Adam Blatner, M.D.

(Revised June 29, 2009)

(* In Part 2 I'll talk about how people can learn to become more sensitive to this dimension of human experience.)

 Psychotherapists, group leaders in management training, patients themselves, and people in personal growth programs all can benefit from learning about the nature and impact of nonverbal communications. This paper will review the major categories of this dimension of interpersonal behavior.

 The major categories of nonverbal communications include the following (and will be discussed in greater detail further):

personal space
eye contact
physiologic responses

The Significance of Nonverbal Communications

Stated briefly, how something is expressed may carry more significance and weight than what is said, the words themselves. Accompanied by a smile or a frown, said with a loud, scolding voice or a gentle, easy one, the contents of our communications are framed by our holistic perceptions of their context. Those sending the messages may learn to understand themselves better as well as learning to exert some greater consciousness about their manner of speech. Those receiving the messages may learn to better understand their own intuitive responses–sometimes in contrast to what it seems "reasonable" to think.

Part of our culture involves an unspoken rule that people should ignore these nonverbal elements– as if the injunction were, "hear what I say, and don't notice the way I say it." These elements are often ignored in school or overridden by parents, so the task of incorporating conscious sensitivity to nonverbal communications is made more difficult.

Of course the early therapists attended to such cues, but little was written about ways to really bring such elements into sharper awareness until the work of pioneers such as Reich, Moreno, and  Perls. Even today many clinical training programs give short shrift to the task of really acquainting their students with the nuances of this vital dimension. (I speculate that this is because it is a very revealing study, and teachers need to feel remarkably secure in their own persona, that way they come across to others.)

Internal Cues

Nonverbal communication occurs not only between people, but also internally. People grimace, stand in certain postures, and in other ways behave so as to reinforce to themselves certain positions, attitudes, and implicit beliefs. Unconsciously, they suggest to themselves the role they choose to play, submissive or dominant, trusting or wary, controlled or spontaneous. Thus, a therapist can use nonverbal behavior to diagnose intrapsychic as well as interpersonal dynamics, and individuals can be helped to become aware of their own bodily reactions as clues to their developing greater insight.

Learning by Doing

People and especially, people who work with or help other people–managers, teachers, etc.--would do well to read about nonverbal communications. (It will also help to read Part 2, about how to use experiential exercises to actually get the feel of a wide range of behaviors. This adds a deeper level of understanding to mere intellectual knowledge.)

Categories of Nonverbal Communications

Personal Space: This category refers to the distance which people feel comfortable approaching others or having others approach them. People from certain countries, such as parts of Latin America or the Middle East often feel comfortable standing closer to each other, while persons of Northern European descent tend to prefer a relatively greater distance. Different distances are also intuitively assigned for situations involving intimate relations, ordinary personal relationships (e.g., friends), social relations (e.g., co-workers or salespeople), or in public places (e.g., in parks, restaurants, or on the street. (Keltner, 1970).

Eye Contact: This rich dimension speaks volumes. The Spanish woman in the Nineteenth Century combined eye language with the aid of a fan to say what was not permissible to express explicitly. Eye contact modifies the meaning of other nonverbal behaviors. For example, people on elevators or crowds can adjust their sense of personal space if they agree to limit eye contact. What happens if this convention isn't followed? (Scheflen, 1972.) This issue of eye contact is another important aspect of nonverbal communication.

Modern American business culture values a fair degree of eye contact in interpersonal relations, and looking away is sensed as avoidance or even deviousness. However, some cultures raise children to minimize eye contact, especially with authority figures, lest one be perceived as arrogant or "uppity." When cultures interact, this inhibition of gaze may be misinterpreted as "passive aggressive" or worse.

Position: The position one takes vis-a-vis the other(s), along with the previous two categories of distance between people and angle of eye contact all are subsumed under a more general category of "proxemics" in the writings on nonverbal communications (Scheflen, 1963).

Posture: A person's bodily stance communicates a rich variety of messages. Consider the following postures and the emotional effect they seem to suggest:

twisted (wary)
angled torso
legs spread
pelvis tilt
shoulders forward
general tightness
angle of head
jaw thrust
Paralanguage: "Non-lexical" vocal communications may be considered a type of nonverbal communication, in its broadest sense, as it can suggest many emotional nuances. This category includes a number of sub-categories:
 Inflection (rising, falling, flat...)
 Pacing (rapid, slow, measured, changing...)
 Intensity (loud, soft, breathy,... )
 Tone (nasal, operatic, growling, wheedling, whining...)
 Pitch (high, medium, low, changes...)
 Pauses (meaningful, disorganized, shy, hesitant...)

We should not underestimate the power of tone of voice. Another semi-linguistic element is dialect, and this can also be subtle and within the culture, suggesting class, age, sophistication, etc. How a person uses the language---too snooty, too low-class?---or regional dialect, all call up unconscious associations and possible prejudices. There's also the problem of understand-ability, which applies not only to people from other cultures or nations, but also inter-generationally. Some television programs have their characters speaking so rapidly and often softly that folks of an older generation can hardly hear or keep up---even with the volume turned up.

Facial Expression: The face is more highly developed as an organ of expression in humans than any other animal. Some of these become quite habitual, almost fixed into the chronic muscular structure of the face. For instance, in some parts of the South, the regional pattern of holding the jaw tight creates a slight bulge in the temples due to an overgrowth or "hypertrophy" of those jaw muscles that arise in that area. This creates a characteristic appearance. The squint of people who live a lot in the sun is another example. More transient expressions often reveal feelings that a person is not intending to communicate or even aware of. Here are just a few to warm you up:

barely tolerant
sexually attracted
Gesture: There are many kinds of gestures:
clenching fist
shaking a finger
biting fingernails
tugging at hair
rubbing chin
smoothing hair
folding arms
raising eyebrows
pursing lips
narrowing eyes 
scratching head
 looking away
hands on hips
hands behind head
rubbing nose
sticking out tongue
tugging earlobe
 These, too, have many different meanings in different cultures, and what may be friendly in one country or region can be an insult in another (Morris et al, 1979, Maginnis, 1958).

Touch: How one person touches another communicates a great deal of information: Is a grip gentle or firm, and does one hold the other person on the back of the upper arm, on the shoulder, or in the middle of the back. Is the gesture a push or a tug? Is the touch closer to a pat, a rub, or a grabbing? People have different areas of personal intimacy, and this refers not only to the sexual dimension, but also the dimension of self control. Many adolescents are particularly sensitive to any touching that could be interpreted as patronizing or undue familiarity. Even the angle of one's holding another's hand might suggest a hurrying or coercive implicit attitude, or on the other hand, a respectful, gentle, permission-giving approach (Smith, Clance & Imes, 1998, Jones, 1994).

Locomotion: The style of physical movement in space also communicates a great deal, as well as affecting the feelings of the person doing the moving (Morris, 1977):

Pacing: This is the way an action is done.
       A related variable is the time it takes to react to a stimulus, called "latency of response." Some people seem to react to questions, interact in conversations, or are slower or faster "on the uptake" than others.

Adornment: Our communications are also affected by a variety of other variables, such as clothes, makeup, and accessories. These offer signals relating to context (e.g. formal vs. informal), status, and individuality. The ways people carry cigarettes, pipes, canes, or relate to their belts, suspenders, or glasses also suggests different semiotic meanings. (Semiotics is the science of the emotional or psychological impact of signs, appearances–not words–that's "semantics"-- but of how things look.)
Context: While this category is not actually a mode of nonverbal communication, the setting up of a room or how one places oneself in that room is a powerfully suggestive action. Where one sits in the group is often useful in diagnosing that person's attitude toward the situation. Group leaders or psychodrama directors need to be especially alert to the way the group room is organized. Consider the following variables and imagine how they might affect the interaction:
 - amount and source of light
 - color of the lighting
 - obvious props, a podium, blackboard
 - the size of the room
 - colors of the walls, floor, furniture
 - seating arrangements
 - number of people present
 - environmental sounds, smells, and temperature
 - the numbers and ratios of high-status and low status people
 - the positioning of the various people in the space,
     who sits next to whom, who sits apart, who sits close, etc.

Physiological Responses: This, too, is an exceptional category, because it cannot be practiced voluntarily. Still, it's useful for therapists and group members to become more aware of these subtle signs of emotion. It often helps to comment on these observations, as it implicitly gives permission to the person experiencing the emotion to more fully open to that feeling; or, sometimes, to more actively suppress it. Either way, the existence of that signal is made explicit in the group process. Some of the clues to physiological processes include:

flaring of nostrils
trembling chin
cold clammy skin
moisture in eyes
breathing heavily
While a few of these behaviors can be mimicked, for the most part these reactions happen involuntarily. The only exercise is to watch for these reactions in oneself or others, at least mentally note their occurrence, and consider what the meaning of that emotional reaction might be.

Modifying Communication Patterns

 It's important to realize that these are just habits, culturally and personally learned behaviors that can be un-learned and new ones learned in their stead. Role playing or psychodrama can be an adjunct to this kind of re-education, in a process of personal development for people who are essentially pretty healthy, as well as part of psychotherapy. Assertion training for the timid and anger management for the more explosive are two sets of re-training programs that could make great use of attention given to nonverbal styles of self-expression, internal cueing, and communications.

This role training may be a source of insight as well as merely behavioral re-conditioning. The enactments of nonverbal behaviors may be associated with scenes in which these behaviors occur and where there were first learned. Such enactments can help people connect their behaviors with underlying attitudes, such as expectations of others, fantasies that criticism will be catastrophically destructive, or a forlorn hope of magical rescue. And then re-playing these scenes with various alternative elements may help re-align those underlying attitudes.


People react to the unspoken, as much (if not more) to how something is said as to what are the explicit meaning of the words. Misunderstandings can often be clarified if the people involved have the ability to notice and comment on the nonverbal communications in an interaction. People will benefit from learning the range of nonverbal behaviors in order to clarify the often subtle dynamics of the situations they find themselves in. For example, in a marriage, sometimes the other person gets irritated by some mysterious event: Exploring what was the problem may lead to an awareness that the way something was said communicated an unintended meaning!  By making the nonverbal communication more clear, misunderstandings can be resolved.

The field of nonverbal communications has grown rapidly over the last few decades, and it has applications in business, media, international relations, education, and indeed any field which significantly involves interpersonal and group dynamics. Certainly there is a need for more psychological mindedness in all these realms.

In Part 2 of this Topic, on another webpage, I discuss how techniques of experiential education can help to learn about this dimension and how to become more sensitive to these dynamics.


(Including general books or papers on the subject not mentioned in the paper)

Blatner, A. (1985). Becoming aware of nonverbal communication. In A. Blatner, Role development: A systematic approach to building basic skills. San Marcos, TX: Author. (Now out of print.)

Burgoon, J.K., Buller, D. B., & Woodall, W.G. (1994). Nonverbal communication: the unspoken dialogue. Columbus, OH: Greyden Press.

Collett, P. (2003).  The book of tells: from the bedroom to the boardroom---how to read other people. Ontario: HarperCollins, Lte.

Fast, J. (1971). Body language. New York: Pocket Books.

Givens, D. B. (1998-2008). The nonverbal dictionary of gestures, signs, & body language cues. Retrieved 6/29/09 from Spokane Center for Nonverbal Studies Webs site: http://center-for-nonverbal-studies.org/6101.html

Hickson III, Mark L. & Stacks, Don W. (1985). Nonverbal communication: Studies and applications. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.

Jones, Stanley E. (1994). The right touch: Understanding and using the language of physical contact. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press

Karpf, Anne. (2006). The human voice: how this extraordinary instrument reveals essential clues about who we are. New York & London: Bloomsbury.

Keltner, J.W. (1970). The eloquence of action: Nonverbal communication. In J.W. Keltner, Interpersonal Speech-Communication. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Knapp, M.L., & Hall, J. A.  (2002)1980). Nonverbal communication in human interaction (5th ed.).  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. (Excellent review and  contains extensive references.)

Maginnis, M. (1958). Gesture and status. Group Psychotherapy, 11(1), 105-109.

Morris, D. (1977). Manwatching: A field guide to human behavior. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Morris, D., Collett, P., Marsh, P., & O'Shaughnessy, M. (1979). Gestures: Their origins and distribution. New York: Stein & Kay.

Navarro, J. (2008). What every BODY is saying: an ex-FBI agent's guide to speed-reading people.  New York: Collins / HarperCollins.

Scheflen, A .E. (1963). Communication and regulation in psychotherapy. Psychiatry, 26(2), 126-136.

Scheflen, A.E. (1972). Body language and the social order. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Smith, E. W. L., Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (Eds.). (1998). Touch in psychotherapy: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Guilford.

Spiegel, J.P. (Sept. 1967). Classification of body messages. Archives of General Psychiatry, 17, 298-305.

Wainwright, C. J. (1980).  A framework for the observation of movements and sounds. Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama & Sociometry, 33, 6-24.

For responses, email me at ablatner@aol.com

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