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Metaverbal Messages in Personal Interactions

M.J. Arul

"Blessed are they that have eyes to see and ears to hear!"

Communication involves sending and receiving of messages. It also calls for a message carrier. Suppose I (the sender) want to tell you (the receiver) what, for instance, communication (the message) is. I use words for the purpose. Words are symbols standing for something. They are not the message, but carriers of it. I encode my message in words and you decode it from them.

People communicate messages not only about external, concrete objects and events, which are open to independent observation and verification, but also about inner experiences and feelings. While judicious use of words can do an extremely good job of the former, non-verbal cues such as facial expression can by far outwit words in communicating feelings, inner conflicts, emotions, and interpersonal attitudes. (A good friend of mine was recently bereaved of his girl. The event shattered him and left him in a terrible state. But, all he could say in words was only, "Boy, I just have no words to tell you how I feel.")

Empirical findings[1] show that in communication of feelings and attitudes, the verbal content contributes only to 7 per cent of the message, vocal cues (voice qualities like the pitch, intonation, etc.) to 38 percent, and facial expression 55 per cent. Stein[2] found in his experiment that observers of a working group most accurately identified the emergent leader in the group, when they (the observers) had access to both the verbal and non-verbal cues of the interacting group members. The observers were less accurate when exposed only to vocal (filtered speech) and visual cues. Their judgement was least accurate when made on the sole basis of the script of the words that were spoken by the individual members of the group. Exclusive dependence on words for communication can, therefore, give rise to intellectual starvation or malnutrition let alone emotional consequences.

Host: "How is the food?"

Guest: "Excellent; delicious!"

Consider this wee bit of conversation. You can quite reasonably infer from the words above that the guest enjoyed the meal. The host, however, read a different message from the same words and he was right. The guest's language of behaviour (his ill-at-ease appearance, the forced smile on his lips, etc.) "spoke" something to contradict his language of words. [To complete the scene for you: A well-grown, but deflated, worm in the dish had caught the eye of the polite guest!]

Whether aware or unaware, with or without intent, we constantly communicate in a number of languages that are not verbal. Our body, our use of time, space, and things also "talk". Here we shall only sample the ways we use these languages to communicate.

"Why are you looking so sad?"

The general appearance of a person conveys messages. For instance, our style of walking (such as a steady gait or a meander, a hand-in-pocket shuffle or a "gravity-free" bounce) can reveal our varying moods and needs. It can air our inner states of dejection, preoccupation, carefree happiness, excitement, and what have you, and "ask" others to respond to us empathically. If the other person tunes in his/her behaviour so as to fall in phase with ours, the interaction is complementary and rewarding. Otherwise we consider him/her as inconsiderate and callous or rude and boorish.

One's posture can express one's perceived status, feelings of comfort or discomfort, involvement or detachment, etc., depending on how one holds oneself during an interaction--completely relaxed, moderately relaxed, tense, turned toward the interactant or away from him/her, leaning forward or reclining, or any other body position. Research findings[3] suggest that people relax most with a low-status addressee, second most with a peer, and least with someone of higher status than their own. A speaker relaxes either very little or a great deal when he dislikes the person he is talking to, and to a moderate degree when he likes the person. Extreme tension seems to occur with threatening addressees and extreme relaxation with non-threatening, disliked addressees.

"It was written all over his face"

The face, the most expressive part of our body, can encode a variety of communicative (conscious and intended) and informative (unintended) messages. It can radiate joy and happiness. It can also express dread, anxiety, annoyance, disgust, contempt, scorn, dismay, bewilderness, surprise, excitement, rage, despair, pity, dreamy sadness, boredom, quiet pleasure, complacency, adoration, etc. Thus the face seems to be capable of surfacing any experience that wells up deep inside us.

Besides the overall facial expression, specific features of the face also communicate. A furrowed forehead can stand for concern, anger, frustration, etc. Raised eyebrows could express astonishment. Flared nostrils in the course of a social interaction are interpreted as a sign of anger, but in another context as a sign of sexual arousal. Chewing or biting of lips can give off messages of uncertainty, hesitancy, attempts to suppress surging emotions, nervousness, etc. Lips pursed, clamped, or tightly drawn combined with eyes staring into "nothingness" and/or a head movement can mean deep thought, a studied approval or disapproval, etc.

The smile is too complex and complicated a gesture to decode. It becomes much more so if isolated from other concomitant cues. Smiling and laughter are not always expressions of pleasant emotions. It has been found[4] that fear, apology, confusion, covering up, despair, disgust, feeling foolish, irony, stupidity, etc. can also show up in smiles and laughter. While physical variations of some smiles are noticeable, other smiles look similar, but mean different things. Smiling is often a voluntary code to comply with social context, despite the true underlying emotions that are personally unpleasant.

It is important to consider the cues provided by a person in relation to the total stimulus context. In an experiment[5], subjects were given simple outline drawings of three faces, one "glum", another "frowning", and the third "smiling". The faces were presented in pairs. When paired with the glum face, the smiling face was read as a dominant, vicious, gloating, taunting bully; a bully strong enough not only to defeat the other, but to be able to afford a bit of sadism to garnish the victory. Presented with Frowning, Smiling was seen as peaceful and peace-making; wanting to help, to be friendly and be happy. Thus the purpose and intent of the face was reversed with the change only in the situation.

"Look me in the eye and tell me"

The eyes can convey a lot many messages, intended as well as unintended. They can signal intimacy, concern, naughtiness, joy, surprise, curiosity, need for approval, affection and love, pleading for mercy, attempts to fake, etc. Eye-talk has been abundantly written about in various cultures. Urdu "shairis" on the topic are in plenty. The two-thousand- year old Thirukural[6] has two full chapters, one on "Understanding the other's mind" and the other "Ascertaining each other's intentions", where the importance of the face and the eyes in communication is emphasised. Your eyes can tell the other person whether you are attentive and interested or bored or preoccupied. Anger, authority, fear, timidity, coyness, confidence, diffidence, etc. can also be read off from one's eyes. Your eye contacts and eye-contact avoidance can encourage, maintain and consummate an interaction or discourage and damage it, depending on how they are used. A constant stare in the eye may embarrass the other person and a total gazing away might "tell" him off.

Gesticulation or hand movements form another of our communication systems. Our gestures carry messages. Some gestures, as is the case with other body cues, are more obvious and less ambiguous than others. The beckoning gesture, for instance, is universal and well understood, even though there are "palm-up" and "palm-down" variations of it in different regions. Pointing fingers while talking may communicate anything from authoritative attitude through emphasis, accusation, and lack of sophistication to insult. Wringing and drumming of fingers and knuckle-cracking could betray anxiety, nervousness, boredom, restlessness, or an unresolved state of mind. A click of fingers or a clap of hands (usually a pair of clicks or claps) could mean calling for the attention of someone near or far. It could also, when done singly (in a jerky snap and accompanied by a quick lighting up of the face), convey that some sought-for solution or a brainwave has just flashed in the person's mind! The applause value of clapping is of course well known. Punching of a clenched fist into the palm could mean disappointment or determination. Tapping the finger tips of a steeple formed by the palms could signal involved thought or scheming.

A scratch, besides being physically functional, can also "say" that the person is psychologically uncomfortable at the moment. A slow, sustained scratch on the head, the neck, the chin, or the cheek coupled with the eyes looking down or up and away may mean the person is trying to recall something. The same scratch, when done faster coupled with a grin and/or a peculiar head-shake, could tell you that the person is embarrassed or that he recognises what an ass he has made of himself before others. Very small and subtle changes in the choice and combination of cues can make a big difference in meaning.

The head supported at the cheeks by one or both the hands can stand for despair, bereavement, prolonged thinking, boredom, or extreme interest. Concomitant cues from the eyes can corroborate the message. Head movement can convey agreement and disagreement. You can also nonverbally "ask" for the other person's agreement by synchronizing your speech with vertical nods.

Even our legs are not dumb in interaction contexts. The way we position them (crossed, close together, held apart ...) can convey relaxation, tension, modesty, seduction, etc. Foot-shaking can also ensue from impatience, anger, or nervousness. Stamping one's foot could reveal one's authority, arrogance, or contempt.

It is important to note that subtle modifications in the combination of cues will qualify the context and consequently alter the meaning of a particular cue.

Communication, as already indicated, is a multi-channel network. If all the expressive cues (verbal, vocal, kinesic, and proxemic) used in a given context converge to communicate one message, positive or negative, then their redundancy often serves to ensure the accuracy of the message and the emphasis attached to it by the communicator. But, how about combinations of inconsistent cues? When a girl tells her boy, "you're a swine; I don't like you" amidst an amorous smile and a velvet slap...the medium is inconsistent, but the message that gets across is the positive one from the nonverbal cues. (Similarly negative inconsistency in communication could also take place.) Such phenomena suggest that when verbal and nonverbal channels are inconsistently combined, the nonverbal channel dominates in determining the message received. It is also possible that inconsistent cues lead to confusion. The mother, for example, with a smile playing on her face, tells the child not to touch the glass. Her smile "belies" her words and the junior reaches for the glass only to get spanked immediately. Comparable instances of confusion and uncertainty are not unheard of in adult-life interactions.

We have so far seen some of the ways we use our body to communicate. We shall now take a cursory look at how we use time, space, and things to make them also "talk".

Think of the appointment you had for picking up your date; think of the day when you were invited for a 7.30 dinner, or when you were to have a predetermined clandestine meeting with your oft-chaperoned girl friend. Your use of time in such occasions can "speak out" loudly what you would feel embarrassed to admit, but know for sure to be true! Reaching there far ahead of time would tell the other person about your eagerness, impatience, anxiety, or naivete. Considerable delay in being there would betray your lack of interest, thoughtlessness, or even insult.

Being far ahead of time, well in time, right on time, or behind time does communicate. Absence can communicate, too. Consider the incident when you had asked a friend over for tea at 4.00 p.m. but left, inadvertently, at 3:30 for the flicks with your sweet-heart. Maybe you could rectify the damage later with a long-drawn explanation. Yet the fact remains your friend got a message that day.

Suppose your instructor lets a particular student make frequent and long CPs, what message(s) would you read off in that act? Reflect on the feelings you would create in your subordinate or visitor, if you let him wait far beyond the appointed time. Your "generosity" with time here would make the visitor feel insignificant, insulted, and angry. He would, with bated breath, call you an inconsiderate "essobee". You could of course compensate for the delay and alleviate his hard feelings by coming out of your office to meet him personally rather than call him in via your secretary.

Use of space can also give off impressions. Possession or allocation of large space "speaks" of the occupant's importance and status. Compare a Managing Director's office and that of a Branch Manager. Think of the different "types" (type `A', type `B', etc.) of houses allotted to officers of varying ranks.

Having a conversation with a visitor in your office with the door closed could assure him of privacy, your interest in the conversation, etc. An open door might make him uncomfortable and he may doubt your seriousness in the matter being discussed.

In a social context, how near or far you position yourself can convey your like or dislike of the other person(s). You may observe this silent communication in get-togethers and socials as well as in corridor bunchings of people. In certain contexts, such as a dinner party, the position of seats has significance; the seat near the host is highly coveted. Thus space, too, can be communicative.

Silent speech can ooze out also from the things we use. While nonverbal cues in general are replete with intended and unintended messages, our use of artifacts to communicate is often intended -- however subtly, though. Status and importance can be exposed by possession/use of imported goods, the latest or the most expensive automobile, ancient and high-priced art items, exotic cosmetics, and so on. Choice of clothes, hair-do's and other make-ups communicate, too. Recall how fastidious you were while getting ready for a party that you were invited to. Why?

It seems impossible not to communicate! If your lips are sealed, messages seep through the rest of your body. The highly developed and conscious acquaintance we have with the verbal language enables us to exercise sufficient command over it. But, since we are far less conscious of the incessant communication that goes on implicitly through nonverbal channels, our control and utilisation of it is so much more limited. An awareness of, and sensitivity to, the various ways messages are carried and received will certainly conduce us to make better and more effective use of the communication potential we possess.


1. Mehrabian, A. Communication without words, Psychology Today, 1968, 2 (4), 53-55.

2. Stein, R.T. Identifying emergent leaders from verbal and non-verbal communications. Journal of Personality and social psychology, 1975. 32 (1), 125-135.

3. Mehrabian, A. Opus Citatum.

4. Macros, L.R. The emotional correlates of smiling and laughter. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 36 (1), 33-41.

5. Jones, E.E., & Gerard, H.B. Foundations of Social Psychology. John Willey & Sons, Inc., New York, 1967, 257.

6. Thiruvalluvar. Thirukkural. Chapters 71 and 110.

7. Holtz, J.L. Communication : The Use of Body Languages. Harvard Business School, 1973, 4-474-058.

8. Athos, A.G. Communication : The Use of Time, Space, and Things. HBS, 1969, 9-470-009, HP 692.

9. Birdwhistell, R.L. Kinesics and Context. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970.

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