How do we communicate beyond words?

The communicative situation is fundamental when it comes to transmitting information however non-verbal information also plays a very important role. Along with linguistic and situational information, it helps us to create our message. Poyatos (1994) divides these non-verbal aspects into four main categories: proxemics, kinesics, cronemics and paraverbal messages.

Proxemics: Space

In American society, people keep a minimum personal space of the length of an outstretched arm, while in Western European cultures this distance is reduced to 50cm and in some African cultures it can be as little as 20cm. Sometimes speakers have assigned spaces and it is not appropriate to move outside of them (pupils and teacher/ judge, lawyer, accused party, victim). There are also social spaces that cannot be entered (e.g. landscaped gardens, a person’s bedroom). Proxemic aspects are related to space, and the manner in which we understand it on a personal level, this also depends on our interlocutor and the place where the interaction takes place. The way we manage our own individual space is mainly conditioned by the cultural rules of our societies. Hall distinguishes between intimate, personal, social and public situations and each society must define what constitutes an acceptable space in each situation.

Despite this, each person also manages their personal space according to their communicative intentions. In a conversational exchange, we can choose to move closer to or further away from the interlocutor, in order to be more persuasive and confidential or on the contrary, appear more distant and disinterested. Using space management we can also try to get someone’s attention or to modify the social roles of the interlocutors. For example, a teacher may choose to sit among the students when one of them is giving a talk to the other students.


Body motions are known as kinesics. Poyatos (1994) divides these into three groups: gestures, manners and postures. Gestures are facial and body movements, manners are the conventional ways of carrying out actions and posture are static communicative positions. Using these elements we can show our attitude when interacting, be it interest, boredom, indifference or anxiety. Some authors have created lists of gestures that convey warm behaviour, such as looking into the speaker’s eyes, touching hands, smiling, making funny faces, sitting opposite someone, raising eyebrows, making expressive hand gestures and shooting quick glances, as opposed to cold behaviour such as cold stares, mocking, yawning, frowning, distance, looking at one’s nails, and looking around the room.

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Gestures and manners are also related to the speaker’s social status, in such a way that depending on the communicative situation and our social role within it, we should respect a series of kinesic rules. These rules obviously vary from one culture to another. Below is a table that outlines the kinesic behaviour that is normally respected in relation to an individual’s status and social power.



Cronemics can be defined as the concept, structure and way in which humans use time. Generally, these elements include conceptual, social and interactive time. Conceptual time refers to how time is conceived and distributed in a community. The conception of time varies between cultures and each has a different attitude in relation to it. In western culture, time is viewed as something valuable that cannot be wasted (hence the expression “time is money”).

Social time refers to the management of time in social relationships, to structuring activities depending on the time of day and the amount of time set aside for those activities. Inactivity spaces and communicative silences are also managed differently according to the culture in question. For instance, in western cultures, silence between two strangers sharing the same space cannot be tolerated for much time, while in eastern culture, silence is viewed as a mark of respect.

Lastly, interactive time refers to the duration of signs that are of informational value, either because they reinforce the meaning of what is being communicated or because they change the sense of the message. For example, in relation to this time we can consider the length of syllables and pauses and the relevant connotations, the speed at which certain statements are made, the duration of gestures and postures, such as a hug or prolonged hug that conveys greater affection, etc.

The study of interactive time requires extensive and detailed research into the other non-verbal communication systems and it has received less attention than these other systems.

Paraverbal elements

These are vocal elements that are necessarily considered to be linguistic components of the language. We are talking about vocal quality and the vowel and consonant sounds that are produced by vocal apparatus but which are not words (grunting noises, nodding, negations or onomatopoeia).

Voice offers a number of different qualities: tone, timbre, quantity and intensity. These elements add inferential aspects that can determine information or nuance a message’s significance. For example, the interjection “Ah!” is used to express understanding, agreement, disillusion or surprise, while a phrase like I thought you were different can communicate disillusion, a welcome surprise or scorn, depending on the tone used and the duration of some of the sounds. On the other hand, the message in the abovementioned example varies considerably depending on whether it is said with a murmur, trembling voice, whisper, shrill voice or husky voice.


These are sounds that do not constitute words but which are used to communicate, either along, or along with other paralinguistic, kinesic or verbal signs. These could include laughing, sobbing, sighing, shouting, coughing or clearing one’s throat. They can also include interjections (“Ah!”, “’Alas”, “Aha”), onomatopoeia (“Glug-glug”, “Miaow”, “Woof!”), others noise emissions like snoring, to snuffling, or groaning and other sounds that are emotional or physiological reactions (“Uff”, “Hmm”, “Pfft”, “Oh”…).

Poyatos (1994) names these “paralinguistic differentiators” and Nussbaum (2001) “gruñemas”. They all perform functions and are of great importance in daily communication. One example would be a cry as it can be interpreted as fear, joy, or surprise.