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Human Communication as a Primate Heritage

Instructor: Anne Zeller

Lecture Four: Human NonVerbal Communication

Human nonverbal communication has long been an accepted field of study from a practical viewpoint. Aspects such as shifty eyes, restless hands and moving feet suggesting an untrustworthy nature were accepted as folk wisdom but not really studied much until the early 1960's. As I mentioned in the first lecture, Edward T. Hall's work in the 1950's on cultural differences in body movement, use of space, cultural markers and many other aspects of non-verbal communication served as a back ground for the development of this field as an area of formal academic interest. Many ideas were picked up by a variety of researchers in the fields of Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Primatology, and Medicine as well as practical applications in cosmetics, fashion and sports.

Clearly we cannot cover all of these fields in this lecture, but will concentrate on people in face to face interactions in the areas of proxemics (use of space), facial gestures, kinesics (body movement), paralinguistic speech modifiers, and appearance, by including examples from a variety of situations such as courtship. Nonverbal deception cues is a whole area of research which will be mainly covered in the next lecture.

I began with face to face interaction because this is when most of us initially become aware of the importance of nonverbal cues. The importance of the 'dress for success' career advice, the 'how to take an interview' books and the self presentation tips suggested in public speaking courses all rest on the kind of information presented here. Other major areas amenable to these types of analysis are classroom settings, telephone conversations and television presentations which have their own formal systems and criteria of interaction and information transmission. Face to face interaction occurs in a wide variety of contexts frequently with some verbal overlap when humans are involved. Hall emphasizes that non verbal cues are culturally quite specific and that even subcultural differences such as between men and women or people of different age sets can interfere with message transmission. The other major factor that Hall emphasizes is that many of these cues are neither sent nor received on a conscious level. Also, it is true that no body movement or position of itself has a precise social meaning. Context has a great deal to do with interpretation as does the state of the surroundings. In photographic studies even a shift in the background colour behind a face can influence the interpretation of what emotion is being portrayed (Knapp 1972). Therefore the interpretation of non verbal cues is far from being an exact science, especially when there is some element of deception involved.

Birdwhistell who studied non verbal communication extensively in the 1960's claimed that in conversation about 35% of the message was carried in the verbal modality and the other 65% in the non verbal. He specialized particularly in kinesics and proxemics. Because of this high proportion of nonverbal cues, face to face interaction allows more sense modalities to become involved and more immediate feedback interaction occurs than do other interactive situations. The features of the space in which two individuals are interacting may tend to constrain or enhance the type of relationship which may develop between them, as will the level of emotion or trust, and the length of time that the interaction occurs. All of these may influence the nature and reception of any verbal message that is being transmitted. If the spatial components of a situation are such that only face to face orientation is possible, such as in the facing seats of a train or a restaurant booth, then people who know each other well usually communicate with words, eye contact, comfort movement of hands or fiddling with objects and possibly with gaze aversion. If people are crowded together in a bus or a subway car a lot of the discomfort at being within the perceived boundaries of another's personal space can be ameliorated by one person being able to turn sideways and or look down so eye contact is not as immediate and the close physical spacing does not suggest a level of intimacy inappropriate to the relationship. A line of people who are front to back is much less emotionally challenging than situations which require close front to front spacing, such as in very crowded buses or trains. People can avoid the feelings of discomfort by not reacting to others, by blocking out their actions and voices from their conscious perceptions and concentrating on books, advertisements on the wall, or by focusing inward and not engaging others. How different this is from the positive emotional acceptance of hugging someone you love, or even standing close to them with full eye contact, and feeling the other's breath wash over you. In experimental situations various patterns of approach to people sitting in a library were used to see which would produce the most defensive or avoidance behaviour. Sitting across from the subjects with a library table between was not seen as too intrusive unless the experimenter persisted in conversation. Sitting side by side and moving the chair closer to the subject elicited retreat in over 70% of the subjects in 30 minutes. Only one of the 80 subjects asked the invader to move over (Sommer. 1969 ) Personal Space. Among the responses were defensive gestures, shifts in posture, and spreading of belongings to claim space.

Other types of spacing around tables can be used to send a variety of messages. Leaders of groups are usually found at the heads of tables. Also a status dominance differential is seen between those sitting at either end of a table and those along its sides. End positions at rectangular tables seem to be occupied by talkative people who tend to take on leadership roles, while the central side position seems to be favoured by those concerned about facilitating group dynamics. Non-central side positions seem to be most occupied by people who do not wish to be involved in discussion and decision making (Hare and Bales. 1963). These results are supported by Sommer's research on preferred seating positions at round or square tables, which seems to vary depending on the nature of the task ( co-operative or competitive), whether people were close friends, acquaintances or strangers and whether they were the same or opposite gender. These patterns of spacing are influenced somewhat by cultural differences between people of various countries, but seem quite similar between the United States and Great Britain (Cook 1970). Co-operative and intimate relationship are expressed by side by side seating. Decreasing distance between people, or moving to a side by side position denotes increasing positive affiliations. However, increasing levels of non-affiliative motivation between two people, such as competition usually increases the level of direct eye contact, which is promoted by a face to face orientation. This last observation is more relevant in Western cultural interactions than in some other cultures where direct prolonged eye contact is seen as evidence of sincerity. However the ranking of preferred positions at tables from side by side seating as intimate and corner seating as next down to distance seating as least relational seems to be agreed on by a wide variety of cultures. This is supported by physiological research on galvanic skin responses which were greatest when an individual was approached frontally (potential conflict) and less when approached from the side or the rear. In observing primates I have noticed that more successful approaches by one animal to another for the purpose of grooming are made at an oblique angle, or from the side or the rear. A Direct rapid frontal approach will very seldom result in grooming being elicited unless the approacher has averted its head to modify the frontal approach. Closeness of approach is also governed by the motivation of the approacher. Those engaged in seeking approval, or in friendly interactions with peers will approach much more closely than those of a lower status. Higher ranked people will approach lower ranking ones more closely than the reverse and women are approached more closely than men in standing face to face interactions, although not in seated ones.

All of these forgoing statements are made without taking the importance of facial gestures and kinesic into consideration. Facial expression can invite or repel approach by others. There are definite rules of display concerning what is appropriate under various circumstances and many humans can overcome their actual emotional affect with a facial display reflecting something different. We can tone down the expression of intense emotion, or enhance a less strongly felt one. However, experienced observers often feel that they can see through these deceptive efforts, even when they are not conscious on the part of the sender (Eckman and Friesen 1967). Some research has suggested the use of facial gestures which are blends of various emotions expressing conflict, or rapid changes from one expression to another and back agin which can occur faster than 1/5 of a second and which may not be consciously observed. However, when such interactions are filmed and replayed at slow speeds these transitions are quite evident and usually represent either internal conflict or an attempt to conceal. Monkeys can make facial movements at rates of 1/12 to 1/24 of a second as is revealed in my research. I argue that although you may not recognize that these expressions have occurred, you do perceive them (as do monkeys) and they will affect your judgement of what is occurring. Levels and kinds of eye contact in facial expressions both send messages and regulate information transfer. People seek feedback from others when they are talking. When a person reaches the end of a verbal message they will often look at the respondent. If the respondent then begins, they often look away until their reply is almost finished, when they will look back, thus yielding the conversational turn to the other. If the topic of the conversation is highly emotionally charged and confrontational - there may be much less looking away, and the direct eye contact may also show widely opened eyes with raised upper eyelids and contracted orbicularis muscles indicating displeasure. On the other hand, downward cast eyes that are rarely raised to the speaker may be seen as modest, deferential or defensive. People also tend to look away from others when they are having difficulty encoding data, as if they did not want to be interrupted until they are done. Eye contact can be elicited and promoted by markers of attentiveness, such as nodding agreement, smiling, and focusing on the speaker. Both males and females standing facing each other have more eye contact with people that they like and but only males show much less with those they dislike. However, women sitting show much less eye contact with disliked males even than with disliked females, which is in marked contrast to their behaviour when standing. Some people use the direct look as an aggressive manifestation towards others when it is maintained for longer than 10 seconds. The unsettling effect of receiving this behaviour is much more marked on unaggressive recipients than on aggressive ones (Knapp 1972). Size of pupil dilation is another major indicator of interest although the subjects that elicit maximum dilation vary between men and women. Potential sexual partners portrayed nude will elicit maximal dilation from all classes tested, but women will also respond to pictures of babies or mothers and babies. This is not a generally noticed feature by most interactants but experimental trials using drugs to control pupil size, and closely analysed film indicate the correlation.

There are many other aspects of the face which are very communicative such as mouth opening, lips, nostrils, ear movement and eyebrows, but I have focused on eyes because, in primates at least they seem to be the most consistent aspects of non-vocal communication.

I will refer to body movement outside the face as kinesics, although when Birdwhistell coined the terms he included facial movements as well. Often the body and face move together in expressing a non verbal message, such as a disgusted turning away from someone or a regretful turning away. Several gestures may be formed in a sequence providing a series of messages that may be the equivalent of a sentence or a paragraph. The movements may all be indicative of the same message such as hostility, or they may represent a conflict between messages. Some aspects of kinesics are very much culture bound such as certain hand and finger gestures, while others such as orientation of the hips and shoulders are less conscious reflections of attitude and engagement. Very much liked addresses actually had a little less direct orientation of body posture (hips and knees) when seated than moderately liked ones, possible because of tendencies to sit side by side or in close proximity. Generalizations about these positions, of course, are most relevant in cultures with chairs. About half the world's population generally do not use Western style chairs and have various standing, floor siting, squatting or kneeling resting postures which may have similar orientations but are quite different in terms of arm position - open or folded, leg position, open or closed knees, and degree of bending or torsion. Indexes of relaxation such as reclining and sideways leaning also show significant relationships to attitude in others. Leaning forward towards a speaker indicates a much more positive attitude than leaning back or way from them. Sideways leaning means different things to males and females. Females use most sideways lean with intensely disliked males, but not with females. They show moderate relaxation with a liked addressee. Sideways lean is also greater when interacting with a lower status individual (Goffman 1961) in both sexes.

Body cues also indicate information about intensity of emotional arousal. The higher the level of arousal, generally speaking, the more frequent and varied the movements of hands, arms, legs and feet, as well as changes in body position. Some of these kinesic cues are considered indicative of courtship intention, such as preening behaviour in which hair is stroked, makeup adjusted, clothes rearranged, mirrors checked, and knots readjusted. These may be designed to send a message or may merely be indicators of anxiety to put on a good impression. Positional cues can indicate who is interacting with who in a group, or that the grouping is not open to outsiders. This is done using spacing, body orientation, gaze direction, arm placement to block others, and touching. Eckman and Friesen (1969) claim that leg cues are often overlooked and therefore not as closely controlled by those attempting to send false messages. Thus if you focus on the lower parts of the body you can often see conflicting messages from those displayed by the face and hands.

The channel of perception can also alter the interpretation of attitude between interactants. In nonthreatening situations or in affirmation if words are accompanied by touch of a liked individual in a non-threatening body area, the affect is often seen as more positive than if words alone are used. However touch is mainly concentrated on the head, neck, arms and lower legs for all interactants except opposite sex friends. Opposite sex friends showed much higher levels of contact on head, including face, arms and knees than did the other categories of touches (mother, father and same sex friend) thus indicating once again, the importance of context in interpreting body gestures.

The vocal aspects that influence verbal messages are less comparable to primate systems than the three modalities we have previously discussed, but they are very relevant to human communication. We are just becoming able to recognize different primate vocal messages and very few of them have semantic content. However, human vocal language is base on semantic content, although the meaning of the message may be much more in how it is delivered than in what is being said. Changes in emphasis so that each word of a five word sentence is the one being emphasized can produce sentences with 5 different meanings. Vocal tone is used to indicate a declarative, by lowering the tone or a question, by rasing it. These tone changes often parallel head movements, frequently both the head and the vocal tone rise at the end of a question, but the head is usually at maximum elevation about one word before the end of the sentence, while the vocal tone rises to the end. Non symmetry in message and paralinguistic cues can suggest deceit, confusion, or sarcasm. In some cases this can be totally unconscious and others make judgements about our attitudes or sincerity or personality in response to cues we are not aware of. Increasing pitch variety is one paralinguistic aspect which seems to give a more positive personality impression. Flatness of presentation, on the other hand, was seen as indicating more masculine, cold, and withdrawn characteristics. Breathiness in the voice is judged for males to indicate youth and creativity, while for females to indicate a more feminine, prettier, high strung, shallow and effervescent personality. These studies only cover college age people from North America, and may vary when wider sampling is done. Nonetheless, it is clear that there are a wide range of vocal features in everyone's speaking patterns which can have some markers of age, cultural background, education level and profession, as well as gender and body size.

Passionate involvement in the delivery of the information could be identified by speech with more pauses, a higher pitched vocal range and more variation of volume than the same speech presented in a studied and scholarly manner. The second was lower in volume, pitch range, and had greater consistency of rate and pitch. The information in the second message was seen as trustworthy, honest and more person oriented than the dynamic speaker, even though no difference was perceived in the speakers' competence.

Hesitations, or pauses in speech are an area of major interest because they always occur and can influence the meaning as well as the perceived credibility of the speaker. Pause lengths can be manipulated by the responder to the conversation depending on how quickly cues for feedback are responded to, and the nature of the social situation. Pauses are not evenly scattered through speech but occur as punctuation markers, before conjunctions, before relative and interrogative pronouns, after direct or implied questions and when parenthetical references are made. In oral speech only about 55% of pauses fall at these grammatically relevant times and the rest are indicators of stress or difficulties in coding information. Some pauses are filled by repeats or stutters or 'ums', while other pauses are silent. Unfilled pauses are usually associated with more concise, stylish, and less predictable linguistic formulations. Filled pauses tend to occur in long winded statements which are usually more predicable. Filled pauses may function to reduce anxiety and be a mechanism for dealing with higher levels of emotional arousal. Using the filled pause may allow the speaker to maintain the conversational floor, but at the cost of reducing the quality of performance. Pauses which result from difficulties in coding may increase levels of anxiety and both pauses and coding difficulty may influence the rate and timing of breathing. Speed of talking is another aspect which can influence the perception of the speaker rather than comprehension of the message, at least until rates of word production exceed 250 to 300 words a minute. Most conversations occur at a rate of 125 to 200 words per minute. Up to the point of difficult comprehension an increased rate of word production in males is seen as indicating a more dynamic, feminine and aesthetically inclined personality. In females this characteristic produces impressions of a dynamic extroverted person. All of these paralinguistic cues provide information about the speaker which helps the listener assess the quality of the message and the characteristics of the sender. Primate communication patterns provide some of this information, but more from decoding ancillary aspects of gestures than from vocal output as far as we are currently aware.

Appearance is another set of cues which humans seem to use more frequently than monkeys. Early research in the 1960's suggested that attractive first born females received higher grade point averages at college. Further work revealed that this set of people also sat at the front of the class, asked questions frequently and made more appointments to see instructors during office hours, which are all behaviours that will attract notice and perhaps be beneficial in grade assignment. Tests were made which indicated that first borns were more aware of and concerned about their looks. Attractive female students were able to modify the responses of male students more than unattractive ones, even when the test person was the same girl made up to look either attractive or unattractive. Attractive people of either sex rate higher on scales of credibility and reliability. In tests of dating and courtship behaviour physical attractiveness of the partners was the key issue in whether the date was liked by the partner. Attractiveness levels are very important in assessing first impressions and expectations for an encounter. Height seems to be an important indicator of value and pervasiveness. In fact the same individual was judged to be taller, if he was introduced as someone of a higher rank (Professor as opposed to student). Self satisfaction with your own body was easier for males who were larger than average and for smaller females who had larger bust sizes than average.

Levels of skin colour and body hair are also important elements of attractiveness. Many people, until recently, have sets of value norms associated with skin color, whether these are positive or negative. Over the last 30 years the quality of such assessments have undergone changes as society begins to change its value rating for various colours of people. In the 1960's hair length became another indicator influencing level of acceptability. In 1971 long haired male graduates of Stanford University were told that they would be unlikely to find work. Body hair was also seen as repugnant and as decreasing social value for many years, to the extent that many magazine photographs were treated to remove evidence of unwanted hair. Gradually through the 1980's and 1990's, head and body hair has taken on more aspects of personal style, than of uniform disapproval. Now bearded men are often seen as sexy, masculine and sophisticated. People will stand closer to unbearded as opposed to bearded men and this goes for bearded men as well who report less tension with an unbearded social partner.

Clothing is another factor influencing perceived attractiveness. Others are multifunctional, decorative, protective, advertising, self asserting, concealing group identity, status display devices. They indicate sex, age, nationality, relation to opposite sex, socioeconomic group, in group identification, occupational status, moods, attitudes and values. Clothes are usually chosen to match the self image of the wearer and thus project that self image, whether it is radical, conservative, or eccentric. Cloth prints with a small tinted design were more frequently chosen by women rated as natural, feminine, unaffected and modest, while larger prints and saturated colours are chosen by more highly sociable outgoing women. People who are interested in their clothes tend to take more conventional, compliant with authority and stereotyped in thinking. Decorative elements were usually seen as conventional, sympathic, social and submissive. Wild decoration such as fringes, headbands and hand painted clothes can also indicate a level of creativity and non-conformity. Jewelry, cosmetics and other adornments interact with clothing to enhance its effects. Particular formal markers such as wedding and masonic rings, fraternity pins and scholarly robes all indicate aspects of group membership and status that usually support the dress code. Current work on tatoos, body piercing, nose rings and lip plugs suggest that self presentation and group identification is becoming more explicitly marked in western culture.

All of these nonverbal indicators of information contribute both to the messages being sent and to the perceptions of the receiver. Sometimes these messages are mixed, through fear, conflict or deceit, and some mixes may be difficult to decode. In the main, however, the high level of freight carried by nonverbal cues (65%) indicates that coding and reception of most messages is more influenced by the manner of sending than by the verbal content, at least in face to face interaction.


Birdwhistell, R. 1970. Kinesics in Context. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia. Cook, M. (1970) "Experiments on Orientation and Proxemics." Human Relations 23: 61-76. Eckman, P, and Friesen, W.V. 1971 Emotion in the Human Face. Guidelines for Research and Integration of Findings. Pergamon Press. New York. Goffman, E. (1961) Encounters. Bobbs-Mevill. Indianapolis and New York. Hare, A., and Bales, R. 1963. "Seating Position and Small Group Interaction." Sociometry. 26: 480-486. Knapp, M. 1972. Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. Hold. Reinhart and Winston Inc., New York. Sommers, R. 1969. Personal Space. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs.
copyright 1999 Anne Zeller
Send comments or question to Anne Zeller: azeller@artspas.watstar.uwaterloo.ca
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