Nonverbal communication is one of the many interesting topics studied by social psychology. Social psychologists view it as an essential element of social perception. This node will look at some of the elements that make up nonverbal communication, and some of the findings social psychologists have made about this form of nonverbal behaviour.

Nonverbal communication can be defined as “the way in which people communicate, intentionally or unintentionally, without words.” (Aronson et al). The so-called basic channels of nonverbal communication are facial expressions, eye contact, body movements, posture and touching.

Facial expressions

The face can be used very successfully to display six basic emotions: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust. When photographs are taken of people showing these expressions in their faces, experiments have shown that the emotions represented by those expressions can be easily identified by Westerners. Further research has shown that these expressions appear to apply similarly to many different cultures around the world, and the emotions can be as easily identified by individuals from those cultures. Display rules in certain cultures may mean that individuals are inhibited from showing these emotions in facial expressions, however.

Some psychologists have suggested that other emotions such as contempt can be similarly universally understood, and others have shown that when one adopts a certain facial expression, it leads to that emotion being felt. For example, if one smiles, one feels a certain superficial happiness.

Eye contact

Eye contact is another important facet of nonverbal communication. A high level of gazing from another is a sign of friendliness, while avoiding one’s gaze may make someone appear shy or unfriendly. In contrast, a full-blown stare is often seen as a sign of outright hostility.

Body language

Individuals adopt different postures and make different movements and gestures according to their emotional states – this is known as body language. This has led ballet dancers to adopt more angular postures when playing dangerous or threatening roles such as Macbeth, while adopting more rounded postures for warmer characters such as Romeo or Juliet. Some body movements, known as emblems, carry specific meanings in certain cultures. A “thumbs-up” gesture means “OK” in Europe and America, but it should be noted that it may have other meanings in other parts of the world.


Touch is a very intimate nonverbal cue, and can indicate affection, sexual interest, dominance, caring, or aggression. Studies of waiters and waitresses who touched customers when giving them their change showed that their tips increased.

Emotional expressiveness

Individuals show different levels of emotional expressiveness, and studies have shown that expressive people may be more likely to be leaders or successful in sales careers.

Nonverbal cues and lying

Nonverbal cues can be useful in detecting lies in social interactions. Rapid facial expressions known as microexpressions are indicators of lying, as are interchannel discrepancies where some body movements cover up the lie, but others give it away. The pitch of the voice may rise, and fluency of speech may decrease. Eye contact may also give away the deception.

This completes my basic introduction to nonverbal communication, which has many implications for any study of social interactions and behaviour, and is also hopefully of general interest.

Social Psychology, Aronson, Wilson and Akert, Prentice Hall International, 2002
Exploring Social Psychology, Baron, Byrne and Johnson, published by Allyn and Bacon, 1998