Nonverbal Communication

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Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is important in active listening and every day interactions. Most people are familiar with viewing and using body language and hand signals in their own culture. In a work environment that wants to promote diversity it is important to be aware of other possible meanings. This also reinforces the importance of active listening to confirm your understanding with the speaker's intent.

Nonverbal cues include:

  1. Eye contact.
  2. Facial expressions.
  3. Body language.
  4. Hand signals.
  5. Silence.
  6. Personal space.

Many of these cues lack meaning without context. Verbal and nonverbal communication go together and the participants must listen to both to be successful.

Body Language

Body language can be intentional or unintentional, but both convey meaning to the receiver. Be aware when reading other people, but also be aware of the messages you convey in your own body language.

Examples of Body Language

Remember, the same action can have different meanings in different situations.

  1. Nods head: Person is engaged and listening.
  2. Crosses arms: Person may be frustrated or disagree.
  3. Checks the time: Person is thinking about something else or bored.
  4. Rolls eyes: Person disagrees and does not respect the speaker.

Examples of Cultural Differences in Body Language

  1. Eye contact: In some cultures eye contact is disrespectful, while other cultures see eye contact as a sign of communicating effectively. There are some who use brief eye contact and others intensely stare.
  2. Nodding head side to side instead of front to back: These signals look different but can mean the same thing. Depending on the culture, both can be a sign of agreement.
  3. Handshakes: In the US you often use a firm handshake with a few brief shakes and then release. Some cultures use a longer handshake that includes a left-handed elbow touch. Some cultures use a limp handshake and some believe a firm handshake is a sign of aggression. Also, some cultures do not allow shaking hands with women.
  4. Personal space: Some cultures find it normal to stand extremely close when talking. Others prefer a much larger buffer between people.
  5. Touching: In many Latin cultures, touching is very normal in conversations. Many other cultures will find any kind of touching offensive. It is typically best to refrain from touching in the workplace.

Be aware of these cultural differences and be willing to temporarily adapt when necessary. Do not assume that different people will understand your body language. If there is any question, check for understanding and confirm the correct message was received.


Hand signals and gestures are dangerous forms of nonverbal communication because there are so many variations specific to different cultures. The best policy is to avoid using them as much as possible and also be aware of different possible meanings if someone uses a signal with you.

Examples of Hand Signals

  1. Beckon: In the US people often use the index finger, but this is considered insulting in other cultures. Many countries use the whole hand, palm down, waving.
  2. Thumbs-up: In the US this is typically a positive signal telling someone good job or that something is ready to go. In many other parts of the world this is an insult similar to the middle finger.
  3. Two fingers or V: If the palm is facing out this generally means victory, or peace, or stating the number two. In many cultures if you face the palm in you are insulting someone.

There are many other hand signals and gestures around the world. Knowing that they exist and being aware of different variations is important. Be careful how you use signals and also how you interpret them from others.

Nonverbal skills are important in the workplace. In diverse situations it is even more important to be aware of your nonverbal cues. Continually observe your listener's nonverbal behavior to make sure they are engaged and are understanding your message.