Gestures and Other Nonverbal Communication

The human communication system is not limited to language alone. Nonverbal communication is a very important part of human interaction that is so natural it is often overlooked altogether when discussing communication. Facial expressions and hand gestures are a couple of the more obvious forms of nonverbal communication, but posture, stance, eye contact, and even use of space are often used to convey messages. Experts suggest that nonverbal signals make up a huge portion of human communication. Some nonverbal signals can convey meaning on their own, such as a nod of the head to indicate a “yes” response. Other signals — such a smile, wink, or hand movement — can help emphasize spoken words.

While you may think that the gestures you use are universal, many aren't, so be cautious when using gestures in foreign countries. For example, former president George Bush flashed what he considered to be the peace sign in Britain, though there the gesture was an obscene one, akin to the “middle finger” here in the States.

Nonverbal communication adds a flavor to everyday communication that just can't be matched in any other way. Consider facial expressions. If you were to approach someone who is smiling broadly as she says hello, you would interpret this as a sign that you are a welcome sight to the person. However, if you were to approach someone and he said hello but had a let-down or annoyed look on his face, you would interpret this as a sign that you are not a person he is particularly happy to see, even though he welcomed you with “hello.”

You use nonverbal communication every day. You nod your head to convey to another that you understand or the answer is yes. You allow others their personal space to convey that you are not a threat. You make eye contact with a speaker to show that you are listening to what is being said. You wave hello and goodbye. The list could go on and on.

Pay attention to your use of nonverbal communication and gestures for just one day and you will soon understand how important it is to human interaction and the conveying of messages. If you want to improve your own ability to understand nonverbal behaviors, start by looking carefully at the signals presented by the people you encounter every day. Watch for gestures that don't seem to match up with what a person is saying, such as a friend with slumped shoulders and a somber expression saying that he is having a great day. However, always remember that nonverbal signals can sometimes be misread and don't be afraid to ask questions if you're not quite sure what type of message someone is trying to send out.

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