Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

Nonverbal Communication

Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

Nonverbal Communication

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

As an area of study, nonverbal communication appears to labor under two problems of definition. The "nonverbal" label defines the area negatively: that communication which occurs without words. The other commonly applied label, "body language," defines the area by analogy to language, but again in a kind of negative analogy to language--language enacted by the body rather than the voice, language typically without a grammar or vocabulary. While both definitions suffer limitations, most people do understand that communication study and research encompasses a very wide scope of human behavior. The scope of the subject matter also expands with a consideration of the disciplines that attend to it. Researchers have approached nonverbal communication from several disciplinary perspectives, with anthropology, psychology, and communication representing the most active.

In the introduction to their handbook oriented to the psychological approaches, Matsumoto, Hwang, and Frank (2016a), opt for the widest definition, noting that researchers "embrac[e] the idea that NVC [nonverbal communication] encompasses almost all of human communication except the spoken or written word.... In this handbook, we define NVC as the transfer and exchange of messages in any and all modalities that do not involve words" (p. xix).

While this review will also broadly define the nonverbal area, it will not address studies of sign language, a specialized kind of nonverbal expression and one intended to function as a language with defined grammar and vocabulary.

A. Background and overview

Hinshelwood (2015) presents a history of early psychological work in nonverbal communication, recounting Freud's explorations of unconscious transfer of meaning and his correspondence about it with Jung and Ferenczi. This and other observations led to the acceptance of both a cognitive (and conscious) communication system and something else, what today many refer to as nonverbal communication (p. 129). Hinshelwood then describes the development of study of animal "calls and gestures" (p. 130) as a communication system, though a non-linguistic one. He further describes it: "This is a second system, characterized by reference, action, and emotional arousal. It exists in parallel to our cognitive linguistic system" (p. 131), one that we share with animals.

Some years before Freud, Charles Darwin suggested an animal origin for nonverbal actions--especially emotional expression--something that eventually evolves into more sophisticated human communication (Jabr, 2010). Frank and Shaw (2016) specifically review nonverbal communication in the light of evolution, asking how human evolution might account for various aspects of nonverbal communication. They identify nonverbal communication as signs, signals, and symbols; they include both the voluntary and involuntary quality of these actions. For example, they suggest that some nonverbal communication may simply signal fear, but that this, in turn, could be used to pass a message to other members of a group and thus function as danger signals (p. 55). Over time these evolved into more complex significations. The evolutionary approach usually merits discussion in most introductory works.

As indicated in these psychological and anthropological approaches, nonverbal communication study reflects mixed origins. Manusov (2016) offers an overview of the "heritages" that led to current studies: linguistic, sociological, cultural, ethnological and psychological. These key disciplines each take a slightly different approach.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the beginnings of a more systematic exploration of nonverbal behaviors with researchers like Hall (1959, 1966) exploring anthropological or cultural differences in the use of space (proxemics); Birdwhistell (1955, 1970) examining gestures; Ekman (1964, 1965) attending to facial expression; and Argyle and his colleagues (1965, 1968) studying gaze (Patterson, 2014, p. …

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