The Importance of Nonverbal Communication: How Loud Do Actions Speak?

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.   

Figure 1. Showcases the number of times each age group correctly determined whether the speaker was sincere, deceptive, or sarcastic (Figure from Demorest 1984)..

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.  

Figure 2. Showcase the increase in infant and maternal behavior from the 1st to the 2nd month (figure from Murray 2018).

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. 

 

Figure 3. Showcase the experimental setup. (Figure from McCrackin 2022).

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. 

Figure 4. The graph to the left showcased emotional recognition when the model was masked and unmasked. The graphs on the right showcases participants’ ability to recognize emotion against autistic-like traits, agreeableness, and extraversion (figure from McCrackin 2022).

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. 

Reference 

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

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Nonverbal Communication: How Loud Do Actions Speak?

  1. I thought the premise of your post was really interesting and I thought the publications you included added to a thoughtful discussion. While I was reading your post, the entire time I was wondering about the research done on the relationship between Autism and nonverbal communication, as I’ve learned that it’s common for individual’s with autism to struggle with social / nonverbal cues. I would be interested in further exploring this symptom of Autism, and I wonder how much headway has been made in the neuroscience field on this relationship since I know the biological basis of Autism has yet to be identified.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi!

    This is such a cool post! I hear the expression “actions speak louder than words” all the time and have said it a couple of times too. I never thought about how much we actually use nonverbal communication though. It reminds me of how sometimes I communicate with my close friends through looks alone. Awesome post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sha-Sha,
    What a great blog post. Very informative, and honestly — I had never thought about these topics in this way before. I have always been told the classic mantra “Actions speak louder than words,” but in this context – it actually makes sense. I did not know all of the nuances of non-verbal communication before reading this blog post, so I appreciate the time and effort you put in to explain them. Furthermore, the information in the blog is laid out in an easy-to-follow manner. I was never overwhelmed when jumping to a new paragraph, and I think that is one of the reasons why your blog posts stick out to be so much. Good job, and I want to talk to you about this further because it is clearly and interesting topic, and one that I never thought about in that way.

    Liked by 1 person

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