6.5.0: Communication Competence

In this section, we will cover techniques for sending more effective nonverbal messages, address cultural and co-cultural nuances surrounding nonverbal symbols, and discuss the importance of nonverbal behaviors in our relationships.


6.5.1: Effective Communication: Encoding Nonverbal Signals

While it is important to recognize that we send nonverbal signals through multiple channels simultaneously, we can also increase our nonverbal communication competence by becoming more aware of how it operates in specific channels. Although no one can truly offer you a rulebook on how to effectively send every type of nonverbal signal, there are some guidelines you can follow to help you become more effective at consciously encoding nonverbal signals that are meant to be intentional.


• Remember that adaptors can hurt your credibility in more formal or serious interactions. Figure out what your common adaptors are and monitor them so you can avoid creating unfavorable impressions.

• Gestures send messages about your emotional state. Be aware that clenched hands may signal aggression or anger, nail biting or fidgeting may signal nervousness, and finger tapping may signal boredom.

Eye Contact:

• Eye contact is useful for initiating and regulating conversations. To make sure someone is available for interaction and to avoid being perceived as rude, it is usually a good idea to “catch their eye” before you start talking to them.

• Avoiding eye contact or shifting your eye contact from place to place can lead others to think you are being deceptive or inattentive.


Facial Expressions:

• You can use facial expressions to manage your expressions of emotions to intensify what you’re feeling, to diminish what you’re feeling, to cover up what you’re feeling, to express a different emotion than you’re feeling, or to simulate an emotion that you’re not feeling (Metts & Planlap, 2002).

• Smiles are especially powerful in interactions and can act as rapport-building tool. Smiles can also help to disarm a potentially hostile person or deescalate conflict.


• Remember that culture, status, gender, age, and setting influence how we send and interpret touch messages.

• In professional and social settings, it is generally OK to touch others on the arm or shoulder. Although we touch others on the arm or shoulder with our hand, it is often too intimate to touch your hand to another person’s hand in a professional or social/casual setting.



• Verbal fillers such as uh and um are often used subconsciously and can negatively affect your credibility and reduce the clarity of your message when speaking in more formal situations.

• Vocal variety increases listener and speaker engagement, understanding, information recall, and motivation. Having a more expressive voice that varies appropriately in terms of rate, pitch, and volume can help you achieve communication goals related to maintaining attention, effectively conveying information, and getting others to act in a particular way.

Spatial Use/Proxemics:

• When breaches of personal space occur, it is a social norm to make nonverbal adjustments such as lowering our level of immediacy, changing our body orientations, and using objects to separate ourselves from others. physically separate or block off the front of our bodies from others.

• Although pets and children are often granted more leeway to breach other people’s space, since they are still learning social norms and rules, as a pet owner, parent, or temporary caretaker, be aware of this possibility and try to prevent such breaches or correct them when they occur.


6.5.2: Contextual Communication: Cultural and Co-Cultural Nuances

Many people mistakenly believe that nonverbal communication, such as gestures, are universal. However, there can be many different meanings associated with a particular gesture. For example, take the thumbs up sign. In U.S. American it can mean ‘okay’ whereas in Japan it represents the number 5 and in Ghana is an insult. Even context changes the meaning, such as using the thumbs up sign for hitchhiking if by the road or to indicate you like something in mediated communication.

As with other aspects of communication, norms for nonverbal communication vary from country to country and from co-culture to co-culture within a particular country. We’ve already learned that some nonverbal communication behaviors appear to be somewhat innate because they are universally recognized. Smiling is a universal nonverbal behavior, however, the triggers that lead a person to smile vary from culture to culture. In addition, the smile may not always equate to happiness. The expansion of media, particularly from the United States and other Western countries around the world, is leading to more nonverbal similarities among cultures, but the biggest cultural differences in nonverbal communication occur within the categories of gestures, eye contact, touch, volume, personal space, and time (Pease & Pease, 2004).


If you’ll recall from our discussion on gestures, emblems are gestures that correspond to a word and an agreed-upon meaning. However, the meaning attached to emblems and gestures vary from culture to culture. For example, the “thumbs up” gesture can mean the number “one” in mainland Europe, but it also means “up yours” in Greece (when thrust forward) and is recognized as a signal for hitchhiking or “good,” “good job / way to go,” or “OK” in many other cultures. So using a particular gesture to communicate in another country might actually end up causing a conflict.

Eye Contact:

In the U.S., much importance is placed on making eye contact and it is often equated with confidence, interest, and honesty. Eye contact aversion, however, could be seen as a sign that the other person is being deceptive, is bored, or is being rude. However, in some cultures, avoiding eye contact is considered a sign of respect. Some Native American nations teach that people should avoid eye contact with elders, teachers, and other people with status. This can create issues when others view lack of eye contact as a sign of disrespect, lack of engagement, or lower intelligence.

Touch, Volume, and Spatial Use:

Contact cultures are cultural groups in which people stand closer together, engage in more eye contact, touch more frequently, and speak more loudly. The volume at which we speak is influenced by specific contexts and is more generally influenced by our culture. In European countries like France, England, Sweden, and Germany, it is not uncommon to find restaurants that have small tables very close together. In many cases, two people dining together may be sitting at a table that is actually touching the table of another pair of diners. Most U.S. Americans would consider this a violation of personal space, and Europeans often perceive U.S. Americans to be rude in such contexts because they do not control the volume of their conversations more. Since personal space is usually more plentiful in the U. S., Americans are used to speaking at a level that is considered loud to many cultures that are used to less personal space.


The United States and many northern and western European countries have a monochronic orientation to time, meaning time is seen as a commodity that can be budgeted, saved, spent, and wasted. Events are to be scheduled in advance and have set beginning and ending times. Countries like Spain and Mexico have a polychronic orientation to time. Appointments may be scheduled at overlapping times, making an “orderly” schedule impossible. People may also miss appointments or deadlines without offering an apology, which would be considered very rude by a person with a monochronic orientation to time. People from cultures with a monochronic orientation to time are frustrated when people from polychromic cultures cancel appointments or close businesses for family obligations. Conversely, people from polychromic cultures feel that US Americans, for example, follow their schedules at the expense of personal relationships (Martin & Nakayama, 2010).

On a global scale, we see many variations in nonverbal communication across cultures. However, even within one geographic location, there are also variations based on co-cultural factors such as race, gender, social class, etc. As an example of gender variation, it’s obvious that males and females tend to have differences in physical appearances in regards to dress, grooming, and artifacts. But even the ways males and females walk and sit can be vastly different. Males tend to take up much more space than females, particular in public spaces. The phenomenon of ‘manspreading’ on subways is one that has gained a lot of recent attention.

In addition to co-cultural nuances, nonverbal encoding and decoding of messages is further complicated by other contextual nuances such as the physical context and relational context.

For example, if you are in a bar, someone making prolonged eye contact could be interpreted as romantic interest. However, someone making prolonged eye contact in a prison could be a sign of aggression. The relationship between two people can also influence the interpretation. Consider the differences between making prolonged eye contact with your sibling versus a romantic partner. Always keep in mind that nonverbal communication is ambiguous and just as you must consider nonverbal congruence for the channels, you must also pay attention to contextual nuances as all these things work together to generate meaning. 


Cross-cultural Awareness Quiz: You can take a cross-cultural awareness quiz to learn some more interesting cultural variations in gestures at the following link: https://www.funtrivia.com/playquiz/quiz31230423c0d88.html .


6.5.3: Reflective Communication: Nonverbal Communication in Relationships

As we already discussed, nonverbal communication is important part of expressing identities. However, another central—if not primary—function of nonverbal communication is the establishment and maintenance of interpersonal relationships. As a competent communicator, it is important to reflect on nonverbal communication and recognize the role it plays in our various relationships. People who are skilled at consciously encoding nonverbal messages have various interpersonal advantages, including being more popular, having larger social networks consisting of both acquaintances and close friends, and being less likely to be lonely or socially anxious (Riggio, 1992). Nonverbal communication increases our expressivity, and people generally find attractive and want to pay more attention to things that are expressive. This increases our chances of initiating interpersonal relationships.

Nonverbal communication also helps maintain relationships once they have moved beyond the initial stages by helping us communicate emotions, and seek and provide social and emotional support. In terms of communicating emotions, competent communicators know when it is appropriate to express emotions and when more self-regulation is needed. Expressing the need for support is also an important part of relational maintenance. People who lack nonverbal encoding skills may send unclear or subtle cues requesting support that are not picked up on by others, which can lead to increased feelings of loneliness. Skilled encoders of nonverbal messages, on the other hand, are able to appropriately communicate the need for support in recognizable ways.


Decoding Nonverbal Messages:

When it comes to decoding, always keep in mind the that our nonverbal messages are ambiguous and there is no set universal meaning. As such, it is important to be tentative when decoding messages and not ‘jump to conclusions’ in order to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings or hurt feelings. It is common to misinterpret the emotional expression of others, even when we are close to them, or to think an emotional expression is tied to something we did. For example, we may think our partner’s lack of responsiveness and irritable mood means they are upset with us, when they might have just had a stressful day at work and feel tired. When unsure about what another is expressing, you can use the skill of perception checking covered in Chapter 3 to aid in the clarity of your interpretations and avoid potentially harmful misunderstandings. 


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