Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine

Living Edition
| Editors: Marc Gellman

Communication, Nonverbal

  • Ross BuckEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-6439-6_633-2



Communication involves three elements: sender, receiver, and message. In nonverbal communication, the message does not involve words, but rather employs body language. There are three major sorts of nonverbal communication. Symbolic nonverbal communication is the intentional encoding of a message that is decoded by the receiver, the grammar and vocabulary of which must be learned by both sender and receiver. It is propositional in that it is capable of logical analysis (e.g., it can be false). Symbolic nonverbal communication includes sign language, finger spelling, and pantomime, as well as facial expressions and gestures associated with language. In Ekman and Friesen’s (1969) analysis, the latter include emblems with specific “dictionary” definitions, illustrators of what is said, and regulators of interaction flow. Left hemisphere damage produces deficits in both linguistic and symbolic-nonverbal communication.

Spontaneous communication involves the display of a motivational-emotional state by the sender and a pickup of that display by the receiver. It is non-intentional, based upon innate displays and preattunements that coevolved, that is, that evolved simultaneously with the function of communication. Preattunements may be associated with mirror neuron systems that respond immediately and automatically to displays. The elements of spontaneous communication are signs, being inherent aspects of the referent (as smoke is a sign of fire). If the sign is present, the referent must be present by definition so that spontaneous communication is nonpropositional. Spontaneous displays include facial expressions, affective vocal prosody or paralanguage, postures and gestures, eye behaviors, touch (haptics), spatial behaviors (proxemics), and olfactory cues (e.g., pheromones). Right hemisphere damage produces deficits in communication via facial expression and affective prosody.

The third sort of nonverbal communication involves the intentional management of the display by the sender to manipulate the receiver (deception) or to follow display rules: learned rules about what displays are appropriate under what circumstances. Buck and van Lear (2002) termed this pseudospontaneous communication: it is symbolic on the part of the sender but spontaneous on the part of the receiver. The ability to influence others’ emotions successfully is an important aspect of charisma. Ekman and Friesen (1975) identified expression management techniques: a person might modulate the intensity of the display, qualify a felt display by adding an additional display, and falsify the display in several ways: neutralizing and showing no display, simulating an unfelt display, or masking what one actually feels by showing a different, unfelt display.


References and Further Reading

  1. Buck, R. (1984). The communication of emotion. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  2. Buck, R., & Duffy, R. (1980). Nonverbal communication of affect in brain damaged patients. Cortex, 16, 351–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Buck, R., & van Lear, C. A. (2002). Verbal and nonverbal communication: Distinguishing symbolic, spontaneous, and pseudo-spontaneous nonverbal behavior. Journal of Communication, 52, 522–541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). Nonverbal leakage and cues to deception. Psychiatry, 32, 88–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1975). Unmasking the face. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  6. Ross, E. (1981). The aprosodias: Functional-anatomic organization of the affective components of language in the right hemisphere. Archives of Neurology, 38, 561–569.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Communication Sciences and PsychologyUniversity of ConnecticutStorrsUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Steven A. Safren
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MiamiCoral GablesUSA