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Non-Verbal Communication in Writing

The last time I edited some of my work, I was dismayed to discover how many times my characters smiled, sighed, or scowled and how infrequently they used any other gestures. What, I thought, if my characters didn’t just smile, sigh, and scowl? What if they clapped hands and skipped around the room beaming? Or thumped down with a huge outrush of air, to settle in for the long tedious wait? Or leaned threateningly in towards the bully, elbows out, legs stiffened, features frozen? What if my characters could gain a much more nuanced, much more expressive range of gestures and emotions?

As I contemplated fancying up my emotional descriptions, I remembered Keith Cronin’s sage advice about pretentious words and had a reality check. Was I just getting carried away with word-love again?

Then I adopted a former stray dog, and my eyes were opened. She entered the house fully formed, with her own expectations, habits, and history. All I had to go on to figure out what she wanted or needed were her facial expressions, subvocalizations, and posture. I learned the subtle nuances of one dog ear raised, a short whine, a long whine, a big sigh. Figuring out what she was trying to ‘tell’ me had a big payoff (no messes, less chewing of items, a happy dog). This close observation became a habit, and I started watching people in everyday conversations.

Just how much of what is ‘said’ does not occur through words is astonishing. Researchers have estimated that more than half of communication (estimates range from 65% to 90% by various investigators) is non-verbal. The same words will mean different things depending on tone of voice, accompanying facial expression, posture and position of the speaker, even clothing and appearance. First impressions happen within 1/10th of a second. Or less. And they are mostly based on non-verbal communication.

There has been a lot written on non-verbal communication–even Charles Darwin wrote a book about it. (Links to a few more recent studies can be found at the end of this blog.) A lot of current research appears in psychology studies, an equally large amount appears in guides to business success, since non-verbal communication is a crucial part of making presentations and deals. I found surprisingly little written on the glorious possibilities it offers for writers of fiction. A simple summary of the characteristics of non-verbal communication reads like a checklist of strategies for improving flat scenes:

Non-verbal communication:

  • Can use all of the senses, not just hearing.
  • Increases in importance in situations where meaning is uncertain or untrusted or when actions conflict with verbal messages.
  • Increases in importance and in nuance in emotional situations.
  • Is more involuntary than speech, meaning it can be a giveaway to the underlying ‘truth’ of a person’s thoughts. This makes it seem more trustworthy, a more true expression of a person’s thoughts than speech, especially in stressful situations.
  • Can reinforce or contradict a verbal communication.
  • Can be practiced regardless of shared language or ability to talk (babies, toddlers, animals all communicate without words)
  • Is quiet and can avoid detection in some circumstances.
  • Can be predetermined and used as a secret language.
  • Is cross-cultural. A head nod means yes or assent in nearly all cultures; a head shake means no or refusal.

In this age of non-stop dialogue, non-verbal communication makes irony possible; sarcasm understandable, and honesty believable. It is strongest during moments of tension, adding layers of meaning to highly-charged scenes. It also makes communication physical and spatial. Thoughts and dialogue are immaterial, abstract. Non-verbal communication happens physically, often actively, in a specific setting, and the clues used to describe it can make not only the character’s emotions, but the entire scene more immediate.

But non-verbal communication is also subtle, and complex. Easy to overdo in writing. It is always one step away from cliché, even caricature. Oft-repeated descriptions of non-verbal communication become lazy writer cues, providing code words for basic emotions. “Bedroom eyes” and “clenched fists” don’t pack the punch they once did.

How can you fit non-verbal communication into your writing in a believable manner? Become a good observer. Notice the details of people’s physicality while they talk. Use those observations and those details to give expression to your characters. This list of the basic types of non-verbal communication (compiled from a variety of sources) will give you an idea of the variety of things to look for:

  • Gestures – a raised middle finger, the ‘OK’ sign, or the thumbs up are gestures with specific (often culturally contingent) meanings. Gestures with less specific meanings–a gentle touch on the shoulder, rubbing a soft fabric between the fingers, holding a hand out in entreaty—can also be powerful but risk being interpreted multiple ways.
  • Paralinguistics – are vocal communications that are separate from actual language. This includes factors such as tone of voice, loudness, inflection, and pitch. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Take the sentence: “Yes, I’m sure you can do it.” If said with a sneer, or in exasperation, it means something far different than with a smile.
  • Body language (kinesics) and posture are often basic, almost instinctive (or animalistic) reactions. Putting hands on hips can indicate opposition, a refusal to back down, or even a readiness for quick response.  Leaning back while standing or sitting can indicate a lack of interest; leaning forward can indicate engagement. Turning away from someone while talking can indicate disinterest.
  • Proxemics (distance or personal space) –Standing too close can be aggressive. Standing too far can be a sign of fear.
  • Eye gaze – the directness, duration, and focus of a glance speaks volumes. There are social norms about how people look at each other and breaking the norms can communicate—for example a stare so direct that no one would meet its challenge or a prolonged downcast glance as a means of avoiding being chosen for something. A gaze can express desire–toddlers often express what they want by looking purposely at an object and reaching for it. Adults gaze longingly at what they most want.
  • Haptics (communicating through touch). How a person touches something or someone can be tender, demanding, desperate, soothing.
  • Physiological changes (sweating, reddening of the skin, blinking, pupil dilation). These bodily reactions are instinctive, not often controlled. Often they are giveaways–revealing emotions against a person’s wish, or will.
  • Appearance what a person looks like reveals social status, how much care they take of themselves, whether they value appearance or not, even healthiness.
  • Artifacts what a person wears is directly communicative—of wealth or poverty, style or pragmatism, blending in or standing out.

What do you think? Do you already use nuanced non-verbal communication in your scenes? Or do you find yourself using the basic code words? Did you find yourself thinking about specific scenes as you read through the lists above?

With my next blog, I hope to try to give a better idea of what makes a good use of non-verbal communication in writing and what makes it into just fancy words for basic emotions. I’m especially interested in how it might facilitate backstory and increase tension.

Illustration Credits: Rottweiler By George Hodan  Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0. Public Domain

Some Further Reading:

Chapter 4 of Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies, 2016–an open-source communications course textbook offers a good start.

The website verywellmind.com has a summary of non-verbal communication and a post on how to understand body language and facial expressions.

a good overview can be found in Professor Charles Tidwell’s teaching notes for a course on Intercultural Business Relations.

This helpguide post focuses on relationships, but it provides some useful tips for reading body language.

The article, Nonverbal Communication and Your Characters, by Carolyn Kaufman, at psychologytoday.com provided a good intro on non-verbal communication for writers.

As suggested by Donald Maass–The Emotion Thesaurus.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.