What Is Paralanguage?

Angela Farrer

Paralanguage is the area of non-verbal communication that emphasizes body language and voice nuances as means of expressing thoughts and feelings. People normally use paralanguage multiple times per day and are sometimes not even aware they are doing so. The ability to interpret this kind of human communication correctly is considered an important competency in both personal and professional settings. Body language often conveys just as much meaning as spoken words. Good communicators also have the ability to gauge how their own paralanguage affects others and to alter it so as to gain others' trust and to project confidence.

Paralanguage includes hand gestures.
Paralanguage includes hand gestures.

Various aspects of paralanguage include posture, eye contact, hand gestures, and tone of voice. Vocal qualities such as volume and tempo are also part of non-verbal communication. If a speaker changes even one of these aspects, the resulting meaning can be quite different to listeners. People who are able to adjust their non-verbal language to the needs of various situations are generally better at diffusing troublesome interactions such as arguments. This type of communication skill is known as metacommunicative competence.

Certain gestures that are acceptable in Western culture may be offensive in others.
Certain gestures that are acceptable in Western culture may be offensive in others.

Some areas of paralanguage can be obvious in their meaning, while others are more subtle. Curved back posture and rounded shoulders often convey emotional insecurity for instance. A cracking voice usually indicates a high degree of emotion while speaking, whether it is laughter, anger, or sadness. Many cultures also have their own practices and assigned meanings of body language according to established ideologies and belief systems. The ability to recognize and respond appropriately to these differences is known as intercultural competence.

Crossing one's fingers is an example of paralanguage that can have different meanings based on the situation.
Crossing one's fingers is an example of paralanguage that can have different meanings based on the situation.

Intercultural competence allows people from diverse cultural backgrounds to communicate effectively and productively. Correctly recognizing different cultures' paralanguage is particularly important in international business. Voice volume levels and certain gestures may be acceptable in one culture but can sometimes be viewed as offensive in another. The owners of companies that engage in global trade usually invest some time and effort into teaching their employees the meanings and behaviors related to this kind of communication.

Paralanguage often plays an important role in communication between two partners.
Paralanguage often plays an important role in communication between two partners.

Body language and non-verbal communication are normally not taught in schools, so most people learn these competencies naturally in social settings. A noticeable inability to perceive and respond to paralanguage is called dyssemia, which is common in people who have autism spectrum disorders. These people may encounter difficulties in responding to others' non-verbal cues, though many of them benefit from extra training and education in this communication area.

Body language is part of paralanguage.
Body language is part of paralanguage.
A simple wave communicates a widely-known meaning.
A simple wave communicates a widely-known meaning.

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Discussion Comments


@nony - I think body language should be taught in schools. Frankly, I view it as essential in leadership. As a leader you will have a mix of people to deal with.

Some will be extroverts and some will be introverts. The introverts will not tell you what they think. It’s up to you to pick up on their non verbal cues.

Of course, you could berate them for being so quiet, but I doubt that will make them want to open up. If you are adept at picking up on the non verbal cues however you can help them express their thoughts and can also help to defuse otherwise tense situations.


@allenJo - I sometimes sit in a hunched position. Yes, some of that may have started with insecurity. But it’s become a habit so I have to make a decision to correct it.

I had a job interview several weeks ago and I focused on my posture as well as the usual interview preparation questions. I straightened up my back and squared my shoulders and leaned in slightly as I spoke; of course, I spoke forcefully too.

These are things that I had to do deliberately. Of course, people will figure out what you’re really like in the course of working with them, so I say having a good posture for a job interview is only the first step.

In general, you should learn to be confident in your day to day affairs. It will show up in your paralanguage.


@NathanG - Words are also part of body language, however, if you consider things like intonation and so forth. I work in a technical support role for a software company. I have to be careful about the tone of my voice.

Honestly, there are times that I get annoyed when the phone rings, or when a customer is being difficult. I can say the right things during those times but if my voice changes or begins to sound gruffer, it’s clear that it’s the onset of stress.

Customers can pick up on it, and it makes them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I will pause and breathe for a few moments before I pick up the phone, just to compose myself. Small talk helps as well, as it enables both parties on the phone to relax.


I watch this news commentary program on television where they discuss current events. From time to time the commentator will invite a so called “body language expert” to come in and comment on the videos of politicians delivering their sound bites.

It’s very instructive. She can point out when a politician is lying (of course, I don’t think you need to be an expert to figure that out). She also points to nuances in the way they squint their eyes, raise their eyebrows, pull in their jaws tight and so forth. It’s really fascinating and is a window on the real emotions and intentions of the speaker.

We say so much more by our body language than we do by our words. I think we should all pay more attention to body language in our presentation.

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