Thursday, September 6, 2012

How Useful is Nonverbal Communication?

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How Useful is the study of Nonverbal Communication?

Many people believe that nonverbal behavior represents more true characteristics, attitudes, and feelings about people than does verbal behavior, and that one can determine secret feelings about others from their actions (Patterson). Scholars and researchers, however, disagree exactly how much one can learn from observing kinesic actions.

In his book Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian suggests that people communicate through media other than our words much more than we do through the words we choose. He concluded, through a series of experiments, that total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 8% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling (Mehrabian). While this empirical percentage seems somewhat hard to swallow, it surely points out trends about the meaning we place on nonverbal communication, especially considering that he only focuses on facial cues and movements. Similarly, Ekman and Friesen examined nonverbal cues regarding emotional attitudes towards people. They suggested that stationary facial expressions and postures - tightness of face, general frowns or smiles - are more likely to communicate general emotional attitudes than facial and body movements, which seem more likely to communicate specific emotions.

Patterson, however, disagrees with Mehrabian, suggesting that no one behavior is particularly useful in determining meaning. He maintains that so many factors influence our body movements, we cannot distinguish the meaningful actions with accuracy. He suggests, however, that correlated groups of behaviors - stance, posture, facial patterns, and arm movements, for example - can combine to provide us with a much more accurate hypothesis about a persons meaning. Zunin agrees that kinesic behavior is most useful for supporting other evidence, such as verbal messages, rather than as an indicator of mood or intent all on its own. It seems that inferences made about specific actions are not all that reliable, but that groups of actions, or action/word combinations, are much more so.

What is nonverbal communication used for?

Patterson reported multiple theories on what we use nonverbal gestures to communicate. According to Harrison, nonverbal behavior defines and constrains communication between people, regulating the flow of interaction and providing feedback to each communicator. Zunin will use this idea in his theories regarding interaction stability in conversations. Harrison also suggests that kinesic gestures communicate the same content as verbal gestures in order to reinforce or flavor them.

On the other hand, Patterson developed his own model of the uses of nonverbal communication. He divides our interpretations about nonverbal communication into two groups, which he labels molecular and molar, in reference to chemical measure. The molecular group is descriptive of isolated patterns of behavior, and is used to provide information or to regulate interaction. When providing information - which Patterson theorizes is the most basic function of kinesic gestures - the face is the primary actor. Using the face, one can infer information about someones current disposition, fleeting reactions, or particular exchanges. When regulating interactions, other standing features, such as distance, orientation and posture, help define the basic course of conversation and remain relatively stable throughout that conversation. More specifically, these standing features are what help define and smooth the distinctions between romantic dates and business lunches.

The molar category of interaction-observation combines observations of extended exchanges. These groups of nonverbal behaviors refer to the specific course an interaction will take throughout the interaction. Molar groups of gestures express intimacy, exercise social control, and facilitate task goals in an interaction. These more complex conclusions must be supported by groups of behaviors instead of single instances.

To illustrate molar groups of interactions more clearly, one might highlight the relationships between a doctor and patient, or barber and customer. In both of these cases, one party touches another in a way normally reserved for intimate interactions. However, due to the more formal behaviors associated with these types of relationships - shaking hands, sitting in waiting rooms, wearing special uniforms - the seemingly unusual behavior is allowed. Patterson notes that these interpretations can exist in tandem; for example, particular gestures could be described as regulatory within the framework of social control.

How do we communicate with those we don't know?

In his book The First Four Minutes, Leonard Zunin suggests that we communicate with those we don't know mostly through our eyes. We pay great attention to eyes in our culture, he says, as evidenced by the great amounts of eye-care products available makeup, contact lenses, eyelashes, glasses, etcetera. He also notes three very common behaviors observed when passing by a stranger. In a narrow path, we often practice the which side of the path look, in which we make eye contact and then look at the path where we intend to walk. The other is supposed to move the other way. Another look associated more with slight acquaintances is the I acknowledge you look, when eye contact is made, but no words are exchanged. It communicates to both parties that each is aware of the other, and choosing not to speak. Finally, Zunin describes the Look-away priority, a norm which guides a stranger who is looking at someone to look away after eye contact is made. Slightly prolonging the look-away, of course, is seen as a sign of attraction or of dominance.

How do we meet each other?

Zunin divides interaction into three phases contact, midterm, and ending. These phases are informally characterized as the hello, continuance, and goodbye phases. These phases apply equally to impersonal and intimate contacts. He suggests that contact is the most important of these three phases, as it defines the boundaries, roles and flavor of an interaction.

When referring to the first phase, Zunin explains that in any given interaction, contact last for about four minutes. Others estimate this interval at between three and six minutes; here, we will use four as a convenient average. It is during this stage that parties in an interaction elect either to continue or terminate conversation.

In essence, getting through the four-minute barrier can be compared to a supersonic aircraft breakingt the sound barrier after the initial turbulence (of the psyche in the human frame of reference), the chance of smoother progress is predictably improved.

Zunin cites many examples of this four-minute barrier, and I have corroborated some of them. When meeting someone in the Merrill quad, acquaintances tend to speak to each other for less than three minutes before moving on, and in fact, often never speak for more than thirty seconds. Even friends rarely speak for the full four minutes before moving on, unless they are clearly together. Perhaps this Hampshire norm helps explain complaints of no community at Hampshire.

Methods of dividing body movements

In Nonverbal Behavior A Functional Perspective, Miles L. Patterson explains the most common division of body movements used in discussions of nonverbal communication. These are corroborated by Morris as well. He divides interactive kinesic behavior into the following categories:

• interpersonal distance gaze

• direction touch

• body lean body orientation

• facial expressions

• pupillary dilation/constriction gestures

• hand movements

• foot or leg movements

• grooming behaviors

• self- and object manipulations

• posture and postural adjustments

The items marked with stars are ones he finds especially important; the items marked in parenthesis, he finds less so.

Zunin, however, divides kinesic movements into different types of groups, using larger areas of the body. Though this approach makes more difficult the combining of seemingly unrelated cues, it also allows us to recognize some types of cues much more easily. Based on the premise that large areas of the body tend to work together in order to send a coordinated message, Zunin created groups such as head and included they eyes, eyebrows, mouth, nose, and head position into one category. His categories also include shouders/trunk and extremities, though the previous example is given the most attention.

Specific Areas and Rules

The head provides a great deal of communicative data. In one study reporteed on by Kleinke, K. A. Nichols and B. G. Champness found acorrelation between receiving gaze and galvanic skin response, a common index of emotional arousal. Morris places so much importance on the eyes that he suggests that the whites of our eyes (which chimpanzees and other primates do not have) developed specifically to make our eyes gaze more noticeable. He theorizes that this is due to the relatively high amounts of verbal, face-to-face encounters humans have. Below are just a few of the most common and most useful rules regarding parts of the head.

When engaged in conversation, it is most common for the listening party to gaze at the speaker in order to show attention and interest. The speaker, on the other hand, avoids a staring contest by looking elsewhere, with occasional glances, until ready to finish. Doing otherwise changes the rules a listener may look away to indicate confusion or disbelief, or a speaker may prolong mutual gaze in order to emphasize a point (Zunin). It is possible that they eyebrows help flavor and accentuate the messages created by this gaze-priority in conversation.

In less comfortable situations, however, gaze plays a different role. One study performed by R. V. Exline, D. Gray and D. Schuette mentioned by Kleinke found that students gazed at interviewer much more when asked nonembarrassing questions, and much less when answering questions on more personal topics. Similarly, a study by A. Modigliani found that praise by an experiments interviewer increases eye contact and vice versa.

Nods can have a variety of different meanings as well, and like the eyes, are subject to drastic changes in meaning with only the most minute alteration. For example, the speed at which one nods yes could indicate I understand, move on (fast shake); I understand and agree with you (moderate nod); or I think I understand, but I am a little confused or even I understand, but disagree (slow bob). Similarly, head tilts show interest of some sort, depending on the angle and direction of tilt a tilt to the front and side could mean I'm listening to you (by putting my ear closer), and a tilt to the side and back could mean I am thinking about your question, while a straight tilt to the side might mean I am interested and possibly attracted.

The case of the mouth highlights a strong distinction that of inborn actions. Humans all over the world smile when they are happy and frown when they are sad. Other actions seem learned, such as pursed lips. This phenomenon is partial only to a few cultures. Compared to the eyes, ones shoulders and trunk communicate much less about momentary emotions and much more about control and self-esteem (Zunin). This idea is corroborated by both Patterson and Davis. Shrunken chests are equated with fear and self-conciousness in both men and women (though possibly for different reasons). Conversely, expanded chests can communicate high self-worth in the case of men, and attraction or openness in the case of women. Men in our culture, Zunin notes, show signs of personality or disposition primarily through orientation and display of the trunk. For women, this message can be doubly communicated when other surface features are added, such as clothing types. Touch is widely agreed to be a powerful, but often confusing tool. According to Zunin, the message sent is most often one of good feeling I like you, you're ok, I agree. The message received is often different and can provoke surprising reactions. Zunin reports on a book by Desmond Morris, Intimate Behavior, that touch is avoided in impersonal relationships in order to avoid sexual implications. The frequency of touch seems clearly culturally mandated, as well Zunin also mentions a study performed by Jourard in which the number of touches performed by parties of two at a cafe differed greatly from city to city around the globe. In Paris, partners touched 110 times per hour, while in London, they touched no times at all.

Personal Airspace, or proxemics, can provide information regarding the nature of relationships. Anthropologist E. T. Hall defined four zones which persons keep around themselves. The first and closest of these is the intimate zone, defined as our bodies plus a few inches. This is the zone only invaded by close partners or ourselves. Next is the personal zone, ranging from about four to eighteen inches, which implies a conversation between confidantes or close friends. The social zone extends to about four feet, and is used for most interactions, followed by the public zone, in which one is aware of, but not necessarily overtly interacting with, people. Zunin suggests another type of zone, called the ambivalent zone, which is characterized by disputed areas of personal airspace. This includes choice spots like movie armrests. To help learn this theory, I created and manipulated a few ambivalent zones between myself and other people and watched the effects. In one case at a meal, I slowly moved my plate, my glass and my body across the table toward my comrade. She became visibly uncomfortable, though when I questioned her, she could not say why.

Theories of Meeting-Interaction

Argyle and Dean presented a theoretical approach to nonverbal behavior Equilibrium theory. In any given interaction, they hypothesized, a level of intimacy is decided on between individuals. This is manifested in terms of distance, eye contact, smiling, and other verbal and nonverbal gestures. Once this level is set, a force to keep it at that same level is generated, e.g. if I move closer to you (increase involvement), you will make less eye-contact, thus restoring determined equilibrium. This force is only counteracted, they wrote, by a strong desire on the part of both participants.

Since later research found that the equilibrium model was not entirely accurate (although certainly better than before), Patterson created better approach a better approach (M.L. Patterson) an Arousal model. It is best explained using a flowchart, but operates something like this (it is still in some use today) If A changes involvement, monitor Bs arousal. If Bs arousal change is positive, then As change is reciprocated; if negative, As change is compensated for. If Bs shows no arousal change, then As change was not great enough to produce change.

In a slightly different pattern, Mehrabian divided nonverbal actions into three dimensions immediacy, power, and responsiveness. Each dimension is represented by several types of gesture that correlate with one of these three general messages. The first metaphor, immediacy, relates to proxemics. It is based on the principle that people are attracted to things they like and repulsed by things they don't. Thus, Mehrabian theorizes, we make gestures intended to symbolically or literally bring the things we like closer to us. This includes grasping gestures, body lean, open posture and other similar movements. The power metaphor is characterized by sweeping, expansive movements of greater size, such as a proud-chested, strong walk. These types of gestures establish dominance over others. The last dimension - the responsiveness dimension - establishes the severity of the feelings associated with the immediacy and power dimensions clearly, whether we react a little or a lot correlates closely with the strength of our feelings on a subject.


Clearly, nonverbal behavior provides much of the information which we process and utilize in our interactions. Much of this processing seems unconscious and can be unlearned only with serious effort. The same is true with our own patterns of behavior. How, then, can we sum up the theories and facts regarding nonverbal communication into a neat, useful package for impersonal contact? Patterson does so by providing a simple rule for first-impression management. He suggests that providing a fairly high, but not overwhelming, amount of interest toward a person will garner the best results most of the time. This safe 75% involvement will bother very few people and flatter most - which, as noted, people crave more than anything else in the world.

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