During a confrontation or during the period leading up to a confrontation, communication plays a large part in whether the confrontation ends or is escalated. Facing an angry person is a harrowing experience. It would seen that the person is telling you everything you need to know about his or her intent in the words he or she is yelling. However, studies have shown that 65% to 95% of a message’s meaning is communicated through non-verbal clues.
There is relatively little agreement on where exactly the boundary between verbal and non-verbal communication may be drawn. Particularly, the importance of non-word utterances, such as a throat clearing noise, is highly debated. This article considers anything other than word utterances as non-verbal communication.
As with so many other cultural factors, non-verbal communication is subject to the interpretation of the non-verbal signs by the recipient of the message. Frequently, the interpretation and recognition of non-verbal messages is subconscious, and may therefore be extremely misleading in intercultural encounters.
Non-verbal communication may be roughly divided into two groups: active behavior that is consciously controlled and passive behavior that is unconsciously displayed.
Kinesics is the non-verbal behavior related to movement, either of a part of the body or the body as a whole. Kinesics communication is the most obvious non-verbal communication form. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most confusing area since the various meanings communicated through body movements seem endless across cultures. Kinesics may be subdivided into five categories.
- Emblems. Emblems are non-verbal messages that have a verbal counterpart. Emblems have a bewildering array of possible interpretations and meanings. For example, the British sign for Victory (forefinger and middle finger erect) symbolizes the letter V, a sign for victory. However, the same movement may symbolize the number two in the United States, and may be seen as insulting in Australia.
- Illustrators. Illustrators are less clearly linked to specific sayings or words being used. Illustrators are consciously used to illustrate what is being said, such as holding the hands wide apart to illustrate something big. Again, the usage and the amount of illustrators used is different from culture to culture. For example in some Asian cultures, extensive use of illustrators is often interpreted as a lack of intelligence, whereas in Latin cultures the absence of illustrators may be construed as a lack of interest.
- Affective Displays. Affective displays are body or, more frequently, facial movements that display a certain affective state, such as emotions. For example, facial expressions that show anger. Affective displays are often less conscious than illustrators and occur less frequently. The subconscious nature of affective displays and the varying degrees of their usage, make the interpretation of affective displays frequently quite bewildering across cultures. For example, the frequent and extensive subconscious usage of affective display movements by an Italian may be understood as threatening in a culture in which affective display movements are more restrained.
- Regulators. Regulators are non-verbal signs that regulate, modulate, and maintain the flow of speech during a conversation. They may be both kinesics, such as the nodding of a head, as well as non-kinesics, such as eye movements. These are the most culturally determined kinesics signs. As regulators moderate the flow of information, and are used as feedback of whether or not a person has understood the message, they may be confusing.
- Adapters. Adaptors include postural changes and other movements at a low level of awareness, frequently made to feel more comfortable or to perform a specific physical function. Because adaptors are usually carried out a low level of awareness, they have been hailed as the secret to understanding what your conversation partner really thinks. However, many adaptor movements, such as moving in a chair, may be employed more frequently to resolve a specific physical situation, rather than being an indicator of "secret thoughts."
Oculesics is the way eyes are used during a communication exchange. This may include eye contact or the avoidance of eye contact, but it may also include all other eye movements, such as looking onto other body parts of the other person. Occulesic movements are also frequently associated to kinesics movements. For example, regulators often rely on both a kinesics component, such as raising of an eyebrow, and an occulesic component, such as looking into the eye of the other person, to get a message across.
People from some cultures may lower their gaze to convey respect, whereas this may be understood as insulting in other cultures. Direct eye contact may be seen as insulting in some cultures or convey attention in others.
Eye contact and the amount and length of eye contact may be confusing. For example, many United States women feel insulted and embarrassed at being looked at for, in their view, a prolonged period by Italian and French men. Conversely, Italian and French females may perceive United States men as cold because of their relatively short eye contact with females.
Haptics refers to touching behavior. Although used most frequent during greetings and departures, touching may occur in a variety of circumstances, including during a conversation. Some cultures place great emphasis on physical contact between people during a conversation, while people from societies in which touching is limited may feel uncomfortable.
While haptics can be hostile (kicking), more often, haptic behavior is used to indicate the degree of intimacy. Haptic behavior may be divided into the following degrees of intimacy:
The boundaries between the different levels of intimacy are somewhat fuzzy, even in one culture. However, across cultures, their boundaries may be completely different. Where different haptic standards are used, touching behavior may frequently cause irritation and misinterpretation of what is intended with the touch. For example, in many Arab countries, men frequently touch each other in public or walk arm-in-arm down. Such a behavior could easily imply an intimate sexual relationship between those two men in other cultures.
The way personal space is structured is referred to as proxemics. Personal space, or the distance from other persons, is a powerful concept. Research suggests it directly relates to our interpretation of the meaning of messages conveyed by the other person. For example, a person expressing anger is perceived as less threatening the further away that person is. However, if the person is close, the expression of anger becomes more threatening. In fact, physical closeness may itself be used to threaten the other person.