The Interplay of Verbal and Nonverbal Codes

The Interplay of Verbal and Nonverbal Codes

1. Introduction

Memory plays a crucial role in the interpretation of messages. Percent recalls and recognition are typical ways to measure the facilitative effects of nonverbal-verbal interaction in encoding and decoding. For example, if a person encounters a communicator encoding systematically misinterpreted intention due to an inconsistent verbal message, later attempts to recollect the communicator’s message and discovers he was somewhat less persuaded by it than another person who had received the same verbal information. The person might attribute his friendly interpretation to a gut feeling, forgetting it was based on a nonverbal cue, then believe that the communicator intended to convey a less friendly interpretation of the message on his part. A week later, the person may recall only the verbal portion of the message. This inconsistency in accessibility of nonverbal interaction and perhaps its lingering effects on a changed verbal message would be revealed if the person were to take a recognition test of what the communicator had intended to convey. This example and available evidence suggest that more dual and complex processes occur when people encode and later attempt to interpret messages than can be accessed by studying either form of communication in isolation. The primary goal of this essay is to survey major social science research on the interaction of verbal and nonverbal messages and to place this research within an encoding and retrieval conceptualization of communication. This means of understanding the interaction between verbal and nonverbal messages is somewhat new. It is directly evolved in vast experimental literature on nonverbal cue availability. The essay will clarify what is meant by verbal and nonverbal messages, provide major categories of cues, and illustrate how they are related to verbal messages. Then, we will evaluate research on the effects of nonverbal cues on interpreting verbal messages and the cognitive strategies used in this process.

2. Verbal Communication

The need to improve one’s communication skills is likely to be particularly apparent and motivated by practical concerns. Leaders of a discussion group may feel that they need to control the group more effectively and be paranoid with self-doubt over the interpretation of their friends’ laughter. An insecure person with regard to his position in society may try to change his lingo in order to sound more impressive. But it should be remembered that being a good communicator simply means giving messages off effectively and understanding communication coming from others. It has little to do with smart talk and smooth operators.

The use of speech has to be considered in relation to it being a skill. In the same way as reading, writing, cricket, or table-tennis, learning to talk well requires a good deal of training and experience. Unfortunately, most people assume that because language is a natural attribute of man, becoming a good communicator is just as natural. Many people look down on speech training as an activity that is only for people with something to hide and is a form of deception.

When psychologists talk of speech in the context of communication, they often call it ‘coded verbal behaviour’; a name which simply conveys the idea that words are a code or set of symbols that give meaning to certain events. When we assert that we communicate most effectively through speech, we mean that it is easier with words to be clearly defined in what we are attempting to convey. We can be extremely subtle in trying to convey certain attitudes or feelings, but for a clear exchange of ideas, it is probably best if these attitudes are put into words. A man may write a love letter to win a woman’s heart, but charity appeals for the starving send a picture of the starving to a person’s mind and try to get him to act on giving money, through showing the terrible consequences of not giving. He realizes that for this type of persuasion, nothing is as effective as words.

Any activity that is an exchange of ideas can be called communication. There are numerous methods of communicating that are of a more or less conscious nature: gestures, the use of space, etc. All these methods are subtle modifications of the way we talk. Basically, therefore, communication is talking. People may shout or talk softly, frown or smile. Every one of these movements may modify the meaning of what we say. But speech remains the most frequent form of communication.

3. Nonverbal Communication

4. Spontaneity: Nonverbal codes are often more spontaneous than their verbal counterparts, primarily for two reasons. First, many nonverbal behaviors are closely tied to emotional reactions and, as such, unfold in an automatic fashion without much conscious thought on the part of the sender. Second, nonverbal signals often leak out with little intention on the part of the sender, the more so if the sender is trying to conceal his or her true feelings or emotions. This leakage occurs because the sender lacks motivation to monitor and regulate his or her nonverbal behaviors, as such regulation is cognitively demanding and people generally prefer to think about things other than the impression they are making on others.

3. Sensory Richness: Nonverbal codes are much more direct in conveying sensory and emotional meanings than verbal codes, primarily because the former are closely tied to emotional arousal while the latter are primarily symbolic. The result is that nonverbal signals can give more immediacy and impact to a message and can convey a more vivid impression of the sender. For example, a receiver can gain much information about a sender’s true state of mind or feeling by observing the sender’s facial expressions and other body language. Similarly, the tone, pitch, accent, loudness, and other vocal aspects of the spoken language are refined information carriers that are considered part of nonverbal communication. It is because of the sensory richness of nonverbal codes that we come away from a face-to-face encounter with a much fuller perception of the other person than we would if all we had were the words that were spoken.

2. Ambiguity: One of the problems in comparing verbal and nonverbal codes is that the same nonverbal code can have different meanings in different contexts. We have already discussed the various meanings of smiling. Direct eye contact may indicate intensity and interest in one situation, arrogance and lack of respect in another. Even spoken words can take on additional meaning when reinforced by nonverbal signals. There is evidence, for example, that a nod of the head makes a person more likely to comply with a direct request, and a frown can cause another to change an intended course of action.

1. Symbols: Verbal and Nonverbal Codes

That only a few hand signals are used in different sports, such as putting one’s index finger next to the nose in basketball to indicate a desire to leave the game. In fact, the same word form may be associated with a completely different nonverbal cue. The word “yes,” for example, is sometimes indicated by a head nod, and at other times by an up-and-down thumb movement. The word “well” may be accompanied by both a frown and a smile. And the expression of contentment is indicated in some cultures by patting the stomach, whereas in others it is shown by rubbing the chin.

A. Characteristics of Nonverbal Communication

4. The Interplay of Verbal and Nonverbal Codes

As we mentioned in the first chapter, the verbal code is organized by language into sentences and other strings or sequences of words. These are said or written, or subvocalized, and the mechanisms for remembering them are largely verbal. They are meaning-based and can be decoded into meanings. Nonverbal messages can interfere with this decoding and also feature in their own decoding processes. Take, for example, the way that the reader is likely to decode the nonverbal message in the cartoon in figure. The verbal part of the cartoon says ‘bus stop’, but there is no woman at the bus stop, only a large ape. So we can understand that the nonverbal situation is contradictory to what the verbal message. But suppose that a few seconds before seeing the cartoon, the reader had been thinking about answering an inspector who calls at his home: ‘I’m afraid he isn’t in at the moment.’ If we judge from the expression and posture of the cartoon woman, we would suspect that the nonverbal situation would be a contrary one – there would be a person who ‘looks like’ the ape. The reader may have ‘missed’ the nonverbal message in the ape cartoon because it was contrary to the expected one, given the verbal situation – that is, he may not have serialized it for later decoding. But he might go back and reinterpret the ape cartoon situation after recalling the ape incidents and concluding that it is two different messages: contrary and no nonverbal message: similar. This reinterpretation would involve checking a meaning-based contextualized translation of the ape cartoon.

When we see a person, perhaps a friend, and ask her how she is today, her reply is likely to involve a mixture of verbal and nonverbal messages. She may say she is feeling fine, but she may not sound or look convincing. Alternatively, she may give a vigorous yes or no reply, but display signs of hesitation or uncertainty. It is also possible that her words and her nonverbal communication may be contradictory. The language that she uses will allow a number of interpretations, but her tone of voice and her nonverbal signals may suggest what she is really feeling. All these examples involve an interplay or interaction between verbal and nonverbal codes.

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, this essay has attempted to demonstrate that verbal and nonverbal codes are inextricably interconnected, and that much of our meaning is transmitted by subtle amalgams of, and shifts between, the two. A dual-process model of communication was outlined, in which it was suggested that nonverbal cues may modify or entirely alter the interpretation of verbal messages, and that this provides one explanation for why verbal and nonverbal code discrepancies are often an immediate source of communication difficulty. Following this, it was suggested that both types of code are culture-bound, and that in order to produce a more complete understanding of cross-cultural and intercultural communication, we must attend to the relationship between verbal and nonverbal codes. This is crucial insofar as much cross-cultural research has demonstrated that the same verbal message may carry quite different meanings in different cultures, and that nonverbal cues do not have universals; rather, their meanings are often culturally specific. The nature of the interplay between verbal and nonverbal codes becomes particularly significant when communication is approached as strategic moves designed to achieve certain ends. Here it was argued that often verbal messages are a tactic, which is contradicted by the true feeling or intention, and that the latter is often revealed more by nonverbal means. An example of this might be a person’s attempt to ‘save face’ when caught out in a lie. The verbal message will be an attempt to rationalize the lie, and the nonverbal message will be a display of discomfort or anxiety, revealing the true feeling that the lie was a mistake but the person does not want to admit it. Finally, it was suggested that a full understanding of the relationship between verbal and nonverbal codes necessitates the ability to move between the micro and macro levels of communication. This is to say that verbal and nonverbal cue relationships must be understood within specific interactions, yet also related to broader social structures and cultural patterns.

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