What is Nonverbal Communication? (With Examples)

By Kristin Kizer
Jul. 21, 2022

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There’s a skill to nonverbal communication: Can you tell what someone is thinking just by looking at them? Have you lost their attention, or are they utterly rapt by what you’re saying?

Sometimes nonverbal communication says more than your words do or ever can. This is why it’s so important to understand it, whether you’re the speaker or you’re in the audience.

Key Takeaways:

  • Nonverbal communication is the transmission of information with physical cues such as body language, hand gestures, and eye contact.

  • The 5 roles of nonverbal communication are: complementary, contradictory, accenting, repetition, and substitution.

  • Skills to communicate and understand nonverbal communication include paying attention and interpreting.

  • Practice to improve nonverbal communication.

  • A job interview is a crucial time to use your nonverbal communication skills.

What is Nonverbal Communication? (With Examples)

What Is Nonverbal Communication?

Nonverbal communication is a way of transmitting a message without words. Typically, nonverbal communication includes things like eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture, and the distance between the speaker and the person listening. They’re integral parts of your communication skills toolkit and worthy of examining.

It can be as obvious and as intentional as holding up two fingers when you want two tickets at the theater. Or your nonverbal communication can be totally unintended, like an eye roll when someone says something stupid.

Examples of the 5 Roles of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication has five roles that it performs when you’re listening and when you’re speaking. It adds to the words from both sides of a conversation or takes away from those words. Let’s look at the five roles of nonverbal communication and consider some examples of each:

  1. Complementary. In this situation, your nonverbal cues are lining up with your words, and you’re emphasizing your point.

    Example 1:

    You say STOP! And you hold your hand up.

    Example 2:

    You tell someone that you agree with what they’re saying by either nodding while verbally telling them that you agree. Or by not even speaking, just nodding while maintaining eye contact.

  2. Contradictory. You’re saying something, but your body language is communicating a totally different message.

    Example 1:

    The alleged killer is being cross-examined by a prosecutor and says, “I did not kill that person.” But while speaking, they are nodding in the affirmative. Meaning they’re saying they didn’t do it, but their nonverbal response is saying they did.

    Example 2:

    Saying to the dinner host, “Everything is so delicious,” while unknowingly grimacing.

  3. Accenting. Hit the essential parts of what you’re saying in a way that pulls focus to those words.

    Example 1:

    Telling your team about the upcoming sales promotion and getting louder and speaking faster while you do. This draws their attention to your message and conveys excitement.

    Example 2:

    A pastor slamming their fist on the podium. The gesture and the sound it makes can wake up the congregation and pull their attention back to what’s being said.

  4. Repetition. It doesn’t have to be the words you’re saying, but your body language can repeat your message, too.

    Example 1:

    Asking for five coffees and holding up five fingers. It’s an easy repeat of the number you just said and reinforces your verbal message.

    Example 2:

    “No, I don’t like mushrooms.” Said while shaking your head and making a face, you’re definitely going to get your point across here with all that’s going on nonverbally and verbally.

  5. Substitution. This is similar to a contradiction and can often be confusing. Think of a contradiction as something that signals you might be lying, while a substitution signals there might be another answer. Or think of a substitution when nonverbals stand in place of words.

    Example 1:

    Asking your child where the candy bar went. The child says they don’t know, but they smile and touch their stomach simultaneously. Besides the fact that they have chocolate all around their mouth, you can tell from their nonverbal clues that they ate it.

    Example 2:

    “How was the haunted house,” you ask. Instead of any verbal response, your friend looks at you with wide, terrified eyes and opens their mouth, but nothing comes out. Here the words aren’t needed – you get the message.

You can see how your nonverbals can make you a more effective speaker and even a better listener. Or they can work against you and contradict what you’re saying and make the listener believe you’re lying. That’s some pretty powerful stuff.

Types of Nonverbal Communication

Understanding the power of your own nonverbal communication and body language is just as important as reading it in others. Let’s dive into the types of nonverbal communication:

  • Facial expressions. Obvious emotions are easy to spot; someone crying is typically unhappy. A laughing face is usually a happy one. But what about some more subtle facial expressions? What do squinting eyes mean? How about a raised upper lip?

    These expressions can all have different meanings depending on the culture, region, gender, and even age of the person, so context is important.

  • Paralinguistics. This is the way you communicate with your vocal cords but not with words. Think of the uhm-hmm you say when you agree. Or it can mean the quietness of a whisper that conveys you’re telling a secret. The loud and sharpness of a yelled, NO! when you’re trying to stop someone from doing something dangerous.

    Maybe it’s saying, “I’m fine,” in a clipped way that lets someone know you’re not fine at all. Although paralinguistics have to do with the voice, they are still considered non-verbal communication.

  • Eye contact. Are people looking at you or away? When they look away, are they signaling something, or are they just bored? What about eye rolls? There’s just so much that can be learned when you pay attention to where people are looking.

    You’ve heard about shifty-eyed strangers; usually, it’s used in literature, but when someone refuses to look directly at you, it can tell you a lot. And then there are people who take it too far and stare with uncomfortable intensity to ensure that they’re communicating focus.

    An appropriate amount of eye contact is somewhere between 50-70% of the time for most Western cultures. It displays confidence and interest in others without making anyone feel like they’re being overly scrutinized.

  • Gestures. Waving your arms around is one way to emphasize your point, but it doesn’t have a ton of meaning except to call attention to your words. How about more explicit gestures like a nod, a shrug, or rolling your eyes?

    In some cultures, gestures are an important part of story-telling and communication. Consider how Americans use the thumbs up, OK, and middle finger hand signals to communicate different emotions.

  • Body language. You can tell someone is yelling sometimes by just seeing them wave their arms around at a distance. Or, maybe it’s the more subtle signs, like a crossing of the arms or legs. There’s a lot of science behind body language and what it tells you about both speaker and listener.

    There’s also posture and the way people carry themselves. Slouchers tend to be quieter, while those who stand tall are also typically more extroverted. Those with their heads tilted or their hands on their chins are often considering a problem or are perplexed in some way.

    People also tend to mirror the body language of people they’re trying to connect with. It’s not uncommon for job candidates to inadvertently mimic whatever their interviewer does with their hands or feet during the interview. For instance, crossing their arms or legs, touching their nose, or readjusting their seat.

  • Proxemics. This is all about your space or the proximity between people. When someone says they like you and lean in closer, that’s them using the closeness to really add meaning to their words. On the other hand, sometimes people arguing will lean in closer to the other person in an intimidating way.

  • Touch. This form of communication is very important and has been studied a lot. Human contact is crucial to forming strong bonds and can bring a lot of depth to your words. Think how much a comforting arm around the shoulder can mean when you’re down. Or how affectionate a touch on the arm can be.

    Researchers have also found that people of higher status tend to invade personal space with touch more frequently. And there can be differences in how touch is used based on gender.

  • Appearance. Interestingly, the way you look can affect how your words are perceived. And this isn’t always a politically correct response. Personal biases and past experiences can come into play. But let’s put that discussion aside and look at other ways appearance can play into your communications

    If you’re speaking about how to make a million dollars but you’re unkempt and wearing cheap clothes, it can have an effect. Also, the color you’re wearing can affect mood and attitude.

  • Artifacts. Artifacts are prompts or accessories you use to bring home your point. If you’re wearing your lab coat to give a scientific discussion, it could add an air of authority. Using a pointer to direct attention is a way to bolster your message by drawing attention. Showing someone a picture while you’re describing an object can help in personal communications.

Nonverbal Communication Skills

So how do you work on your nonverbal communication skills? First, we need to address the two obvious categories that those skills fall under.

  1. Sending nonverbal communications. These are the ways you communicate with others without words, whether you realize you’re doing it or not.

  2. Receiving/reading nonverbal communications. These are the nonverbals that you pick up in others. You can practice being better at interpreting, understanding, and responding to them.

These nonverbal skills can be adapted and improved for both situations, the givers and receivers:

  • Pay attention. This is a big skill in any type of communication. Your ability to pay attention to what someone is doing and saying is crucial. Force yourself to use active listening skills.

    Note the words being spoken and any nonverbal that goes with it. Do they jive, or are they contradictory? Challenge yourself to notice the nonverbal cues and match them to the meaning of the words.

    Another big part of nonverbal communication is paying attention to your own. Are you rolling your eyes, nodding in approval, smiling, or are you frowning? Being aware of yourself helps you learn to be more in touch with others.

  • Interpret. Take a nonverbal, say a head nod, and compare it to the words being spoken. Does it make sense and add value to the meaning? What about a smile from the speaker? Do you immediately feel that they’re happy about what they’re saying, or are they acknowledging someone else who isn’t a part of the conversation?

    Stretch your brain to dive deep into what someone means with their entire body.

  • Practice. Try touching someone on the arm when you’re saying something to see what their reaction is. Use gestures to get across your point or lean in when someone else is speaking to see how they then respond to you. Practicing using your whole body to communicate (both listening and providing the message) gives great insight.

  • Work on expressions. You think your face is passive, but you might be scowling and not even know it. Make faces at yourself in the mirror and study how it feels. What muscles are moving, and how your features are positioned. It sounds strange, but the more you understand your own expressions, the better you’ll be at controlling them.

  • Talk to yourself. If making faces in a mirror felt weird, this will feel even stranger. Talk to yourself. Practice using a different tone or volume to say something. You know those who always sound sarcastic, which is a tone, and it can be very irritating. Knowing if you have that tone or not can help your interpersonal communications.

How to Read Body Language

Let’s talk a minute about body language because that’s one form of nonverbal communication that’s been heavily studied. Some people are naturally better at reading this than others. Don’t worry if you’re not one of those intuitively gifted people; you can learn how. Here are some common body language positions and motions that you need to understand.

  • Shoulder shrug. I don’t know

  • Nod up and down. Yes

  • Shake head side to side. No

  • Open arms with palms up. Trust

  • Smiling with mouth, not eyes. Fake smile without meaning

  • Raised eyebrows. Surprise

  • One raised eyebrow. Questioning or judging

  • Leaning in. Creating a connection or agreeing

  • Leaning away. Distancing themselves from the person or what’s being said

  • Crossed arms and legs. Closed off from the conversation, doesn’t want to be involved

  • Open arms and legs. Welcoming the conversation or the topic

  • Touching face. Repeatedly doing it is a sign of nervousness

  • Mirroring of your body language. They’re grooving on you or what you’re saying

  • Both arms up. Celebration or authority

How to Improve Nonverbal Communication

If you’re lacking in the nonverbal department, whether reading it or displaying it, you should work on the skills listed above to improve. You don’t need to overact or act at all. But being more in touch with how you look when you respond to things can help you see what other people see.

Spend some time in the mirror and understand how your expressions can give you away. Then practice doing things that add value to what you say. You’ll find you’re understood more often and more clearly.

On the flip side, look at what actors do with their bodies and their faces when they’re portraying an emotion. That’s an excellent place to start because it’s so obvious. Take what you learn there and begin watching people in your everyday life. Notice how they emphasize or take away from their words with gestures, facial expressions, how they appear, etc.

When you start noticing how people respond to nonverbals, you can begin pulling them into your repertoire to get a better reaction.

Using Nonverbal Communication in a Job Interview

For a job interview, nonverbal communication can say a whole lot. We’re willing to go out on a limb and say that they could even cost you the job. Imagine a hiring manager explaining the job dues and an interviewee rolling their eyes or refusing to make eye contact at all.

If you’ve already been working on using the appropriate nonverbals to show that you’re engaged and listening, you’re on the right track. This will go over really well with any prospective employer.

You might also want to start mimicking the interviewer’s movements (but not in an obvious way). This creates a bond and a rapport that can make them like you more than they would have if you sat back with your arms crossed.

Know that they probably know a bit about nonverbal communication, too. Try to keep it natural and don’t go overboard with anything. Also, don’t think about it too much, or you’ll miss what’s verbally happening in the interview.

Nonverbal Communication FAQ

  • What are advantages of nonverbal communication? Nonverbal communication allows people to connect and relate to one another in a more meaningful way. Posture, gestures, and eye contact all deliver messages that are subtly picked up by others.

    Nonverbal communication also allows people who don’t share a language to communicate basic messages.

  • What does “nonverbal cues” mean? Nonverbal cues are body movements that signal another person to take an action or form an opinion. They are the ways you express yourself outside of words.

    Nonverbal cues can refer to instantaneously recognizable gestures, like putting your index finger over your mouth to request quiet. Or they can refer to subtler things, like the color palette you wear to work.

  • What are the limits of nonverbal communication? Nonverbal communication is limited by its lack of a formal system and an increased chance of miscommunication.

    It’s simple to communicate nonverbally with people like siblings or close friends because we know how to “read” them. But with strangers, it’s easy to misunderstand nonverbal cues, especially as you travel further from your hometown or meet people from different backgrounds.

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Kristin Kizer

Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

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