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  • Writer's pictureAndy Murphy

The Importance of Nonverbal Communication

What you say is just as important as how you say it

Humans have two main ways they communicate, verbally and nonverbally. Some stats suggest that nonverbal communication makes up 60% to 90% of how humans communicate with one another.

What is Nonverbal Communication?

A simple definition of nonverbal communication is how we communicate without words. Now that is a very uncomplicated definition for a sophisticated part of human dynamics and communication.

In reality, nonverbal communication is a whole host of cues that show the emotional state that complements or contradicts our verbal messages.

The good news is that most of us know the basics of nonverbal communication. We’ve seen this stuff our entire lives and we have lots of experience to back up what we feel when someone communicates with us.

But what we may lack is a full understanding of why things are being said the way they are and how to articulate what we perceive.

Domains of Nonverbal Communication

The first domain you’ve heard me discuss before, and that is kinesics. Simply put kinesics is body movements. This includes hand gestures, head nods, tapping our feet, pointing, and the list goes on.

I’m all Hands

There are good hand gestures and there are bad hand gestures. A good one for us in America is a thumbs up. We know that to mean “all good”, “you’re right”, or “affirmative”.

A bad hand gesture is flipping someone the bird. We all know this one. It means many things I can’t say on the show, but the gist is “I don’t like you or what you just did.”

In NASCAR since the drivers can talk to each other, they use hand gestures to communicate with other drivers. A thumbs-up is good, while the bird is bad. This solves, and sometimes creates, problems on the track. But this is how they communicate without a radio to other drivers.

Hand gestures are so important to our communication that we even have emojis that communicate what our hands are saying. Instead of texting back to my wife that we’re having tacos for dinner, I simply press and hold and then tap the thumbs up icon to let her know I agree. Hand gestures are essential to sharing our thoughts. A solid understanding of kinesics is key to nonverbal communication.

But not all hand gestures mean the same thing to everyone. In America, we pose for pictures and we throw up a peace sign because we don’t know what to do with our hands. In about a dozen other countries including Canada and the UK that is an offensive gesture. So context plays a big role in nonverbal communication.

Long-Distance Communication

I like proxemics because I don’t think people fully appreciate how this can really define someone’s intention or their social status. It’s very undervalued.

Proxemics is the physical distance between people and objects and how that relates to their status.

The closer you are to someone, the more comfortable you feel about that person. So the opposite is true. The further away you are the less comfortable you feel about that person.

A quick example is two people sitting on a bench at the airport. People who know each other will sit closer and lean in toward each other. Strangers will sit far apart giving lots of room to each other and face outward to maximize that space.

There are several types of space that we all have that can tell us how people relate to each other.

The furthest is public space. This is well out of arm’s reach where there’s no way you can touch someone. This is about 25 feet. The next step closer is social space. This is where you might stand when you address a co-worker in the break room. This is about 4 feet.

Further in is personal space. This is the space you share on the couch with your kids that is close to you but not touching you. So this is around 1 to one and a half feet away from you.

The last, closest space is intimate space. This is breathing on you or touching you. When you hug or kiss someone, this is the intimate space that you are giving to that person. You trust that person so much you are willing to let them have that intimate space.

But proxemics is also situational. Once my wife and I had a small disagreement over something while waiting at our pediatrician's office with our son.

As we sat waiting in two chairs close to each other, I noticed that we were sitting close in personal space, but we were leaning away from each other trying to maximize that personal space.

We communicated that we love and trust each other, but because of our minor disagreement, we wanted more space than normal. So proxemics just like everything with nonverbal communication is situational and the details matter.

Of course, you can be in a line of work like dentistry where you have to be in someone's intimate space. I’d say the mouth is an intimate space for sure. While a dentist's job requires close proximity to work, it does not equal familiarity or a personal relationship. Details, remember?

The Honest Reaction

Biometrics and biometric cues are those uncontrollable, automatic responses that happen due to a stimulus. These are caused by changes in emotion. Unless we are stone-cold psychopaths, we can’t control our biometric responses.

A great example is when we see a kid light up and run to a parent who has just come home from a long deployment. That upward shift in the eyebrows, the genuine smile, the quick draw of breath, and then running to that person all tell us they experienced a sudden positive change in emotion about a person.

Plus, the child closes the proxemic distance to that parent from public to intimate space. Without saying anything we know that child is elated to see that parent.

Likewise, when a parent comes to their kids and asks them both who took the last cookie, those kids will experience a shift in emotion. The kid that starts to shuffle their feet, break eye contact, and start to sweat. That’s the kid that took the last cookie.

His brain is preparing himself to run and avoid the punishment that might follow. While he said nothing, his body confessed to taking that last cookie. So biometric responses are generally honest. That is not always the case, but when surprised the body can’t lie faster than it can respond honestly.

Honey, What did you do?

As we wrap up let’s bring this all together in a classic example from every sitcom ever. You know the story, the husband wants to buy a motorcycle and he asks his wife if she’s okay with him getting one.

She has a long pause, crosses her arms, taps her foot, looks around, shifts her body away from him, frowns, lets out a big sigh, and says, “fine”. Now let’s ask ourselves, is the wife in this show really 100% on board with her husband’s request? Nope, not at all.

One thing I picked up on from my training with Arcadia Cognerati is to look for incongruent signals and messages from people. In this scenario, the wife’s nonverbal communication does not match her verbal response. That means there is a conflict and further investigation is needed.

Contextual Relevance

Let’s keep in mind with all nonverbal communication that context is key. Gestures, distance, and reactions are different based on the situation. If someone flips me the bird in traffic, I know they don’t like my driving decision. If one of my friends flips me the bird, then it means I just landed a good insult and I should not be offended. I encourage you to think about what you’re seeing and how it pertains to the greater context of your situation.

But now that you are armed with a few tools, go and watch people at the mall or the grocery store. See if you can spot people who are familiar with each other. Who is in a positive mood and who might be up to something. Look for incongruent messages from those around you. It’s fun times.


Andy Murphy

Andy Murphy founded The Secure Dad in 2016 with the aspiration to help families live safer, happier lives. What started as a personal blog about family safety has turned into an award-winning podcast, an Amazon best-selling book, and online courses. He focuses his efforts in the areas of home security, situational awareness, and online safety.


Andy is a husband and father. His interests include coaching youth basketball, hiking, and trying to figure out his 3D printer.

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