A common expression many have heard is “actions speak louder than words.” This expression demonstrates the importance of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is the transmission of information from one person to another through behaviors that has a shared meaning (Wiener 1972); it includes paralinguistics, facial expressions, and body language. Many researchers have posited that most communication is nonverbal.
Paralinguistics includes any part of speech other than the words themselves. Examples of paralinguistics are accent, volume, speech rate, and tone. Paralinguistics provides meaning to words. While some words can denote a specific attitude or mood ( positive or negative), things like the tones can change the word’s meaning. For example, say you ask your friend how they are feeling, and they say: I am doing fine. The words by themselves might indicate a positive or neutral mood, but accompanied with a somber tone tells you that your friend is not actually doing fine. This leads to the question: when do we develop the ability to discern certain tones?
A study by Demorest (1984) investigates the ability of six-year-olds, nine-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, and adults to understand sincere, deceptive, and sarcastic remarks. Participants were randomly assigned to listen to a recording of one of twelve stories. Each of the twelve stories had four versions that changed the speaker’s tone and nonverbal behavior so that the final remark was either sincere, deceptive, sarcastic, or neutral (neutral final remarks were false remarks that could be interpreted as deceptive or sarcastic and were used to see if there is a propensity to interpret the story as sarcastic or deceptive). Then the participants were asked questions that tested their understanding of the story, what they thought the speaker believed, and what they thought the speaker’s intentions were. Based on the story, the speaker could have a correct belief and sincere intentions, incorrect belief and sincere intentions, ambiguous belief and deceptive intentions, or ambiguous belief and sarcastic intentions. The researchers tested the participants on their ability to discern when the speaker was sincere (regardless of the correctness of the speaker’s statement), deceptive, or sarcastic.
All age groups were able to discern when the speaker was being sincere and for each age group, this was their highest score. Six years olds had a difficult time discerning when the speaker was being deceptive and an even harder time understanding when the speaker was being sarcastic. Nine and thirteen-year-olds were good at recognizing when the speaker was deceptive, answering correctly 70 and 80 percent of the time, but they had a hard time understanding when someone was being sarcastic. Adults could accurately discern when the speaker was deceptive and sarcastic. This study suggests that determining certain tones improves as we age, with more complex tones like sarcasm taking longer for us to grasp.
Nonverbal communication is not only used to understand the real intention behind people’s words but, like verbal communication, acts as a method for connecting socially and affects how socially expressive we are. In an experiment by Murray (2018), they inquired about the effects parent-infant nonverbal socializing had on infants’ communicative expressions. The researchers placed infant-parent duos into two groups: a group where the infants had a cleft palate and the control group (infants did not have a cleft palate). They video-recorded three minutes of mother-infant interaction at 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 weeks while the mother wore a mobile eye-tracker system to record their gaze.
While watching the video recording, they compare the mother’s behavior over the two months the study took place. They specifically paid attention to the amount of time the mother mirrored the infant (mirroring is when one person unconsciously imitates the behavior of another person), positively marked the infant (positive markings are responses highlighting infant social behavior with attention-attracting cues without mirroring), and, using the eye-tracking device, gazed at the infant’s mouth. They also compare the infant’s social expressions from the 1st to 2nd month of the study. The researchers especially paid attention to the amount of time and prevalence of the infant’s social facial expressions like smiles and pre-speech.
They found that maternal behavior for both groups increased from the 1st to 2nd month, but the amount of times mothers with infants with a cleft palate mirrored their infant was still significantly less than mothers whose infant did not have a cleft palate. Additionally, while infant social expressions increased from the 1st to 2nd month, the number of times infants with a cleft palate were socially expressive was significantly less than infants who did not have a cleft lip. This study correlates the amount of parent-infant nonverbal socialization with the social expressiveness of the infant. It postulates that increased maternal mirroring improves the infant’s ability to communicate via social facial expression.
While we have established or attempted to establish the importance of nonverbal communication in comprehending the intentions behind people’s words and our ability to communicate via social facial expression, something occurred globally in 2020 that changed the way we communicate. In 2020, the world experienced the COVID-19 pandemic. While many know how it affected our ability to communicate face to face, it is crucial to consider how the pandemic affected our ability to communicate nonverbally.
In a study by McCrackin (2022), they seek to understand how facial obstruction in the form of masks affects emotional recognition. The researchers randomly assigned the participants into two groups: one group had to identify emotion from faces wearing a mask, and the other group had to identify emotion from faces without a mask. The participants would look at a blank screen from 600 milliseconds, then a preparation screen telling them to get ready to view the stimulus for 1000 milliseconds, then the stimulus ( a female or male model with either a happy, sad, fearful, surprised, disgusted, angry, or neutral expression either wearing or not wearing a mask) would appear on the screen for 5000 milliseconds, and then the participant had to identify the emotion on the model’s face.
Afterward, the researchers gave the participant an autism-spectrum quotient (AQ), a questionnaire that measures cognitive and behavioral characteristics of autistic traits, with higher AQ scores denoting the presence of more autistic-like traits. Researchers also gave participants a big five inventory (BFI), which assesses the participants’ level of extraversion, openness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and agreeableness.
The participants could more accurately identify the six emotions (happy, sad, fearful, surprised, disgusted, angry, or neutral) when the model was not wearing a mask. The disparity between participants identifying the model’s expression with a mask on and participants identifying the model’s expression without a mask heightened when the emotions conveyed more strongly involved the lower face, such as disgust and happiness. Additionally, those with fewer autistic traits (as found by the AQ questionnaire) performed better on emotion recognition relative to those with more autistic traits for models without a mask, while people with lower extraversion and higher agreeableness were better at recognizing masked expressions. This study showcases the importance of viewing the full face when it comes to emotion recognition and how individual factors like agreeableness can affect one’s ability to identify emotions even if there is obstruction of part of the face.
We have various ways to communicate with each other. Although in this blog post, I mentioned paralinguistics (tone), mirroring, positive marking, and social facial expressions, I still have yet to even scratch the iceberg on the different ways we communicate with each other. The fact that we have so many ways to communicate with each other and it starts from the beginning of our existence, attests to the fact that we are social and isolation hurts. It also shows us that no matter how deceitful our words are, the real meaning will eventually seep out via our bodies.
Wiener, M., Devoe, S., Rubinow, S., & Geller, J. (1972). Nonverbal behavior and nonverbal communication. Psychological Review, 79(3), 185–214. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0032710
Demorest, A., Meyer, C., Phelps, E., Gardner, H., & Winner, E. (1984). Words speak louder than actions: Understanding deliberately false remarks. Child Development, 55(4), 1527. https://doi.org/10.2307/1130022
Murray, L., Bozicevic, L., Ferrari, P. F., Vaillancourt, K., Dalton, L., Goodacre, T., Chakrabarti, B., Bicknell, S., Cooper, P., Stein, A., & De Pascalis, L. (2018). The effects of maternal mirroring on the development of infant social expressiveness: The case of infant cleft lip. Neural Plasticity, 2018, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/5314657
McCrackin, S. D., Capozzi, F., Mayrand, F., & Ristic, J. (2022). Face masks impair basic emotion recognition. Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-9335/a000470