What is nonverbal communication?
Nonverbal communication is a broad term used to describe the general act of relaying or transmitting information in ways other than verbal language. This can include things like our tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, gait, gestures, et cetera. Multiple nonverbal behaviors can occur simultaneously or separately, with or without speech, during an interaction or when we're alone. Nonverbal behaviors may occur spontaneously or intentionally, with or without our conscious awareness.
Dr. Ekman's research focused on nonverbal behaviors as they relate to our universal emotions and deception, specifically how they are displayed in our types of facial expressions and types of gestures.
What does nonverbal behavior reveal?
When interacting with one another, our nonverbal behavior(s) may or may not coordinate with what we are saying. In different cases, our nonverbal behaviors may have specific or generalized meanings, and may emphasize, contradict, aid in the interpretation of, or have little relation to our verbal statements.
Experts from fields spanning the visual arts to the social sciences have various notions about what they believe can be revealed in our nonverbal behavior. These notions range from providing qualifications about how a verbal message should be interpreted to a firm belief that this mode of communication reveals a more authentic—some say primitive—side of ourselves.
Recognizing the validity of both, Dr. Ekman's research focused on finding the middle ground: how emotions are revealed and concealed through our nonverbal behaviors, and distinguishing which aspects are culturally contextual, which are universal, and how both can interplay with our individual traits.
Why is nonverbal behavior important?
Nonverbal behavior is important because so much information is conveyed through unspoken means but is often overlooked or misunderstood both in ourselves and in others. Simply put, even though we are constantly using our faces and bodies to communicate, most of us are not acutely aware of all the expressions and movements we're making at any given moment.
Likewise, we frequently miss or purposefully disregard the nonverbal behaviors of others. Some of the reasons we tend to miss or misinterpret these signals include: social conditioning to focus greater attention on the spoken word, a lack of understanding and/or misinterpretation of a particular behavior based on cultural or individual differences, and distractions in the surrounding environment.
Dr. Ekman discovered how nonverbal behaviors can provide clues to conscious suppression or unconscious repression of our feelings. Therefore, becoming aware of what we and others are communicating through these nonverbal channels opens up greater understanding of both emotions and deception.
Is nonverbal communication universal?
While there are universal facial expressions of emotion, there are no specific body movement patterns that always signal a specific emotion or meaning. Unlike the seven universal emotions (enjoyment, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, contempt, and surprise), our "body language" lacks the power associated with universality.
Our interpretation of any nonverbal signals, therefore, always depends on context; taking into consideration not just our individual differences, but our cultural and societal differences, in addition to situational and environmental variables.
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