Non-Verbal Communication

Matthew Cicalese



            As tutors, we are faced with the responsibility of meeting new people almost every day, conversing with them, and eventually aiding them with the task at hand.  Of course, much of the assistance is given through spoken words, but the true question is “How are our bodies communicating?”  This may seem like an awkward inquiry at first, but the truth is that we are speaking volumes simply through body language.  According to Marjorie Fink Vargas, former professor at the University of Wisconsin-School of Education, ”In a conversation between two people, only thirty-five percent of the social messages are conveyed by the words; the remaining sixty-five percent is communicated non-verbally, by how (we) speak, move, gesture, and handle spatial relationships” (10).  It may be hard to believe that so much is said without vocal aid, but after we explore the vast world of nonverbal communication, or NVC, you will come to understand the important roles our bodies play in each and every personal engagement.





            In a brief sense, “non-verbal communication” refers to any communicative action other than speech, including, “facial expressions, hand and arm gestures, postures, positions, and various movements of the body or the legs and feet” (Mehrabian 1).  Verbal interaction is cut and dry, whereas NVC has the ability to take on multiple meanings through one simple gesture.  It varies between cultures, just like any other language, and helps shape the personality of each user.  In an attempt to better define the implicit nature of nonverbal communication, I have divided NVC into five major categories based on the research of Dr. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA:



1.      Emblem - the small class of nonverbal acts that can be accurately translated into words

Example:  handshake, shaking a fist at someone, a smile, a frown

2.      Illustrator - very much a part of speech and serves the function of emphasis

Example:  head and hand movements that occur more frequently with primary stressed words, pointing gestures, other movements that draw a clear picture f the linguistic reference.

3.      Affect Display - feelings expressed through our bodies

Example:  happiness, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, sadness, interest

4.      Regulator - acts that help to initiate and terminate the speech of participants in a social situation

Example:  regulators might suggest that the speaker keep talking, clarify, or hurry up and finish

5.      Adaptor - acts related to satisfying bodily needs

Example:  moving into a more comfortable position, scratching





                According to R.A. Hinde, former Master and Royal Society Research Professor of St. John’s College-Cambridge University, “Much time, money, and effort is put into the control of appearance, (which)can be regarded as a special kind of NVC” (248).  Before any formal introduction is made, we are programmed to prejudge our counterparts strictly by their initial appearance: a practice committed by almost every person on the planet.  Hinde also notes that “people send messages about their social status, their occupation, or the social group they belong to, by wearing the appropriate costume” (248). Appearance also gives the rest of the world an insight to your personality and mood. In a working environment we must consider two things: 1) how do the students’ physical presentations reflect him or her, and 2) what kind of messages are you conveying through your own appearance?  For example, if a man were to come into the writing center with a stained shirt, ripped jeans, long dried out hair, scabs all over his arms, sandals complete with crusty toes, an unkempt beard and a body odor similar to that of olive oil, paint thinner, burnt hair and beer sweats, how would you initially react to this guy?  Well...fear would be a good start, followed by discomfort and nausea. All the more we should take our own appearance into consideration.  If you were to show up to the writing center everyday with your hair a mess, dressed in pajamas, bloodshot eyes, cigarette breath, and all the while incessantly yawning, do you honestly think that the students are going to come running for your assistance?  Do you even think that you would be able to keep your job?   With that being said, it is our responsibility as tutors to show other students how to properly manage oneself in a public setting.  I have provided a little poem that you can recite every day in order to get yourself ready for a healthy day of work at the writing center:



Comb your hair and brush your teeth,

Shine those shoes that hide your feet,

Get dressed in a stylish sense,

Cuz you gotta look good for your audience.



Bodily Contact


                The initial physical interaction between two people can make or break the entire experience.  Typically, you would like to start everything off with a cordial smile and a similar offer of a handshake. These gestures let the other person know that you are willing and able to help them.  If you were to jump up, bear-hug them and follow that with a friendly pat on the behind, you might find yourself out of work, or in court. Even in the most casual situations, bodily contact with a new person can provide the nearest exit from the comfort zone, especially with those from different cultural backgrounds.  All the more, you should limit the amount of physical contact between you and the student in order to preserve comfort and cooperation.






                After the introduction, a place to work is usually agreed upon, whether it be a desk, table, computer station, or whatever area that offers the best conditions to get the job done.  Next, you must decide on the proper orientation--“the angle at which people sit or stand in relation to each other” (Hinde 247).  The normal range is from head-on to side-by-side, but either way it can vary with the nature of the situation: Hinde suggests, “those who are working cooperatively or who are close friends adopt the side-by-side position; in a confrontation, bargaining or similar situation, people tend to choose head on; while in other situations, ninety degrees is most common” (247).  Once again, the preferences vary among cultures and even more interesting are the distances preferred between the sexes.  It has been found that “male-female pairs assumed the closest positions relative to each other, followed by the female-female pairs, and finally the male-male pairs, who were the most distant” (Mehrabian 20).  In order to maintain a comfortable and productive environment, you and the student must feel the same level of comfort; otherwise the task at hand will suffer immensely.  By keeping a respected amount of distance, you will maintain a friendly, productive, working environment and flourish as a tutor.





                Once the working environment and distances are established, you must now focus your attention on the posture of both you and the other student .  Dr. Mehrabian concludes that “postures (for example, bodily relaxation or limb position)...are used as a source of information about a person’s characteristics, attitudes, and feelings about themselves and others” (16).  Over 200 mannerisms and gestures have been related to their coinciding attitudes– many of which you will experience at the writing center.  For example, someone who is going to take charge sits in an a firm, upright position; someone who lacks complete interest will slouch away from the work area, in hopes that you will do all of their work for them; and the other who sits in a slumped over position with their head down, will work with you, but in a defeated fashion.  Another degree of posture is the “lean factor.”  Studies show that “a forward lean conveys greater liking, whereas a backward lean, or turning away, shows a more negative attitude” (Mehrabian 19). You must also remember to present yourself in a firm, interested position: back straight, chest out, with your hands on the desk.  You must also try your hardest to maintain this stance while interacting with the other student; it will subliminally tell them that you have the utmost faith and support in the work presented.  If you were to slouch, or rest your head in your hands while tutoring, you would basically be telling the student, “Listen. I don’t care. Can you hurry up? I have other things to do today besides listen to you.”  That is the last way that anyone in need of assistance should ever feel at the writing center, and your posture alone could be the deciding factor.




Facial Expressions


                The face is a communication center all in its own.  In the midst of conversation, even when we are just listening, our faces do a significant amount of talking for us.   Usually, the speaker will frame what is being said “with the appropriate facial expressions, and the listener provides a continuous commentary of his reactions with small movements of the eyebrows and mouth, indicating puzzlement, surprise, disagreement, pleasure, etc. “(Hinde 249).  That is why is it so important to monitor the face of whomever you are assisting because in most cases, especially if it is a first meeting, he or she will be too nervous or intimidated to vocally express how or what they are truly feeling. At this point, your clueless-ness will deeply inhibit your ability to make them feel like an integral part of the learning process.  According to Dr. Leopold Bellak, expert and author on abnormal psychology, “if you just look at a person without trying to read the face and personality in some depth, you are not even beginning to establish a connection or engage in any exploration and meeting of the minds” (43).  By successfully reading the other person’s face, you automatically focus on that individual rather than on yourself.  The same amount of attention should be paid towards our reciprocated facial expressions.  Yes, they can be hard to control, and, in times of necessary discretion, display our exact thoughts to the speaker, but either way we must successfully offer our honest services without offending anyone in the process.  Bellak also notes, “how the (student) will interact with you throughout the meeting depends to a large extent on how you look at them” (104).



Eye Contact


            Eye contact is, without a doubt, the most important aspect of nonverbal communication.  During conversation, “each participant looks intermittently at the other, for periods of 1 to 10 seconds, for 25%-75% of the time: periods of mutual gaze, or eye-contact, are rather shorter” (Hinde 250).  Normal percentages of gaze vary with the sex, personalities, and cultural backgrounds of the speakers, the topic, the setting, and several other factors; yet “the functions of the eyes provide a predictable behavioral pattern” (Vargas 57).  The five conversational functions of the eyes include: (1) regulating turn taking, (2) monitoring feedback, (3) signaling thought, (4) expressing feelings, and (5) communicating the nature of the interpersonal relationship. 

            When speaking, eye contact should be established right off the bat, but you should be aware of staring: it is rude, creepy, and a good way to turn off


your listener.  The best way to maintain a successful optical relationship is to just break away from the mutual gaze every so often.  This will give the student a chance to maintain a steady level of comfort and interest as he or she will not feel obligated to focus directly on you throughout the meeting.       While speaking, you are able to monitor your listeners simply through their eye movement.  It is easy to confuse boredom for shyness, so we must be careful to define the two.  Ultimately, an experienced speaker will have little to no trouble splitting the difference and persons with “shifty eyes” (Vargas 57) have the ability to help us draw that line.  Occasionally, “the direction of their glance provides a clue to their preoccupation or preferred setting” (Vargas 57).  For example: let us say that you are sitting down with a male student, and every time a girl walks into the writing center, his head spins at a 180° angle allowing his eyes to follow her until she finds a seat or makes her way out of the area.  This student is obviously disinterested.  You know his mind is in another land, and by the time the meeting is over, you are glad to see him go.  This is a perfectly natural, human reaction, but you must make sure that 100% of your effort is given despite the fact that your counterpart decides to work at half-speed.  The same goes for you as a listener.  Hinde’s studies show that “people look about twice as much when they are listening than while they are talking” (250) and it is important that we keep up the trend.  While maintaining steady eye contact with the speaker, you will not only absorb more of what they are saying, but you will also offer your full attention and interest.  This helps to create a more positive atmosphere as well as “spark lively, stimulating conversation” (Bellak 110).





                NVC is an incredible means of communication that serves many purposes.  Some NVC is used to communicate attitudes and emotions, and to manage immediate social situations.  Other forms support and complement verbal communication, as well as offer another means of speaking simply through gesture.  There are many complex rules of its sequence and structure, but if used enough through the practice of conversation it can, and will, help you to become the best tutor that you can be.

            Besides the sources used in the text, I have provided a list of credible web sites devoted to furthering the instruction of non-verbal communication: –this web site defines the nature of NVC through many different subject areas – this web site offers six ways to improve one’s NVC –gender differences in NVC –top ten tips regarding NVC    – how to be a good listener – links to numerous sites containing information on facial recognition





Works Cited



Bellak, Leopold. Reading Faces. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston. 1981.



Hinde, R.A.. Non-Verbal Communication.  New York: Cambridge. 1972.



Mehrabian, Albert. Nonverbal Communication. New York: Aldine. 1972.



Vargas, Marjorie Fink. Louder Than Words: An Introduction to Nonverbal     

Communication.  Iowa: Iowa State. 1986.