Hidden Aspects of Communication

Communication is far more than speech and writing.   Most of us are unaware that we are communicating in many different ways even when we are not speaking.  The same goes for other social animal species.  We are rarely taught about this mostly non-verbal form of human communication in school even though it is very important for effective interaction with others.  Growing up in a society, we informally learn how to use gestures, glances, slight changes in tone of voice, and other auxiliary communication devices to alter or emphasize what we say and do.  We learn these highly culture bound techniques over years largely by observing others and imitating them.

photo of a man and a woman informally communicating nonverbally What do you think this couple
is communicating non-verbally?
Look at them carefully.

Click the button to see
 if you are correct.

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Linguists refer to all of these auxiliary communication methods as paralanguage click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  It is part of the redundancy in communication that helps prevent ineffective communication.  It can prevent the wrong message from inadvertently being passed on, as often is the case in a telephone call and even more so in a letter.  The paralanguage messages that can be observed through face to face contact also makes it more difficult to lie or to hide emotions.  Paralanguage is often more important in communication than what is actually being said orally.  It has been suggested that as much as 70% of what we communicate when talking directly with others is through paralanguage.

photo of military body language   What do you think the chief petty officer (in khaki)
is communicating non-verbally to the enlisted men
in this group?  Do you think his message would be
understood if the sailors saw but did not hear him?

Click the button to see     
 if you are correct.     

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The most obvious form of paralanguage is body language or kinesics click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  This is the language of gestures, expressions, and postures.   In North America, for instance, we commonly use our arms and hands to say good-bye, point, count, express excitement, beckon, warn away, threaten, insult etc.  In fact, we learn many subtle variations of each of these gestures and use them situationally.   We use our head to say yes or no, to smile, frown, and wink acknowledgement or flirtation.  Our head and shoulder in combination may shrug to indicate that we do not know something.

photo of a North American young adult couple walking together, each with an arm around the other person Test your knowledge of North American
body language.  Look at the couple walking
together.  What does it mean to be so close
with their arms around each other this way?
Could they be strangers? 

Click the button to see     
 if you are correct.     

clickable button icon      

While the meaning of some gestures, such as a smile, may be the same throughout the world, the meaning of others may be completely different.  For example, spitting on another person is a sign of utmost contempt in Europe and North America but can be an affectionate blessing if done in a certain way among the Masai of Kenya.

map of Kenya highlighting the Masai territory

Tone and Character of Voice

The meaning of speech can also be altered significantly by tone and character of voice.  In English, the simple sentence "I'm here." can have very different connotations depending on whether it is spoken with a voice that is high, low, quick, slow, rising, falling, whispering, whining, yelling, or sighing.   Similarly, the sentence "Are you here?" has a different meaning if it spoken in an rising tone in contrast to a descending one.  Give it a try...


When we speak to another individual or group, the distance our bodies are physically apart also communicates a message.  Proxemics click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced is the study of such interaction distances and other culturally defined uses of space.  Most of us are unaware of the importance of space in communication until we are confronted with someone who uses it differently.  For instance, we all have a sense of what is a comfortable interaction distance to a person with whom we are speaking.  If that person gets closer than the distance at which we are comfortable, we usually automatically back up to reestablish our comfort zone.  Similarly, if we feel that we are too far away from the person we are talking to, we are likely to close the distance between us.  If two speakers have different comfortable interaction distances, a ballet of shifting positions usually occurs until one of the individuals is backed into a corner and feels threatened by what may be perceived as hostile or sexual overtures.  As a result, the verbal message may not be listened to or understood as it was intended.

textual illustration of interaction distances--too close, ideal distance, and too far

In Latin America, the comfortable (ideal) interaction distance for talking about personal topics is often significantly closer than among non-Hispanics in the U.S. and Canada.

Comfort in interaction distance mostly has to do with the distance between faces that are looking directly at each other.  Most people do not have the same feeling about physical closeness if they do not have eye contact.   In a crowd or an elevator, people usually choose not to look at anyone in order to avoid feeling uncomfortably close.

photo of Japanese adults avoiding eye contact in a crowd

Japanese avoiding eye contact in a crowd

The nature of the message communicated also affects interaction distances.  Average comfortable distances Among North Americans are shown in the following table:

  Distance Between Faces  Tone of Voice Type of Message
  very close (3-6")   soft whisper   top secret or sensual
  close (8-12")   audible whisper   very confidential
  neutral (20-36")   soft voice, low volume     personal subject matter
  neutral (4.5-5')   full voice   non-personal information 
  across the room (8-20')   loud voice   talking to a group
  stretching the limits
  (20-24' indoors and
  up to 100' outdoors)
  loud hailing voice   departures and arrivals
Derived from The Silent Language by Edward Hall (1959)

Whispering and shouting generally get your attention more than speaking with a normal voice.  Children learn this important fact at a very early age.

In addition to specifying comfortable interaction distances, culture tells us when and how it is acceptable to touch other individuals.  In North America, culture generally discourages touching by adults except in moments of intimacy or formal greeting (hand shaking or hugging).  This informal rule is most rigidly applied to men.  If they hold hands or kiss in public, they run the risk of being labeled homosexual and subsequently marginalized socially.  Similar culturally defined patterns of physical contact avoidance are found in most of the cultures of Asia and Northern Europe.  In Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, much more physical contact usually is expected and desired.

Cultural Use of Space

Culture also tells us how to organize space in such a way as to control the nature of interaction.  In North American corporate offices, for instance, the boss is usually physically isolated in a very separate private room.   This tends to minimize his or her personal contact with ordinary workers.  In contrast, Japanese offices commonly are set up with the boss's desk at the end of a row of pushed together desks used by subordinate employees.  This maximizes his interaction with them.

drawing of a typical North American office arrangement drawing of a typical Japanese office arrangement
Typical North American Office Typical Japanese Office

A court room similarly alters behavior.  In the United States, the judge usually wears a black robe and sits behind an elevated desk.  The other desks and chairs in court are positioned so that all attention is focused  on the judge.  This intentional setting makes those present feel respectful and subservient to the judge, thereby making it easier for him or her to control the proceedings.

Culture also guides our perception of space by defining units of it.  In the industrial world, space is divided into standardized segments with sides and position.  Acres and city lots with uniform dimensions are examples of this in the United States.   Our property boundaries are referenced to such segments of space.  As the density of population increases, the importance of defined spatial boundaries grows.  Land owners in densely occupied neighborhoods have been known to get angry enough to kill each other over disputed fence lines between their properties.  In less dense rural areas of the American West, where people own ranches of hundreds and even thousands of acres, the movement of a fence three feet one way or another is rarely of consequence.  

Cultural Use of Time

Culture tells us how to manipulate time in order to communicate different messages.  When people appear for an appointment varies with the custom, social situation, and their relative status.  In North America, if you have a business meeting scheduled, the time you should arrive largely depends on the power relationship between you and the person who you are meeting.  People who are lower in status are expected to arrive on time, if not early.  Higher status individuals can expect that others will wait for them if they are late.  For instance, most people who have medical appointments are expected to arrive early and to wait patiently for their doctor to see them rather than the other way around.  An invitation to a party is an entirely different matter.  It is often expected that most guests will arrive "fashionably late."  It generally takes a North American child at least 12 years to master these subtle cultural aspects of time.  By 5-6 years old, they usually only know the days of the week, the difference between day and night, morning and afternoon, meal and nap time.  By 7-8 years old, most can consistently use the clock to tell time.  However, it is not until about 12 years or older that they begin to know the situational aspects of time, such as when to arrive at a party.

When people come together with very different cultural expectations about time, there is a potential for misunderstanding, frustration, and hurt feelings.  This could occur, for instance, if a Brazilian businessman does not arrive "on time" for a meeting with a potential North American customer in New York and fails to give an apology when he arrives.  For the Brazilian, time may be relatively "elastic" and the pace-of-life a bit slower.  He believes that he was sufficiently prompt for the scheduled business meeting, having arrived within a half hour of the appointment.  It is not surprising that he is astonished and offended when he is treated coldly by the North American who also feels slighted by what he perceives as rudeness.  Compounding the situation is likely to be differences in their comfortable physical interaction distances.  This dismal scenario can be avoided, of course, by foreknowledge about the other culture and a willingness to adopt a cultural relativity approach.  The old saying "when in Rome do as the Romans do" is still good advice.  

Communicating with Clothes

photo of a man from Papua New Guinea wearing a penis sheath
Papua New Guinean man
wearing a penis sheath

Throughout the world, clothing has multiple functions.  It is used to provide protection from the elements.   It also is worn for modesty, usually to prevent others from seeing specific parts of one's body.  However, the parts of the body that must be covered vary widely throughout the world.  For instance, the man from New Guinea shown in the picture would feel undressed in public if he did not have the narrow gourd sheath over his penis tied in an erect position.  Throughout most of the rest of the world, this would be viewed as a highly inappropriate style of dress to say the least.  Some clothing is worn to provide supernatural protection.  Wearing a Christian cross or a St. Christopher medal often are thought to have just this effect.  Wearing a lucky shirt to take an exam is also relying on supernatural assistance.

People in all cultures use clothing and other forms of bodily adornment to communicate status, intentions, and other messages.  In North America, we dress differently for business and various recreational activities.   Likewise there are styles of clothes that are worn to sexually attract others.  There can be great subtlety, especially in women's clothing.  It can communicate that a woman wants to be considered sexually neutral.  On the other hand, it may be meant to be seductive, innocent but alluring, etc.  Women in the Western World usually are much more knowledgeable of and concerned with subtle nuances in messages communicated by clothes than are men.  At times, this leads to awkward errors of interpretation of female intentions on the part of men.  Of course, clothing styles also are intended to communicate messages to members of the same gender.

Long before we are physically near enough to talk to people, their appearance announces their gender, age, economic class, and often even intentions.   We begin to recognize the important cultural clues for this at an early age.  The vocabulary of dress that we learn includes not only items of clothing but also hair styles, jewelry, makeup, and other body decoration such as tattoos.  In most cultures, however, the same style of dress communicates different messages depending on the age, gender, and physical appearance of the individual wearing it.

What do the clothing, hair style, makeup,
and body language of the young woman
in the photo communicate to you?


Now think of a middle-aged businessman
with the same clothing, hair style, makeup,
and body language...
Do you have a different reaction? 

photo of a woman showing body language


photo of three Spanish policemen in uniform

Spanish policemen  

Putting on certain types of clothing can change your behavior and the behavior of others towards you.  This can be the case with a military uniform, doctor's white lab coat, or a clown's costume.  For instance, it is likely that the Spanish policemen in the photo are more assertive and aggressive when they wear their uniforms.  Likewise, others are more likely to follow their directions.

Most uniforms are consciously symbolic so that they can rapidly and conclusively communicate status.  For instance, the ribbon, crown, and scepter leave little doubt that the young woman in the photo on the left below is a beauty queen.  The ribbons and other insignias on the U.S. sailor's uniform can tell even a stranger about his status, authority, and military experience.  Similarly, the unconventional hair styles and clothing of the English "punkers" are essential aspects of their uniforms.  In all three cases, it is necessary to know what these culturally defined symbols mean in the context that they are used in order to understand what is being communicated.

Photo of the Beauty Queen of Annapolis Maryland with her crown and other symbols of the title   photo of a U.S. Navy Seal's shirt showing his insignia of rank, branch of the Navy, and his military achievement ribbons   photo of two English "punkers" with spiked pink hair and tatoos
Beauty queen   U.S. military insignia   English "punkers"
in their "uniforms"

photo of a Dyak woman from Borneo showing very long ears stretched by many metal rings

Dyak woman
from Borneo

There are many forms of body decoration other than clothes that are used around the world to send messages.  These include body and hair paint, tattoos, decorative scaring and branding, perfumes, and even body deformation. 

When children are very young, their bodies are still physically moldable to a degree.  Some cultures have taken advantage of this fact to bind their head or feet.  The result can be elongated heads and tiny stunted feet.  When orthodontists put braces on teeth, they are essentially doing the same thing--deforming or reforming a part of the body to make it more attractive.  Soft tissue can be altered as well.  Holes in ears for decorative rings can be progressively enlarged over years with thicker and thicker posts so that ultimately huge spools,  plugs, or heavy rings can be inserted (as in the case of the Dyak pronounce the word woman from Borneo shown in the photograph).  This has been a sign of beauty among some indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, South America, and Southeast Asia.  The same thing was done to the lip in a few cultures of Africa and the Amazon Basin of South America. 

click this icon in order to see the following video Ancient Marks--tattoos, scarification and other forms of body decoration
       from many cultures around the world.  T
his link takes you to a new
.  To return here, you must click the "back" button on your
       browser program.                 (length = 11 mins 6 secs)

Gender Differences in Paralanguage

When traveling to other societies, it is important to understand that there are likely to be significant gender differences in paralanguage in addition to distinctions in clothes and adornment.  In North America, for instance, men generally prefer face to face conversations and maintain direct eye contact longer.  In contrast, women often converse standing side by side but closer together than is typical of men.  Male hand shakes tend to be firmer.  North American women usually are more restrained in their use of bold gestures but use more facial expressions (especially smiles) and are more skilled in interpreting them. 

In Japan, women most often speak with an artificially high pitch, especially when conversing with men in a business or official setting.   This is part of the general deference traditionally shown to men.  However, recent research indicates that the pitch of female voices has begun to lower.  It has been suggested that this change is connected with the increased economic and political clout of Japanese women.


The human communication process is more complex than it initially seems.  Much, if not most, of our messages in face to face contact are transmitted through paralanguage.  These auxiliary communication techniques are highly culture bound.  Communication with people from other societies or ethnic groups is fraught with the danger of misunderstanding if their culture and paralanguage is unknown to you or ignored.

diagram of the human communication process--language broken down into speech and writing; paralanguage broken down into kinesics, tone and character of voice, proxemics, clothing, makeup, etc.

To further explore these hidden dimensions of communication around the world, check out the selected bibliography.


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 29, 2009.
Copyright 1998-2009 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
Illustration credits