Nonverbal language is often too narrowly defined as gestures and body language. While these certainly form a great deal of the nonverbal language spectrum, they are not the sum total of all types of communication that could be classed as nonverbal. In addition to gestures and body language, sometimes what we don’t say can be classed as nonverbal. For instance, not answering a question could communicate multiple things, like not knowing the answer, not having actually heard the questioner, or being a dismissive of the question as inappropriate or not worthy of answering.
Further, when nonverbal language is described, it almost always encompasses not only what we say but also the way in which we say it. Tone, sarcasm, the way a speaker ends a sentence, emphasis on words, and a variety of other ways we say things that are spoken, are the “how” and not the “what” of our spoken language. Many people include this second group as nonverbal, even though it is spoken language.
There have been numerous books and essays about how our nonverbal language communicates for us. Some gesturing may be used as emphasis for how we speak; the batting of the eyelashes may convey a flirtatious thought. How we stand, walk into a room, hold ourselves while we’re speaking, and if we make eye contact or fail to, are all body language that can convey layers of meaning to those with whom you communicate. You can even see how two people speaking two different languages may be able to speak to each other through gestures, expressions, and just a few words in a an unfamiliar tongue. Of course, different cultures may assign different meaning to body language and gestures, so it’s advisable to be careful when you use these while attempting communication with people of other cultures.
There are different percentages assigned to the amount of communication existing in a language that is nonverbal language. Though these percentages may be quoted as high as 93%, in reality the figure is about 70% percent by most accounts. It really helps, then to think about how you present yourself, how you gesture, how you pronounce words, and how you use tone. These may communicate about 70% of what you’re trying to say.
Another reason that understanding nonverbal communication is important is because of autism scale learning disorders, in particular, nonverbal language or learning disorder (NLD). NLD affects numerous people and is characterized by a person’s inability to read nonverbal cues, and the failure to understand tone and inflection. If you communicate with a person with NLD, they would only be receiving about 30% of what you’re trying to say.
In a classroom setting, students with NLD can be severely challenged, accused of not listening and thought lazy. Some even undergo a battery of tests to see if they are partially deaf. The reality is that these students are listening, but they’re not decoding nonverbal language with the facility of their peers. Students of this type usually need extremely specific written directions and specific spoken cues to keep up with their classmates. Without these, they flounder in school settings and have a difficult time relating to their peers. They also may not ever be able to read sarcasm, so it is important for teachers to be aware of this disorder when teaching NLD students.
While nonverbal language remains a tool that enhances, or sometimes obstructs communication, specific spoken language may convey a point with greater precision. Others may be more or less adept at reading body language, and may not always “get” tone. It should be said that most people do take body language and tone into account when hearing others speak, so, in addition to using precision in spoken language, it can be helpful to understand when body language might detract from a point you are trying to make, rather than helping to emphasize it.