Beyond Words: The Secret Language of Non-verbal Communication

Decoding the multimodality of non-verbal expression through a cross-cultural lens.

Rishabh Patni
8 min readFeb 21, 2023
Artwork depicting various facial expressions and gestures as a form of nonverbal communication. Each face is a puzzle piece which suggests that although we are all unique, there still is an interconnectedness that goes beyond our differences to form a bigger picture.

Note: This article is an intro to a 6 part series that sheds light on the nonlexical communication channels — paralanguage, touch, body language, distance, time, and other non-linguistic signals.

Our ability to communicate through the ever-evolving complexity, dialects, and vocabulary of human language separates us from other living creatures. We use verbal communication to define everything from reality, emotions, experiences, thoughts, objects, and people. This unique ability has allowed us to communicate sophisticated ideas, form deeper connections, solve complex problems, and create a sense of community. In a nutshell, this ability is at the core of this world we inhabit, encompassing its values, beliefs, and practices.

Currently, there are over 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, and each is unique in several ways [1]. Despite the linguistic variations and the pervasiveness of spoken language, non-verbal forms of communication remain the most stable, ubiquitous, and effective modes of information exchange [2], [3]. Moreover, most nonverbal channels have been a precursor to the invention of spoken language, securing their place as primal modes of communication [4].

This image illustrates different types of non-verbal cues, some of which we will cover going forward.
One of the many ways to categorize nonverbal communication forms


There are various types of nonverbal cues and ways to categorize them, however for this series, we are going to discuss these five modalities:

1. Vocalics
Study of nonverbal aspects of vocal communication that convey attitudes or other shades of meaning; a.k.a. paralanguage.
Elements: Pitch, loudness, tempo, pauses, punctuation, silence, intonation, accent, etc.

2. Haptics
Study of how people use the sense of touch as a form of nonverbal communication.
Elements: Intensity, duration, location, frequency, medium, cultural norms, personal preferences, etc.

3. Kinesics
Study of body language as a means of nonverbal communication, including body movement, facial expression, occulesics, etc.
Elements: Expressions, eye contact, gaze, pupil dilation, body movement, posture, gestures, etc.

4. Proxemics
Study of the cultural, behavioral, and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals.
Elements: Intimate space, personal space, social space, public space, territoriality, etc.

5. Chronemics
Study of the role and persons’ use of time as a means of nonverbal communication.
Elements: Time orientation, punctuality, waiting, patience, awareness, organization, etc.

In addition to operating independently, nonverbal cues often:

  • Contradict the verbal message (saying something is true while avoiding eye contact or nervously fidgeting)
  • Emphasize the verbal message (point in a direction while giving verbal directions, accentuate, tone indicating the urgency of an action)
  • Complement the verbal message (a nod reinforces a positive message, folding arms while saying that you’re staying)
  • Regulate interactions (touching someone’s arm to signal that you want to talk next, eye contact to cue your partner in a singing duet)
  • Substitute the verbal message (especially if it is blocked by noise, interruption; or nodding instead of saying yes)

Over the next few weeks, I will provide examples from everyday experiences to explore these forms of expression in greater detail, in a series of blog posts published every Monday (I’ll try!).

Image of people sitting in a row with different leg postures. This image suggests that there are shades of meaning being communicated via body language.
Shades of meaning being communicated via body language

Unspoken Reality

Did you know that spoken words account for a small fraction of the meaning we convey about our emotions and attitudes?

In fact, according to Albert Mehrabian’s research, roughly 7% of our emotional meaning is conveyed through spoken words [5]. The remaining 93% is communicated through paralanguage, body language, and other nonverbal cues. Although the accuracy of Mehrabian’s 7–38–55 rule may be up for debate, it’s widely accepted that nonverbal cues play a crucial role in how we perceive and react to information. It is a secret language we all speak!

Intentional or not, these forms of expression can convey an incredible amount of information through an individual’s non-linguistic behavior [6]. Such behavior can be deliberate, without the need for direct interaction with another person, or unconsciously revealed through expressions, posture, appearance, and other nonverbal cues, also known as nonverbal leakage [7], [8]. Every human encounter — whether passive or active, in-person or virtual, a call or even a text message — includes some form of nonverbal communication [11].

This image shows a passive-aggressive text exchange between a couple. Person A says “IDK. Whatever you want to do is cool with me.”,  to which Bae replies “k.”
Bae is not happy.

We have all seen the profound impact of nonverbal communication in our daily interactions. Simple gestures like a smile or a nod can convey understanding, support, or encouragement; a frown or a slouch can express disapproval, sadness, or lack of interest. Appropriate use of social touch can comfort a friend, strengthen family bonds, or establish trust with colleagues [9], [10]. On the other hand, Inappropriate social touch can cause serious harm, and can even be considered harassment or assault in some cases. Even how we dress or groom ourselves can send subtle signals about our personality and values [11].

By paying attention to nonverbal cues and learning to use them effectively across cultures and social settings, we can enhance our ability to connect with others, convey meaning, and build stronger relationships [10]. Whether in a personal or professional situation, understanding the nuances of nonverbal communication can help us become better communicators and lead more fulfilling lives.

Cultural Accents

Culture is “a shared system of socially transmitted behavior that describes, defines, and guides people’s ways of life, communicated from one generation to the next” — Matsumoto, 2006 [12]

Although some nonverbal behaviors are universal and exhibit minimal cultural variation, the majority of nonverbal expressions have a significant cultural imprint [12], [13]. Culture manifests human intellect that we inherit through shared historical experiences. It is a socially acquired behavior that describes, defines, and directs our beliefs, values, and practices. It is a way of life. Every culture was once restricted to a specific region or nation. To a large extent, this is still true. However, with increasing connectivity across borders owing to technological advancements and globalization, cultures today may be founded just as much on cultural identification and ties among their members as through geographic separation [14].

We can observe cultures at a micro level or a macro level. Macro cultures include national identities, like Swedish or Indian, religious identities like Muslim or Buddhist, or industry cultures, for instance, technology or finance. Micro cultures are distinctive cultures of a small group of people. It can be a family, friend group, academic department, etc.

Image showing different ways of celebration in NBA and soccer cultures. Second comparison is between the attire difference between finance and tech cultures.
Micro and macro cultures beyond geographic boundaries; 1) interaction between sportsmen is culturally relevant but would be inappropriate otherwise, 2) attire differences in finance and tech cultures

Since most cultural practices are taught through observation and imitation rather than explicit verbal instruction or expression, culture is primarily an unspoken phenomenon. The most fundamental level of culture is conveyed implicitly, subconsciously, and primarily nonverbally [9], [15]. These acquired behaviors and practices are so deep-rooted that people often believe that behaviors enacted by their culture are the only way humans should behave.

“Indeed, culture is so basic, learned at such a tender age, and so taken-for-granted that it is often confused with human nature itself” — Andersen (1997)

Andersen (1997) posits that culture is often mistaken for human nature, leading to a dangerous belief that those who behave differently are somehow subhuman or inferior. Nonverbal communication is a combination of both biologically determined and culturally-specific elements [8], [13], resulting in cross-cultural similarities and differences that can lead to miscommunication, friction, and confusion. However, it is only through exposure to diverse cultures that we can truly understand and appreciate cultural differences.

With the world becoming hyper-connected, understanding intercultural communication, specifically nonverbal forms, is becoming increasingly important [10]. Owing to exponential advancements in communication technology, social networking, globalization, and travel — communicating with people from diverse cultures is almost inevitable. Although such communication modalities transcend geographic and language barriers, their cultural accents make each one of us unique [12]. Nonverbal communication is not as easily defined as verbal communication, and a deeper, nuanced understanding of it is necessary for successful communication across cultures.


Ending note:

This work reflects my learnings from HCDE 512: International User Experience and Communication with Prof. Manuela Noske. Going forward, I will use Hofstede’s cultural dimension [18] as a guideline to support this exploration. Before delving into the topic, it is important to note that no culture can be fully captured or understood by a single framework or set of dimensions. Cultures are complex and multifaceted. Their characteristics and nuances cannot be reduced to a simple set of measures.

That being said, Hofstede’s cultural dimensions provide a useful starting point and theoretical framework. While this framework can be a helpful tool for gaining insight into cultural differences, it is important to be mindful of its limitations and approach it with an open mind and a willingness to learn more about the cultures we encounter. Ultimately, the goal is not to oversimplify cultures, but to use these tools to expand our awareness and foster intercultural communication and understanding.

Previous research has often relied on anecdotal evidence to describe intercultural differences in nonverbal communication. This series attempts to connect these scattered accounts and provide a theoretical framework to appreciate the complexities of nonverbal communication across cultures in a systematic manner.


  1. How many languages are there in the world? Ethnologue. (2022, May 16). Retrieved February 20, 2023. (link)
  2. Knapp M. L. et al. (2014). Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. Boston MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  3. Roloff, M. E., Ewoldsen, D. R., Berger, C. R. (2009). The Handbook of Communication Science. United States: SAGE Publications.
  4. Tomasello, Michael (2008). Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
  5. Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Wadsworth Publishing Company.
  6. McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. University of Chicago Press.
  7. Buck, Ross & VanLear, C.. (2002). Verbal and Nonverbal Communication: Distinguishing Symbolic, Spontaneous, and Pseudo‐Spontaneous Nonverbal Behavior. Journal of Communication.
  8. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1972). Emotions in the human face. Pergamon Press.
  9. Andersen, P. A. (1999). Nonverbal communication: Forms and functions. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
  10. Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating across cultures. New York: The Guilford Press.
  11. Burgoon, J. K., Guerrero, L. K., & Floyd, K. (2016). Nonverbal communication. Routledge.
  12. Matsumoto, D. (2006). Culture and nonverbal behavior. Cambridge University Press.
  13. Brown, P. (1991). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge University Press.
  14. Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. University of Minnesota Press.
  15. Hall, E. T. (1959). The Silent Language. Anchor Books.
  16. Birdwhistell, R. L. (1970). Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  17. Burgoon, J.K., Buller, D.B., & Woodall, W.G. (1988). Nonverbal Communication: The Unspoken Dialogue.
  18. Hofstede, G., & Hofstede, G. J. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. McGraw-Hill.



Rishabh Patni

Designer | Maker | Storyteller; MS Human-Centered Design & Engineering @ University of Washington