Verbal and nonverbal communication: functions

The act of communication among the human beings has been subject to consistent evolution and upgradation from time to time.. Only human beings have been blessed with the gift of language. Because of the various functions it can perform, language has a great role in communication. Whatever codes we use to convey our message within a fixed frame of reference in a given language, they serve different functions. The basic functions of language can be grouped into three categories: descriptive, expressive and social.

• Descriptive Function: Under descriptive function, we can include travel writing (description of places), biography, autobiography and writing about other people, diary and personal letters, technical and scientific works. We can also include the verbal description of people, places and things under this head. While attempting descriptive writing or speaking, it is essential that the writer or speaker has obtained all necessary information about the object of writing or speaking.

• Expressive Function: Under expressive function, we have interjections, exclamations, use of special words and phrases for emphasis.

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Using interjections, we can express satisfaction, excitement, surprise, pain, hurt and disgust. In order to lay emphasis, we either use a word with a stress or use an extra word/phrase to add emphasis(You have never been fair to us at all). We also use question tags, rhetorical questions, auxiliary ‘do’, fronted negation ( Starting a sentence with a negative word: Never have I seen a fool like you) to put emphasis on a statement or a particular idea.

• Social Function: Under social function of language we can include functions like greeting people, bidding farewell to people, giving a command or order, asking a question, making a request, advising, offering a suggestion, expressing agreement or disagreement, accepting or declining an invitation, expressing wishes, thanks, apologies, regrets, condolences, sending seasonal greetings, offering help, giving instructions, expressing obligation, expressing the necessity for doing something, expressing certainty.

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Under each function, we have multiple sub-functions.

For example, under the function ‘request’, we have ‘request for permission’, ‘request for help’, ‘formal request’, ‘informal request etc’. When we choose a particular language function, we need to use the code that is appropriate for that function. The words, structures and sentences used to perform a particular function do differ from the words, structures and sentences used to perform a different function. While expressing a polite request, for instance, we use ‘could’ or ‘would’ whereas for formal requests we use ‘may’ and for making informal requests we use either ‘can’ or ‘will’.

Types of Verbal Communication

By verbal communication, we mean the type of communication which is rooted in language. Verbal communication among human beings is possible both at the spoken level and written level. Both in the spoken and written level, communication is possible through different formats Spoken communication is either private or public. We can have the following kinds of spoken communication. (a)Speaking to Oneself (monologue, self-recording)

(b)Speaking to One person (one-to-one communication: conversations, telephonic discussions) (c)Speaking in Groups (one to many)
(d)Speaking to Oneself (Monologue on stage)
(e)Speaking to One(Personal interviews)
(f)Speaking to Many (Films/ Documentaries/ Presentations/Speeches/ Teleconferences/ Audio-conferences/ Videoconferences ) (g) Speaking in groups (one to many)
(h) Speaking in groups (group-to-group)

Written Communication

Written communication is possible through:
(a)Writing about oneself (Diary writing)
(b)One to One (Personal letters, personal notes, messages, letters of invitation/request/thanks/congratulations) (c)One to many (Invitations, pamphlets, posters, poems, stories, novels, articles, books) (d)One to one (Memos, Orders, Reports, proposal )

(e)One to many (Advertisements and hoardings, Notices, Agenda Notes, Circulars, pamphlets, posters) (f)Many to many (Government Orders, Gazette Notifications, Minutes of Meetings)

Dyadic Communication

Though it is possible for us to talk to ourselves, we hardly take recourse to such form of communication. Communication, as indicated earlier, is an act of sharing of some information/message/idea/feeling/attitude with another and getting the corresponding feedback. Unless we know how we are received by others, it is meaningless to think that our act of communication has been successful. Though it is possible for more than two people to engage in an act of communication, it is dyadic communication or communication between two persons that occupies an important position in our day-to-day communication. The exchange of meaning between the sender and the receiver is the highest in dyadic communication as it is marked by the highest degree of fidelity and allows reversal of roles. Face to face communication or inter-personal communication, telephonic conversation, interviews, instruction and dictation are a few important forms of dyadic communication.

Face to Face Communication

Face to communication or inter-personal communication, as the name suggests, is the direct face to face interaction between two persons for personal or social reasons, about a topic of mutual interest. This kind of communication occurs between friends, relatives, colleagues whom we come in contact with on a regular basis and like or trust them. While engaging in such type of communication, we need to check whether the participant is ready to participate in this or not, whether it is possible to initiate a discussion or not, whether there is mutual trust and respect or not. It may so happen that one of the participants may mar an act of communication by dominating the conversation by talking only about himself/herself, by having no respect for the time and interest of the co-participant, by being over-conscious about is/her own language (grammar, pronunciation and articulation), by giving less or no chance to his/her co-participant to give his/her views and having annoying mannerisms disapproved by others.

When the conversation is going on, both the participants must take care that the conversation goes on. Besides, they should keep on adding and changing their views as per the requirements from time to time and maintain an environment of friendliness and warmth. The participants should be courteous and cheerful and show interest in each other’s views. They should also avoid using unnecessary and superfluous words and phrases (like wow, wonderful, mind set, deadlock, bad habit etc) which they might be using frequently. Being extraordinarily polite one loses the attention of the co-participant as it mars the pleasant informal atmosphere. As soon as the conversation turns into an argument, the participants should become cautious and make all possible attempts to save the discussion being dogmatic and argumentative. It is better to wind up a conversation than to prolong it over an irrational argument.

Face to face communication involves expressions and gestures which make the act of communication very effective. It is suitable for discussions but unsuitable for large organizations and large gatherings. But the effectiveness of this type of communication depends upon the attentiveness of involvement of the listener. If the listener does not take interest, this communication may collapse all together.

Telephonic Communication

Telephonic conversations are the next important kind of dyadic conversation we perform in our everyday life. Though it does not involve the use of body language and eye-contact, it is the commonest and fastest means of contacting people and with the increasing use of the mobile phones, the best way to connect to people wherever they are. It can be both formal and informal.

Communication during Interviews

An Interview, to go by its literal meaning, is the ‘sight between’ two persons. When any act of conversation happens between two persons, over purposes mutually agreed upon for the sake of eliciting information or providing information. This one-to-one interview may take place between an expert in a field and a person who has interest in obtaining information regarding a particular topic of mutual or common interest. The purpose of the interview determines the type of interview. For example, a research scholar may interview a historian or a scientist on a particular topic and note down his views on the same for the benefit of the common people.

Likewise, a journalist may interview a minister or a Secretary over a policy decision and take it to the common people through radio or television. In counseling interviews, the personal and private conversation between the educational psychologist, counselor or psychiatrist attains different forms in response to the gravity of the situation. It may simply have inputs for guidance and psychological support from the counselor or some corrective therapy recommended for the victim. In employment interviews, the situation is a little different though most of the guidelines remain the same. In such interviews care is taken to judge the suitability of a candidate for a particular job through the analysis of his/her sense of values, attitude to work, respect for fair play, sense of justice and honesty in discharging duties, positive personal qualities and dependability.

All these qualities can be tested in various ways. Hence while planning to attend an interview, one needs to very careful. The dress we wear, the hairstyle we have, our footwear, the way we walk and talk, our gestures and postures and on the top of it, our personal appearance should be pleasing. Good personal qualities like these can be learnt or imbibed from celebrities who have a high degree of success in social life. Artificiality in both language and behaviour should be avoided as much as possible. When the interview is going on, one should sit with right posture, listen carefully and then answer the questions. At the same time, trying to be over-smart in interviews may spoil the chances of getting selected for a job. Since our future depends upon an interview, we should do whatever we can to acquire all good qualities that go into the selection of a candidate in an interview.


Dictation is a purely official and formal kind of communication that occurs between an officer and a steno/PA. While giving dictation, one should be careful to pronounce each and every word clearly so that the person taking the dictation is able to hear properly. Besides, the officer should plan beforehand, at least mentally, what should go into the text. Extempore dictations often lead to improper communication or missing out on important aspects. Hence care should be taken to see that there is not any scope for information gaps. When corrections are made, both the officer and the steno should take care that there are no dangling words or phrases.

Likewise, while taking notes one should try to listen carefully and note down each and every word being spoken. Officers being over-busy, often tend to miss out some parts and should be asked for clarification if something is missing. The most important part of a dictation is that both the officer and the PA concerned should check the proof thoroughly before the final print is taken. Once the letter goes out of the office, it is almost next to impossible to get it back and make the amendments. Anything that goes out in print is a documentary evidence for all the right and wrong that we have done. Hence it is better to be careful beforehand than to be ashamed when somebody points out the lapses.

Interview for Data Collection

When someone is holding an interview with an expert in order to collect data regarding a project, an event or an incident, necessary formalities are to be maintained in order to make the interview successful.

Technology Aided Communication

This is the age of information and technology. In every walk of human life, computers have brought have significant changes. Hence it is no wonder that they have impacted communication of all kinds. Both in the official spheres and personal spheres we have started using e-mails, fax, voice-mail, cellular phones, telephone answering machines, teleconferencing, video conferencing, webinars, cyber-conferencing for both synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication. Because of these technological interventions the whole world has now shrunken into a global village and we are able to connect anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication is the process of communication through sending and receiving wordless (mostly visual) cues between people. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as body language (kinesics), but nonverbal communication encompasses much more, such as use of voice (paralanguage), touch (haptics), distance (proxemics), and physical environments/appearance.[1] Typically overlooked in nonverbal communication are proxemics, or the informal space around the body and chronemics: the use
of time. Not only considered eye contact, oculesics comprises the actions of looking while talking and listening, frequency of glances, patterns of fixation, pupil dilation, and blink rate.

Even speech contains nonverbal elements known as paralanguage, including voice quality, rate, pitch, volume, and speaking style, as well as prosodic features such as rhythm, intonation, and stress. Likewise, written texts have nonverbal elements such as handwriting style, spatial arrangement of words, or the physical layout of a page. However, much of the study of nonverbal communication has focused on interaction between individuals,[2] where it can be classified into three principal areas: environmental conditions where communication takes place, physical characteristics of the communicators, and behaviors of communicators during interaction.

Nonverbal communication involves the processes of encoding and decoding. Encoding is the act of generating the information such as facial expressions, gestures, and postures. Decoding is the interpretation of information from received sensations from previous experiences.[2]

Only a small percentage of the brain processes verbal communication. As infants, nonverbal communication is learned from social-emotional communication, making the face rather than words the major organ of communication. As children become verbal communicators, they begin to look at facial expressions, vocal tones, and other nonverbal elements more subconsciously.[citation needed]

Culture plays an important role in nonverbal communication, and it is one aspect that helps to influence how learning activities are organized. In many Indigenous American Communities, for example, there is often an emphasis on nonverbal communication, which acts as a valued means by which children learn. In this sense, learning is not dependent on verbal communication; rather, it is nonverbal communication which serves as a primary means of not only organizing interpersonal interactions, but conveying cultural values, and children learn how to participate in this system from a young age.


There are many different types of body positioning to portray certain postures, including slouching, towering, legs spread, jaw thrust, shoulders forward, and arm crossing. The posture or bodily stance exhibited by individuals communicates a variety of messages whether good or bad. Posture can be used to determine a participant’s degree of attention or involvement, the difference in status between communicators, and the level of fondness a person has for the other communicator, depending on body “openness”.[12]

Studies investigating the impact of posture on interpersonal relationships suggest that mirror-image congruent postures, where one person’s left side is parallel to the other person’s right side, leads to favorable perception of communicators and positive speech; a person who displays a forward lean or decreases a backward lean also signifies positive sentiment during communication. Posture can be situation-relative, that is, people will change their posture depending on the situation they are in.


Clothing is one of the most common forms of non-verbal communication. The study of clothing and other objects as a means of non-verbal communication is known as artifactics or objectics. The types of clothing that an individual wears conveys nonverbal cues about his or her personality, background and financial status, and how others will respond to them.[6] An individual’s clothing style can demonstrate their culture, mood, level of confidence, interests, age, authority, values/beliefs, and their sexual identity. For instance, Jewish men may wear yamakas to outwardly communicate their religious belief. Similarly, clothing can communicate what nationality a person or group is, for example, in traditional festivities Scottish men often wear kilts to specify their culture.


Gestures may be made with the hands, arms or body, and also include movements of the head, face and eyes, such as winking, nodding, or rolling one’s eyes. Although the study of gesture is still in its infancy, some broad categories of gestures have been identified by researchers. The most familiar are the so-called emblems or quotable gestures. These are conventional, culture-specific gestures that can be used as replacement for words, such as the hand wave used in western cultures for “hello” and “goodbye.” A single emblematic gesture can have a very different significance in different cultural contexts, ranging from complimentary to highly offensive. For a list of emblematic gestures, see List of gestures. There are some universal gestures like the shoulder shrug.

Gestures can also be categorized as either speech independent or speech related. Speech-independent gestures are dependent upon culturally accepted interpretation and have a direct verbal translation. A wave or a peace sign are examples of speech-independent gestures. Speech-related gestures are used in parallel with verbal speech; this form of nonverbal communication is used to emphasize the message that is being communicated. Speech-related gestures are intended to provide supplemental information to a verbal message such as pointing to an object of discussion.

Facial expressions, more than anything, serve as a practical means of communication. With all the various muscles that precisely control mouth, lips, eyes, nose, forehead, and jaw, human faces are estimated to be capable of more than ten thousand different expressions. This versatility makes non-verbals of the face extremely efficient and honest, unless deliberately manipulated. In addition, many of these emotions, including happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, shame, anguish and interest are universally recognized.

Displays of emotions can generally be categorized into two groups: negative and positive. Negative emotions usually manifest as increased tension in various muscle groups: tightening of jaw muscles, furrowing of forehead, squinting eyes, or lip occlusion (when the lips seemingly disappear). In contrast, positive emotions are revealed by the loosening of the furrowed lines on the forehead, relaxation of the muscles around the mouth, and widening of the eye area. When individuals are truly relaxed and at ease, the head will also tilt to the side, exposing our most vulnerable area, the neck. This is a high-comfort display, often seen during courtship, that is nearly impossible to mimic when tense or suspicious.


Some hand movements are not considered to be gestures. They consist of manipulations either of the person or some object (e.g. clothing, pencils, eyeglasses) – the kinds of scratching, fidgeting, rubbing, tapping, and touching that people often do with their hands. Such behaviors are referred to as adapters. They may not be perceived as meaningfully related to the speech in which they accompany, but may serve as the basis for dispositional inferences of the speaker’s emotion (nervous, uncomfortable, bored.)


The middle ground between adapters and symbolic gestures is occupied by conversational gestures. These gestures do not refer to actions or words, but do accompany speech. Conversational gestures are hand movements that accompany speech, and are related to the speech they accompany. Though they do accompany speech, conversational gestures are not seen in the absence of speech and are only made by the person who is speaking

Eye contact

Eye contact is the instance when two people look at each other’s eyes at the same time; it is the primary nonverbal way of indicating engagement, interest, attention and involvement. Studies have found that people use their eyes to indicate interest. This includes frequently recognized actions of winking and movements of the eyebrows. Disinterest is highly noticeable when little or no eye contact is made in a social setting. When an individual is interested however, the pupils will dilate.


The term “kinesics” was first used (in 1952) by Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist who wished to study how people communicate through posture, gesture, stance, and movement. Part of Birdwhistell’s work involved making films of people in social situations and analyzing them to show different levels of communication not clearly seen otherwise. Several other anthropologists, including Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, also studied kinesics.

Kinesic messages are more subtle than gestures. Kinesic messages comprise the posture, gaze, and facial movements. American looks are short enough just to see if there is recognition of the other person, Arabs look at each other in the eye intensely, and many Africans avert the gaze as a sign of respect to superiors. There are also many postures for people in the Congo; they stretch their hands and put them together in the direction of the other person.

Haptics: touching in communication

Haptics is the study of touching as nonverbal communication, and haptic communication refers to how people and other animals communicate via touching.

Touches among humans that can be defined as communication include handshakes, holding hands, kissing (cheek, lips, hand), back slapping, high fives, a pat on the shoulder, and brushing an arm. Touching of oneself may include licking, picking, holding, and scratching. These behaviors are referred to as “adapters” or “tells” and may send messages that reveal the intentions or feelings of a communicator and a listener. The meaning conveyed from touch is highly dependent upon the culture, the context of the situation, the relationship between communicators, and the manner of touch.


Proxemics is the study of the cultural, behavioral, and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals.[61] Every person has a particular space that they keep to themselves when communicating, like a personal bubble. When used as a type of nonverbal signal in communication, proxemics helps to determine the space between individuals while they interact. There are four types of proxemics with different distances depending on the situation and people involved.[62] Intimate distance is used for close encounters like embracing, touching, or whispering. Personal distance is for interactions with close friends and family members. Social distance is for interactions among acquaintances. It is mostly used in workplace or school settings where there is no physical contact. Public distance is for strangers or public speaking.

Why is non-verbal communication important?

Basically, it is one of the key aspects of communication (and especially important in a high-context culture). It has multiple functions:

Used to repeat the verbal message (e.g. point in a direction while stating directions. Often used to accent a verbal message. (e.g. verbal tone indicates the actual meaning of the specific words). Often complement the verbal message but also may contradict. E.g.: a nod reinforces a positive message (among Americans); a “wink” may contradict a stated positive message. Regulate interactions (non-verbal cues covey when the other person should speak or not speak). May substitute for the verbal message (especially if it is blocked by noise, interruption, etc) — i.e. gestures (finger to lips to indicate need for quiet), facial expressions (i.e. a nod instead of a yes).

Note the implications of the proverb: “Actions speak louder than words.” In essence, this underscores the importance of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication is especially significant in intercultural situations. Probably non-verbal differences account for typical difficulties in communicating.

Cultural Differences in Non-verbal Communication

General Appearance and Dress

All cultures are concerned for how they look and make judgements based on looks and dress. Americans, for instance, appear almost obsessed with dress and personal attractiveness. Consider differing cultural standards on what is attractive in dress and on what constitutes modesty. Note ways dress is used as a sign of status?

Body Movement

We send information on attitude toward person (facing or leaning towards another), emotional statue (tapping fingers, jiggling coins), and desire to control the environment (moving towards or away from a person).

More than 700,000 possible motions we can make — so impossible to categorize them all! But just need to be aware the body movement and position is a key ingredient in sending messages.


Consider the following actions and note cultural differences:

1. Bowing (not done, criticized, or affected in US; shows rank in Japan)

2. Slouching (rude in most Northern European areas) gorbitsya

3. Hands in pocket (disrespectful in Turkey)
4. Sitting with legs crossed (offensive in Ghana, Turkey)
5. Showing soles of feet. (Offensive in Thailand, Saudi Arabia)

6. Even in US, there is a gender difference on acceptable posture?


Impossible to catalog them all. But need to recognize: 1) incredible possibility and variety and 2) that an acceptable in one’s own culture may be offensive in another. In addition, amount of gesturing varies from culture to culture. Some cultures are animated; other restrained. Restrained cultures often feel animated cultures lack manners and overall restraint. Animated cultures often feel restrained cultures lack emotion or interest.

Even simple things like using hands to point and count differ.

Pointing : US with index finger; Germany with little finger; Japanese with entire hand (in fact most Asians consider pointing with index finger to be rude)

Counting: Thumb = 1 in Germany, 5 in Japan, middle finger for 1 in Indonesia.

Facial Expressions

While some say that facial expressions are identical, meaning attached to them differs. Majority opinion is that these do have similar meanings world-wide with respect to smiling, crying, or showing anger, sorrow, or disgust. However, the intensity varies from culture to culture.

Note the following:

Many Asian cultures suppress facial expression as much as possible. Many Mediterranean (Latino / Arabic) cultures exaggerate grief or sadness while most American men hide grief or sorrow. Some see “animated” expressions as a sign of a lack of control. Too much smiling is viewed in as a sign of shallowness.

Women smile more than men.

Eye Contact and Gaze

In USA, eye contact indicates: degree of attention or interest, influences attitude change or persuasion, regulates interaction, communicates emotion, defines power and status, and has a central role in managing impressions of others.

Western cultures — see direct eye to eye contact as positive (advise children to look a person in the eyes). But within USA, African-Americans use more eye contact when talking and less when listening with reverse true for Anglo Americans. This is a possible cause for some sense of unease between races in US. A prolonged gaze is often seen as a sign of sexual interest. Arabic cultures make prolonged eye-contact. — believe it shows interest and helps them understand truthfulness of the other person. (A person who doesn’t reciprocate is seen as untrustworthy) Japan, Africa, Latin American, Caribbean — avoid eye contact to show respect.


Question: Why do we touch, where do we touch, and what meanings do we assign when someone else touches us?

Illustration: An African-American male goes into a convenience store recently taken over by new Korean immigrants. He gives a $20 bill for his purchase to Mrs Cho who is cashier and waits for his change. He is upset when his change is put down on the counter in front of him. What is the problem? Traditional Korean (and many other Asian countries) don’t touch strangers., especially between members of the opposite sex. But the African-American sees this as another example of discrimination (not touching him because he is black).

Basic answer: Touch is culturally determined! But each culture has a clear concept of what parts of the body one may not touch. Basic message of touch is to affect or control — protect, support, disapprove (i.e. hug, kiss, hit, kick).

USA — handshake is common (even for strangers), hugs, kisses for those of opposite gender or of family (usually) on an increasingly more intimate basis. Note differences between African-Americans and Anglos in USA. Most African Americans touch on greeting but are annoyed if touched on the head (good boy, good girl overtones). Islamic and Hindu: typically don’t touch with the left hand. To do so is a social insult. Left hand is for toilet functions.

Mannerly in India to break your bread only with your right hand (sometimes difficult for non-Indians) Islamic cultures generally don’t approve of any touching between genders (even hand shakes). But consider such touching (including hand holding, hugs) between same-sex to be appropriate. Many Asians don’t touch the head (Head houses the soul and a touch puts it in jeopardy). Basic patterns: Cultures (English , German, Scandinavian, Chinese, Japanese) with high emotional restraint concepts have little public touch; those which encourage emotion (Latino, Middle-East, Jewish) accept frequent touches.


USA — fear of offensive natural smells (billion dollar industry to mask objectionable odors with what is perceived to be pleasant ) — again connected with “attractiveness” concept. Many other cultures consider natural body odors as normal (Arabic). Asian cultures (Filipino, Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Indian) stress frequent bathing — and often criticize USA of not bathing often enough!


vocal characterizers (laugh, cry, yell, moan, whine, belch, yawn). These send different messages in different cultures (Japan — giggling indicates embarrassment; India – belch indicates satisfaction) vocal qualifiers (volume, pitch, rhythm, tempo, and tone). Loudness indicates strength in Arabic cultures and softness indicates weakness; indicates confidence and authority to the Germans,; indicates impoliteness to the Thais; indicates loss of control to the Japanese. (Generally, one learns not to “shout” in Asia for nearly any reason!). Gender based as well: women tend to speak higher and more softly than men. vocal segregates (un-huh, shh, uh, ooh, mmmh, humm, eh, mah, lah). Segregates indicate formality, acceptance, assent, uncertainty.

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Verbal and nonverbal communication: functions. (2016, May 01). Retrieved from

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