The Differences Between Spoken and Unspoken Communication

At its foundation, communication can be divided into two main categories: verbal and non-verbal. Communication is a complicated web of relationships. Achieving successful interactions and building strong interpersonal connections requires an understanding of the fundamental distinctions between these two forms of expression.

Verbal Interaction: The Influence of Words

Spoken or written words are used in verbal communication to transmit ideas, messages, and feelings. Verbal communication consists of the words we choose, the sentences we build, and the language we employ. Verbal communication can take many different forms, such as written papers, presentations, lectures, interviews, and discussions.

Nonverbal Expression: The Sign Language of Motions

Conversely, nonverbal communication goes beyond words. It entails utilizing tone, gestures, body language, and facial expressions of voice and even the use of quiet to communicate ideas. It’s a common belief that nonverbal clues have a greater voice than spoken ones. For example, a warm grin can convey friendliness, whereas crossed arms can convey resistance or defensiveness.

Important distinctions between nonverbal and verbal communication

Nature: Non-verbal communication depends on gestures, body language, and facial expressions, while verbal communication depends on spoken or written words.

clear vs. Implicit: Verbal communication employs words to express precise meanings, making it clear and direct. A lot of nonverbal communication is implicit and may need to be interpreted.

Cultural Variation: While non-verbal signs like eye contact and personal space have cultural differences, verbal communication can be affected by linguistic boundaries and dialects.

Conscious versus unconscious: While non-verbal clues are generally unconscious, verbal communication is frequently can be inadvertent and disclose genuine emotions or intentions.

As an illustration:

Verbal Communication: Picture a job interview where the applicant shows off their qualifications and excitement for the position by thoughtfully answering questions. During the verbal interview, the candidate and the interviewer share explicit information.

Nonverbal Communication: The candidate’s body language is very important throughout the same job interview. They sit up straight, make a solid handshake, and keep eye contact to project professionalism and confidence. These nonverbal clues create a favorable impression by enhancing and complementing verbal communication.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is just that: anything that we use to communicate outside of our voice. Some people put things like rate and volume into this category, but I like to distinguish the two forms this way. Verbal communication is anything related to the voice (words, pitch, tone, etc.). Nonverbal communication is anything not related to the voice. We’ll walk through the most prevalent forms below.

1. Posture

The next time you go out to a restaurant, see what you can guess about the people sitting at tables around you just by looking at their body language. You’ll find that it can tell you quite a bit about their mood, their relationship status, and so on. The way in which we sit or stand says something about us to others. The next time you take the stage to present or sit across the table from a friend, think about what your posture is communicating.

2. Movement

Our eyes are naturally drawn to movement, so we can leverage this when we communicate. As a college professor, I will often casually move towards a student who seems distracted or is talking to a friend. All the while, I’ll keep lecturing and won’t reference the person at all. Just the movement of my body sends and message. Consider using your body to capture or regain your listener’s attention.

3. Gestures

Gestures are the movements we make with our hands and arms when we talk. Do they matter? Most definitely! Science of People conducted some research that showed just how much they matter. They separated out the top and bottom TED Talks of all time and ranked them according to their view count. They found that “the least popular TED talkers used an average of 272 hand gestures during the 18-minute talk.” On the other hand (pun fully intended), “the most popular TED talkers used an average of 465 gestures.” Which means gestures seem to be particularly effective in helping us to get our messages across.

4. Eye Contact

Eye contact is an extremely powerful communication tool. Just think about how skillfully you were able to use it to communicate many things in the beginning of this blog. Author of Eye to Eye: How People Interact, Dr. Peter Marsh says, “How we look at other people, meet their gaze and look away can make all the difference between an effective encounter and one that leads to embarrassment or even rejection.” When thinking about how you communicate with your eyes, break it down into two parts. First, consider the message you send by deciding whether you make eye contact with someone or not. For example, if you are checking out at a store and you never meet the gaze of the cashier, what message does that send? Second, consider how you look at the person. What message are you sending while you look at them?

5. Facial Expression

In her article in The New York Times Magazine, Malia Wollan says, “ A face is capable of more than sneers and smiles; expressions can be a form of advanced linguistics.” I have a friend whose face always tells me what she’s thinking. She simply can’t hide her thoughts because her face gives her away every time. While this can be funny in a friendship, the same thing might be harmful if you are in a business meeting or presentation. We all need to be aware of exactly what our faces are communicating to those around us. But that may be tougher than we think, as we’ll talk about below.

What makes nonverbal communication different?

Now that we know some of the main components of nonverbal communication, we need to know what makes it different from verbal communication.

1. It’s continuous.

We can’t turn off our nonverbal communication. It is always “running in the background.” Even if you have a blank stare on your face, others can draw meaning from it. Different people may believe you are bored, or rude, or deep in thought—all while you aren’t purposefully trying to send any of those messages.

2. It’s simultaneous.

It involves multiple channels at once to deliver a message. When you tell someone you love them, many things work together to express your message. You may take a step toward them (movement), wrap your arms around them (gesture), and smile (facial expression). You don’t divide different parts of the message to particular channels. Without even thinking about it, you pull together different types of nonverbal communication to send a message.

3. It’s spontaneous.

You’ve probably heard of the cliché, “bite your tongue.” It refers to the control we have, or at least try to have, over the words we speak. With effort, we can usually control our verbal communication. But that same task is not so simple when it comes to nonverbal communication. Even when we try to manage our facial expressions, something called “micro expressions” often give us away. Paul Ekman is one of the foremost researchers on this facial phenomena and he says they “occur in everyone, often without their knowledge.”

4. It’s revealing.

Because we are often unable to edit our nonverbal reactions, they may reveal more about us than our more carefully chosen words. I’m sure you’ve seen this play out before. You say something to a friend or family member and can tell by their facial expression that you’ve upset them. You ask, “did I upset you?” They respond, “I’m fine.” But you know they aren’t. Another way to think about this point is that nonverbal communication is always louder than verbal communication. And if they are in competition, especially if they contradict each other, your audience will always “hear” or believe your nonverbal communication above or before your verbal communication.

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