When we talk to someone, we use more than just words to send a message. We use our whole bodies. Our facial expressions, gestures, loudness, tone, and even our posture enhance the actual words that we say. We might use nearby objects to emphasize the words.
Facial expression can tell our partner whether we are serious, upset, excited, or joking. Our eyes might look right at someone, or glance toward our cup of coffee. The latter might communicate that we are tired, or feeling impatient. Emotional content is often conveyed non-verbally.
The tone of voice has a large impact on meaning. We may sound happy, angry, sad, or enthusiastic. This is influenced by our volume, rate, pitch, and timbre. Volume refers to how loudly we speak. The rate is the speed at which we speak. Most people tend to speak faster when upset. Pitch and timbre refer to the musicality of our voices. Meaning is not determined by the words alone. When a person is sarcastic, it is often carried in the tone of voice. The tone lets the listener know that the words alone are not the entire message.
The gestures we use also influence our message. Gestures can be a good way to measure the emotional content of what is said. Gestures get larger when we are saying something with enthusiasm. People talk and point at what they are referring to. We might ‘punch the air’ when feeling triumphant.
Sometimes, we have to pay attention to how the rest of our body influences our message. Someone’s posture will be different if they are feeling upset, relaxed or confused. When we get excited, our breathing rate – and heart rate – will increase. This will influence how our partner receives what we are saying. This will be the case, even if we are not aware of this aspect of the way we communicate.
The brain is the control center for many activities, including communication. The brain is integral in coordinating the parts of our body. Through the transmission of nerve signals to our muscles, lungs, and heart, it tells the body what to do. The brain both creates the message and determines how it is transmitted. Our brains help all of us to communicate in multiple ways.
When we use several means to communicate at the same time, we are easier to understand. For example, I might say the words, “Let’s go get some groceries.” There might be a problem if the person I am talking to doesn’t understand the word “groceries.” If I hold up the empty grocery bag when I say that, I am adding more information. If I rub my stomach and furrow my brow, that adds information. I could add more information by opening the front door.
People who don’t speak verbally still communicate in multiple ways. People who are non-verbal are sometimes better at using multiple modalities that speaking people. They might combine gestures, vocalizations, and facial expressions. Here is one example. What if I touch my mouth and look at the food on your plate? You would understand what I wanted to eat. We can look at all of these signs to figure out what someone is telling us. Someone who points towards the bathroom, while bouncing up and down, might well be telling us the urgency of their need.