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Understanding Paraverbal Communication



Whenever we think of the key word “communication” the spoken maybe even the written word generally comes to mind. However, between two people this represents only one of three levels composing communication – and by far not the most important! After all, seen from the perspective of its evolutionary history the word does not stand alone – other channels of communication were at least equally important! Maybe you already have had similar experiences that you can express a lot more with a glance or a gesture than with an endless sermon. Or you have listened to someone volubly trying to convince you of something while you were thinking to yourself: “he/she is lying down his/her throat”. In that case you are already aware of the other two channels people use to communicate with each other and which are going to be today’s primary subject.

At one point the psychologist Paul Watzlawick put it this way: “One cannot not communicate!” If you are in a space with someone and turn your back to him/her without saying anything, you might not be talking to this person and still very succinctly convey the message: “Just leave me alone!” or even “I want nothing to do with you!” Had you put this message into words, you would also have utilized the verbal channel of communicating. On the other hand, when you only let your posture speak for you, you communicate non-verbally. It includes all physical signals used to express emotions, opinions, affection or aversion. As a rule we deploy them in support or punctuation of our verbal messages (e.g. our facial expressions or gesticulation.) However, it is quite capable – as in the example outlined above – to convey an abundance of information all on its own.

Generally our non-verbal communication signals are quite direct and immediate because they – unless we consciously concentrate on them – are rather more created subconsciously and therefore are less subject to our control than the spoken word. As a result non-verbal signals frequently transmit more distinct – and more genuine! – indications of that which we really think. This gets really interesting at the moment when verbal information (e.g. “I feel fine, thank you!”) and non-verbal information (e.g. unhappy facial expression, hunched posture) just don’t seem to be in sync. That will normally cause us to stop short and when someone tells you in this manner that he/she is feeling just fine you would probably react by asking: “Are you sure?” Because, when we are given the choice of posture or the spoken word we instinctively choose the information provided by the body. In that case non-verbal information is perceived as more important and reliable than verbal information, in those situations we believe that which we see and not what we hear.

Some of the most important elements of non-verbal communication are:

  • Posture (e.g. the posture two people assume vis-à-vis each another)
  • Facial expression and gesticulation (should you smirk at a statement, it may indicate its verbal content for instance ironically or as not seriously taken)
  • Line of vision (it initiates communication as for instance a flirt in a bar where long, exchanged glances represent the beginning before the first word is spoken. But then glances can express a lot more: the entire emotional spectrum from fondness all the way to loathing and revulsion, domination or subservience, by provokingly staring at a person or alternatively casting down one’s eyes. And least of all the eyes tell a lot about the amount of attention someone pays to what is being said – if his/her eyes wander all over the place that which I happen to be saying is probably boring him/her to death and he/she is looking for an escape route.)
  • Objects (if you encounter a person in uniform wearing a police hat you are immediately aware of his/her profession before he/she even says a word. In case you are not a fan of the Green Bay Packers but the Chicago Bears and on the way to the stadium from the parking lot you end up in a crowd of cheese heads you are painfully aware without a word being spoken that you are in the wrong crowd.)
  • Distance (if you let someone get really close to, maybe even hug him/her then it says just as much about your feelings as when you carefully maintain at least a foot distance between the two of you.)

In addition to the verbal and non-verbal plane there is a third means of communicating: the paraverbal. This includes all communication signals dealing with voice modulation and – level. (Some communication researchers also categorize this means as a sub-category of non-verbal communication). I am sure that you are, or at least should be aware of this based on your own means of communicating: When we are sure of ourselves, feel calm and confident our voice sounds clear and well enunciated; if for example we are nervous or aggressive, we generally speak faster and often in a high-pitched tone. Aggression generally causes the voice to get louder; on the other hand, fear and insecurity are manifested by a rather more muted and a higher voice or also by floundering. In addition to insecurity the voice level also signals fun and happiness – you probably have squealed for joy when you received something particularly nice or exciting. On the other hand, fear can naturally cause some very impressive squealing; in order to relate to that all one has to do, is hang out and watch the activity around a free-fall-tower or one of those death and gravity defying roller coasters.

Consequently paraverbal signals are not unilaterally entirely unequivocal; in the course of experiments subjects most easily recognize the emotions fear and anger in the voice level. From an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense because it was surely very useful that one was aware of a danger the other had noticed early on (that could well also be threatening to oneself at the same time) or when someone else was furious and therefore it was probably safer to get out of dodge. In addition to this emotional information paraverbal signals also provide information about our counterpart’s group affiliation – for instance about which dialect he/she speaks or whether he/he is a foreigner and therefore has an accent.

As part of a communication in the case of doubt, paraverbal signals are clearly superior to verbal content: when your girl friend assures you that she is absolutely not afraid and communicates that in a trembling voice two octaves higher than usual, you can be pretty sure that she is about to tell you a fib. Lie researchers have determined that paraverbal signals are an excellent indication of conscious attempts to deceive. The wrong inflection, a wrong intonation or incorrect emphasis quickly warns experts that someone is not speaking the truth.

Although opinions regarding the reliability of nonverbal and paraverbal signals as a part of communication differ – there is no question that these two areas present any number of opportunities for misinterpretation or misunderstandings - however, all experts are agreed in one basic fact: we instinctively grade the value of nonverbal and paraverbal signals considerably higher than the one of verbal signals. Based on research non- and paraverbal elements represent between 60 and 90% in response to the question whether that which someone just told us was convincing, or not.

If this subject interests you and you would like to do a little more for your credibility (e.g. in the course of a job interview or the job itself), you might enjoy and find the following exercises useful:

  • At the next opportunity pay particular attention to your conversational partner’s non- and paraverbal signals. What attracts your attention? Are there certain people in your environment who tend to display incongruent (= non compatible) behavior more often than others? What do you suspect could be the cause for this?
  • Test the effect you have on others, for instance when you hold your head up and look them straight into the eyes or as opposed to frequently casting your eyes down and slightly bending your head forward. Which reactions to your different body positions do you observe in others?
  • The next time you feel insecure or stressed, consciously pay special attention to your hands. They frequently are the first sign betraying when we don’t feel up to par by fiddling with something or subconsciously touching our ears, the hair, etc. If you would like to avoid that, look for a subject you can “hold on to” giving them the opportunity to calm down.
  • The next time you are in a bar or a restaurant, observe a few people. How would you interpret their posture or the way they move? Are they feeling good or down? Are they bored, interested, tired, excited, and angry? Which signals tell you that? It is equally exciting to observe people who are flirting. If you have the opportunity, try to guess who is more interested in whom and how this whole deal will probably end – with a second date or a bust.
  • If the opportunity presents itself it can be great fun to watch oneself in a video while making a presentation, for instance or even having a conversation with someone. In those case lots of interesting things become suddenly apparent!

And here a final experiment for the next stroll through town: Communication scientists recognize four zones of „personal distance“ around people. These zones are always reserved for different categories of people:

  • very familiar people may get very close to us (50 cm)
  • a space of between 50 cm and 1,2 meters is reserved between ourselves and folks we know well (our „intimate zone“)
  • where contact remains impersonal and superficial we are lots more comfortable when between 2.5 and 3.5 meters separate us
  • and if there is someone we don’t know at all we prefer that he/she doesn’t get any closer than about 3.5 meters (that is called the “public distance”).
In case someone who doesn’t belong there happens to penetrate our “intimate zone” of 1 or even 50 cm like for instance on a overcrowded bus, in the elevator or some queue at the post office, it tends to make us very uncomfortable and we attempt all sorts of ways and means to put some distance between ourselves and the intruder (for instance by consciously avoiding eye contact or donning the ipod). You’ll have plenty of opportunities to experiment with your very own zones. Which distances do you find to be acceptable and those that bother you? Who do you permit to get close? Are there differences according to gender? (For instance, do you tend to let persons of the same gender get closer or the other way around)? You can also try and see what happens when you intrude into someone else’s “intimate zone” – how does he or she react?

As always we hope you have lots of fun observing and testing!

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