Managing Non-Verbal Communication in Business


The process of transmitting information and/or messages without the use of word or mouth is what is referred to as nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication encompasses the uses of body language, facial expression, gesture, eye contact and posture to relay information from the source to the receiver. The speech also involves nonverbal basics whereby the voice quality, speaking style and emotions expressed when speaking are put into consideration to determine the message that has been sent accompanied by the speech (The South Atlantic Quarterly 1993:47).

When studying nonverbal communication, scholars have opted to concentrate on the face-to-face interface. It has been classified into three primary areas that being; communicators’ behavior, the environmental condition and the physical qualities of the communicator.

Organizational communication is the communication that exists between people working together to attain a group or individual target. In an organization, there is the need for people to interact and this can only be achieved through communication. The organization’s existence is dependent on people who are capable of maintaining an effective and working relationship otherwise lack of such people will see the failure of the organization. Communication is basically a handy part of an organizational arrangement. The information channels are very useful in determining the structural design of an organization (The South Atlantic Quarterly 1993:59).

The first historical study was by Charles Darwin who believed that all mammals express their emotions through various facial expressions. In 1872, he wrote the book The Expression of Emotions in Men and Animals which explored the scientific evidence behind the facial expression of all mammals.


This is the nonverbal behavior of the movement of the body. The movement may involve a part of the body or the whole body. It is a source of great confusion because different cultures have different meanings to different body movements. Kinesics can be categorized into various categories that include affect displays, emblems, adapters, illustrators and regulators (The South Atlantic Quarterly 1993:60).

Affect displays are mostly facial movements that display mostly emotions. They are often not intended and their occurrence is less frequent. Fundamental affective displays are understood in most cultures of the world because their meanings are universal. It is a logical understanding that the lack of affect displays sums up to lack of emotions altogether. However, this is not necessarily true because there is a great difference between the cultures of the world to the extent to which emotions are displayed through the face. It depends on different cultures and different situations and cannot be assumed to be a standard measure of emotions variance (Ferraro 1990:59)

Kinesics also encompasses the use of emblems. These are messages that have a verbal meaning. An excellent example is the emblems used to show signs of victory with the raising of the middle finger and forefinger basically symbolizing V, which stands for victory. However different emblems used by different cultures may be insulting when put into the context of other cultures or convey very different messages that could be deemed as misleading (Xiangling & Koole 1998:192)

Kinesics also includes adaptors that are characterized by body movements that are almost unconscious. They are mainly applied when one seeks comfort or needs to fulfill other physical urges. Because of their low level of awareness, they are considered as the secrets of really understanding what the other party you are communicating with really feels about the communication. They do not necessarily convey particular meanings attached to different cultures. However, adaptors may be misunderstood across cultural boundaries because what can be done subconsciously may be offensive to other cultures. Most adaptors are easily misunderstood as emblems across cultural boundaries.

Another form of kinesics is the use of illustrators. Illustrators’ usage comes in illustrating what is being said. They are however limited in meaning across cultural boundaries (Xiangling & Koole 1998:200).

Another form of kinesics is the use of regulators in conversation. They are body signs that are useful in regulating speech flow, especially in a conversation. They are some of the most culturally determined forms of kinesics. Their meanings vary from many cultural backgrounds. They are mostly used as feedback when one wants to know if the other party has understood the message transmitted to him. They are very important to the information flow in an organization and could lead to serious consequences in international business.


Haptics are generally concerned about the touching characteristics of certain individuals. They are mostly used in greetings, arrivals and departures. Naturally, a lot of touching activities happen in our day-to-day activities especially during conversation. It is regarded differently by different cultures. Some cultures insist on physical contact when some are shy about physical contact. Physical contact may be normal to different cultures while other cultures may feel extremely uncomfortable when physical contact is involved in communication (Lennon & Eisenberg 1987:52).

It is mostly used to portray the different degrees of intimacy though at times it can be hostile like punching and kicking. It can be analyzed into the following degrees functional or professional, social or polite, friendship or warmth, love or intimacy and sexual arousal. The limit between particular levels of intimacy is often unclear even to a single culture. Across cultures different levels of physical contact may be interpreted differently by another culture like the level of friend or warmth in one culture may be interpreted into the level of love and intimacy in another culture. With the employment of different haptics standards are used, they may cause misinterpretation of what is projected and may also result in exasperation and extreme discomfort.

The handshake is the most globally recognized physical contact. It has variance in length and strength and degrees. It differs acutely across cultural boundaries (Gibson 2002: 50).

In organizational communication, haptics does play a very important role. This is especially true for international business because haptic behavior may elicit different understandings of different cultures.


This refers to the structural aspect of personal space. Distance from other persons involved in the same communication suggests the varied interpretations the message is undergoing to the other party. The distance between people may communicate greatly about love, hate, threatening situations and even intimacy. It is understood in most cultures that the space close to the bodies is set aside for people who are secure to us or are dear to us (Lennon & Eisenberg 1987:52).

Although proxemics is generally universal, different cultures express different acceptable distances to be entered by the other party. People may reserve different personal space for themselves according to what is generally accepted in their cultures.

In organizational communication, proxemics is significant for a variety of rationales. Distance between people speaks volumes of the intimacy and trust that exists within the organization (The South Atlantic Quarterly 1993:52).

Environmental and physical factors affecting non-verbal communication

The environmental factors that affect nonverbal communication can be classified into; visual factors, auditory factors and individuals factors.

Visual factors

These are the factors that are related to vision and interpretation of the non-verbal communication. One factor is the lighting that could include poor lighting. The lighting should be focused on the communicator. For the optimum understanding of the communication, the lighting system should be focused on the person transmitting the messages (Arthur, 1991:88).

There is also the factor of interfering objects that could be termed as distraction. It can also be called visual noise. This is whereby outside parties and objects that can be between the communicators distract the receiver’s interpretation.

The distance between the parties involved in a communication is also another factor that influences communication. The involved parties should have a reasonable distance between themselves so as to avoid miscommunication. The transmitter should also not be covered for maximum perception of the intended message (Lehman, & Dufrene 2002:22).

Auditory factors

These are the factors that prevent the transmission of messages that need to be heard even if most of the communication includes nonverbal communication. One factor that limits the effectiveness of communication is noise. Noise can be produced by many factors including television, radio and other communicators trying to communicate at the same time (Birgit, 2000:97).

There should also exist a reasonable distance between the parties involved for effective communication between communicators. Cultural orientations towards physical closeness should be considered because in as much as the close distance is preferred, some people would feel uncomfortable or even irritated by close distance during communication (Geert 1997:114).

Individual Factors

Individual factors like health and fitness may very much affect the success or failure of a communication. It may undermine the capacity of one in concentrating and comprehending the messages that are transmitted. It may also affect the coherence of the sender of the message (The South Atlantic Quarterly 1993:47).

Personal attitude and prejudices could also play a part in the effective communication and varying degrees of success and failure. Some people may feel that the one they are communicating with are of low status and hence affect the success of the communication between the two people.


Paralinguistics is the study of how nonverbal essentials of communication are utilized in the transmission of meaning and sentiments. Paralanguage is the use of nonverbal elements of communication to adjust meaning either intentionally or involuntarily. The term paralanguage is sometimes tied to body language but not in the real sense of language.

Anybody who has a language that he communicates with knows the meaning of the words that he uses when communicating. But how the words are said also play a very important role in the transmission of the message. The expression used is also important because it modifies emotions and also may be used to convey another meaning of the word, like in irony and satire. This is the basic concept of paralinguistics (Judith 2003:87).

The paralinguistic aspect of language plays a very important part in our communication. This is because words used in communication need to have a voice, which can be analyzed to convey meaning. Without the paralinguistic aspect language would not help in communication. Every communication must have a certain degree of paralanguage. All utterances and speeches have an aspect of paralinguistic.

Nonverbal communication and culture

Nonverbal communication, many people may argue, is bound overly by culture. However, there are many aspects of nonverbal communication that are universal. Many facial expressions almost agree over a large diversification of cultures. However, the limit of facial expression as an indication of various emotions is culturally bound. This means that although people of various cultures may tend to agree that a certain facial expression indicates a certain feeling or emotion, they may not agree on the importance attributed to that particular facial expression.

Since facial expressions are supposed to elicit some reaction and interpretation, and we have said that the importance attributed to various facial expressions vary over cultural boundaries, then it would naturally follow that different facial expressions also elicit different reactions and interpretation in various cultural boundaries. Different cultures have different reactions and interpretations to different nonverbal communication. But it also depends on cultural similarity, that is, different nationalities of European origin may understand each other’s nonverbal communication than an African would understand a European nonverbal communication (Judith 2002:88).

Gender also affects the nonverbal communication. Women have been noted to smile more frequently than men. Another case is that men will use different nonverbal communications when speaking to women and men. Age is another factor that affects the usage of nonverbal communication (Judith 2002:79).

Personal attitude and personality also affect the usage of nonverbal communication. However, these attitudes and personalities do not follow any range or cultural background and are limited to the individual.


The study has proved that communication is a necessary element of life and we cannot live without communication. Both verbal and nonverbal communications are an essential part of our livelihoods. They both play a great part in our interaction and so contribute immensely to our livelihoods.

Nonverbal communication is mostly culturally dependent and its recognition; interpretation and understanding vary from one cultural boundary to another. What may be good to one cultural community may be bad for another cultural community. What may be normal to other people may be offensive, irritating and annoying to other people (Firth 1996:241).

In organizational communication, nonverbal communication plays a great role in portraying the level of trust and intimacy we have on each other. An organization cannot exist without the people making up the organization being trustworthy to each other. They must also have a united goal they would want to achieve and this is mainly achieved through trust and friendship which are largely portrayed by nonverbal communication.

List of References

Abegg, Birgit, 2000, Communication for Business, Hueber, Ismaning, 91 – 101.

Arthur, D. 1991, Recruiting, Interviewing, Selecting & Orienting New Employees, AMACOM. 75 – 95.

Dwyer, Judith 2002, Communication in Business, 2nd edn, Pearson Education, Australia 66 – 93.

Dwyer, Judith 2003, The Business Communication Handbook, 6th edn, Pearson, Australian 77 – 100.

Ferraro, Gary P., 1990, The Cultural Dimension Of International Business, Pearson Prentice Hall 55 – 67.

Firth, Alan, 1996, The discursive accomplishment of normality: On ‘lingua franca’ English and conversation analysis. In Wagner, Johannes (Ed): Special issue of Journal of Pragmatics. Vol 26: 237-259.

Gibson, Robert,2002 Intercultural Business Communication, Cornelsen & Oxford, Berlin 45 – 120.

Hofstede, Geert, 1997, Cultures and Organizations, New York; McGraw, 100 – 125.

Lehman, C.M. & Dufrene D.D., 2002, Business Communication, 13th edn, Thomson Learning, U.S.A. 125 – 136.

Lennon, R. and N. Eisenberg, 1987, Gender and Age Differences in Empathy and Sympathy. Empathy and Its Development. Cambridge Studies in Social and Emotional Development. N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer. New York: Cambridge University Press 45 – 69.

Li, Xiangling & Tom Koole,1998, Cultural keywords in Chinese-Dutch business negotiations, in Susanne Niemeier, Charles Campbell & Ren Dirven (eds.) The cultural context in business communication, Amsterdam: Benjamins, 185- 213.

The South Atlantic Quarterly 1993, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Volume 92, number 4, 1993 45 – 52.

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