Non-Verbal Communication: Fact and Fiction
By Ahmed A. Khan
26 February 2001
Communication, one of the basic needs of human existence, can be defined as the transfer or exchange of information between entities. Sense deprivation experiments have proved beyond doubt that a person cut off from communication of any sort begins to go mad fast.
As soon as the word "communication" is mentioned, we immediately think of telephones, radios, television, comsats, books -- in short, all the devices related to verbal communication.
Verbal communication requires a language. Language, defined in terms of semantics, is a group of labels used to represent approximations of space-time events and abstractions. The labels can be conveyed from one entity to another by a variety of means including vocalization, writing, etc.
Is verbal communication the only means of communication available to us? In fact, considering the importance of communication to us, is it fair to be gifted with only a single method of communication?
In view of the above given definition of verbal communication, non-verbal communication means communication which is independent of a formal language, communication whereby ideas and concepts can be expressed without the use of coherent labels. Do we have means of non-verbal communication versatile enough to qualify under the above definition?
The answer is, of course, a resounding "yes." Generations and generations of ancient tribes made do with non-verbal means of communication --animal-like guttural sounds, gestures, drawings -- to fulfill their requirements before they latched on to a language. Let us look around carefully, and we are sure to be surprised at the number of non-verbal communication methods we find at our disposal today.
One thing is certain. Whatever the means of non-verbal communication may be, it will have to be related to the senses of the communicators because, obviously, it is the senses which receive information. We, as humans, are aware of five senses (and perhaps a sixth?) suitable to be used in communicating. Communication for us can be related to any of these senses.
Let us first take non-verbal communication related to the sense of sight.
This kind of communication involves motion, color or shape. There are numerous examples of this kind of communication in nature. Let us begin with motion -- the dance of the honey bees is the most obvious example. A worker bee makes intricate motions with its body, and these motions are seen and accurately interpreted by other worker bees. The dance of the bees is normally used to convey information to other bees about the location of a source of nectar, its direction and its distance.
Squids and octopi are known to use bioluminescence and color signals for communication. Pyrotechnical communication of the squids is particularly fascinating. Their pigment cells (or chromatophores) are connected to their central nervous system by muscle fibers. Their control over the range and rate of change of colors is astounding, and the display that results is said to be one of the most beautiful sights of the ocean deeps. A squid can also focus and beam lights of any color in any direction it chooses, although the actual mechanism by which it does so is still not completely known.
What about us? Can we use such means of communication among us?
We can and we do.
What is an artist doing if he is not trying to communicate his thoughts, feelings, and ideas using colors and/or shapes?
As stated earlier, ancient man used pictures for communicating. Quite fascinating cave drawings, dating back some 20,000 years, have been discovered in the Franco-Cantabrian region (Southwestern France and Northern Spain). The usage of drawings must have later developed into hieroglyphs or picture writing. Of the hieroglyphs discovered, the oldest are from Egypt (c.3100 B.C.) and the latest, dated in the 4th century C.E., come from the island of Philae. Picture writings were also used by the ancient Cretans and Hittites.
Another means of communication at our disposal is the use of gestures. Gestures can be either ambiguous or unambiguous. Point at water and then point to your mouth. This is an example of an unambiguous gesture. Another person watching you is almost certain to understand that you want to drink water. There is hardly any chance of misinterpretation here.
In our everyday life, we frequently use a combination of words, gestures, and facial expressions to express our full meaning. Calling someone an "idiot" with an accompanying smile is different from saying it without a smile. In addition, gestures often have different meanings in different circumstances, depending upon various factors: cultural, geographical, social, etc.
For instance, if you nod by moving your head up and down, in India it means a concurrence, a "yes," whereas the same gesture in, say, Kuwait would mean the exact opposite, a dissent, a "no." In the Indian sub-continent, a woman sometimes uses the gesture of touching her forefinger to her nose to express astonishment. In the Middle East, the same gesture stands for "at your service," and can be employed by either sex, but is used predominantly by men. In Iran the gesture that stands for "at your service" is to put the palm of one's right hand over one's right eye.
A means of unconscious non-verbal communication is what is termed body language, or kinesics. Our bodies sometimes express our feelings and emotions better than words can. The body uses reflexive and non-reflexive movement, postures and positions to convey its message to anyone who would care to receive it. Our pupils dilate when we are excited. Our eyes narrow when we are concentrating. We slump when we are tired.
Julius Fast, in his famous book Body Language, writes that body language is also subject to cultural and environmental influences. A person familiar with the body language of, say, North America, may easily misinterpret the intentions of someone from, say, Spain. For example, a Spanish girl, secure in the knowledge of the strict code of behavior governing the males of her culture, may flaunt her sexuality without meaning it as a "come on" for the males. The same behavior in an American girl would be interpreted as a pre-mating ritual and, in a statistically significant number of cases, this interpretation would be correct. The body language signals may also differ on the basis of gender.
Studies have shown the possibility that some components of body language may be universal and independent of culture, gender, or environment. However, the classification of body language into culturally dependent/independent components is still in its budding stages.
The sense of hearing is fundamentally related to verbal communication, but can also be used as a means of non-verbal communication. It has been experimentally proved that feelings of calmness, lethargy, anger, depression, cheerfulness, etc., can be communicated to both animals and humans through the use of rhythmic sounds.
Communication can also be related to the sense of smell; many people claim that it's the most evocative of all our senses. Let the scent of roses and jasmines penetrate into your nostrils, and suddenly there might appear on the screen of your mind the romantic image of a marriage bed. The musty smell of old books might bring forth images of H. Rider Haggard's mysterious Africa. Substances known as pheromones are used by certain insects and animals to communicate their sexual desire. Pheromones are also used to convey anger, fear, threat, danger, etc. Pheromones are used by humans, too, although to a lesser degree than by animals.
Even the sense of touch may be used as a means of communication. A kiss, a handshake, a hug, a pat on the back or on the head -- all are examples of communication by touch. Also, if we are to believe accounts, there are people around who can hold your hand and divine your thoughts by the varying tensions of your muscles. I don't believe I have come across any example in nature of communication through the sense of taste, but that doesn't mean it isn't possible. "There are more things in heaven and earth. . .".
Telepathy is one of the most talked about possibilities of communication without words, a possible "sixth sense." Again, if we are to believe certain accounts, instances of Extra Sensory Perception, including telepathy, have been observed among us. In 1921, three psychologists at the University of Groningen reported positive telepathic transmission in a rigidly controlled experiment.
The future might bring other novel modes of communication. One such mode is already in the offing, involving what can be called brain waves. We have learned, through scientific experimentation, that all mental processes, in both humans and animals, are accompanied by the production of a complex pattern of minute electric currents. Each mental process is associated with its own individual pattern of electric fluctuation. Experimenters have been able to record them. It was also discovered that by relaying back these electric currents, it is possible to recreate in the mind of the recipient the mental process associated with a particular set of patterns. The effectiveness of this method has been spectacularly demonstrated by Dr. Jose Delgado who, using equipment to relay minute electric currents, was able to control a bull charging at him in the ring. This method, when developed for human use, could be called artificial telepathy and it would come under the heading of extra-lingual transfer of information between entities, and so would classify as a means of non-verbal communication.
At present, some of these means of communication do not play an important part in human life, but that does not stop writers from speculating about highly imaginative communication channels. For example, in the novel Ox, Piers Anthony uses the pattern generating rules of the game called "Life" to portray communication through the use of patterns. Donald Moffit, in his novel The Jupiter Theft, describes aliens who communicate solely by smells.
There are numerous science fiction novels and stories that handle the theme of telepathy. Probably the most outstanding are Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man and John Brunner's The Whole Man. Arthur C. Clarke has speculated about electrical discharges of the brain in his short-story "Big Game Hunt" and his novels The Deep Range and Dolphin Island.
Reviewing all the data available about verbal and non-verbal communication, it should be clear that some means of non-verbal communication are already used by us; some means we can adapt; and some we can develop, such as the above-mentioned brain wave experiments. We also find that there are areas where the verbal and non-verbal means of communication overlap. Poetry is one such area.
A good poet uses words not only for their meaning, i.e. as a means of verbal communication, but also uses words for their sound, for the various rhythms that these sounds can produce, for images that these sounds can evoke in the mind. The form of a poem is as much an integral part of the poem as its substance. Another example where verbal and non-verbal means of communication overlap is the graphic story, the comic book, where words and pictures blend harmoniously to convey information.
The means of communication discussed so far are related to the external senses that we use to communicate with others. But we have other, internal, senses that we can use and do use to communicate with ourselves. No, I am not venturing into the realms of metaphysics. My feet are still firmly planted on the turf of science. Let me ask a question. When we are hungry, how do we know it?
The answer is simple: the sensation of hunger originating somewhere within you is communicated to your consciousness. Communication involves senses, and this is exactly what I mean by "internal senses" and "self-communication."
How do we make the different members of our body move at our will? Self-communication, of course.
Ask a biologist, a physiologist, a neurologist, a psychologist, even a philosopher, and each one of them will give you many examples of self-communication, all of them non-verbal. Some of the examples that could be cited by the above mentioned professionals could be, respectively: conveyance of the feeling of hunger, adrenalin secretion in states of fear and excitement, transfer of information between neurons, communication between ego and super ego, interaction of body and spirit.
Communication, whether it is with others or with one's self, is a very important aspect of sentient life, and its breakdown would prove to be quite drastic. One of the shortest horror stories of the world goes like this: One day, tired of calling others on my phone, I tried to call myself. The line was busy. I am still trying.
In conclusion, I have one question:
With all these means and methods of communication (verbal and non-verbal, internal and external) at our disposal, why is it that most of the time we misunderstand each other?
Ahmed A. Khan is an IT professional infected with the writing bug. His works (fact/fiction) have appeared in magazines of various countries, including India, Kuwait, UK, USA, and Canada, and in webzines such as Pif, AlienQ, Anotherealm, Jackhammer, CyberOasis, Gateway, and Millennium. He makes a living in Canada with his wife and four children.