory, Body language

Mehrabian's communication study


Argyle (1975), Darwin (1872), Morris (1978), Pease(1981), Burgoon, Buller and Woodall (1996, Mehrabian (1971)


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