Nonverbal Communication

A New Model of Communication

To understand how it is at all possible that the visually perceived nonverbal component of communication takes on such a domineering role that the verbally transmitted information is relegated to second fiddle, it is necessary to take into account an aspect of communication for which the American semiotician and philosopher Charles W. Morris coined the term pragmatics. Defined as ‘the relation of signs to their interpreters’, the pragmatic dimension of communication focuses on the cognitive and emotional processes which occur when a person takes notice of other people’s verbal and nonverbal utterances and invests them with meaning.

Incorporating the pragmatic dimension into the framework of communications theory necessitates a radical departure from the dominant communication model, which derives from the field of communications engineering. This latter model conceives of communication as a three-stage process of information transmittal: the sender’s message is first transposed, by means of a code, into the signals of a (machine) language, then transmitted via a suitable channel to a receiver who deciphers, in a third and final step, the received signals using the same code as the sender. The theoretical and practical problems of this model are thus aimed at how to convert the totality of potential messages into signals and how to transmit them undistorted to the addressee. The decoding of signals – in other words, the act of comprehension performed at the receiving end – is in this case nothing but a straightforward reversal of the process of encoding.

This technical communication model, exclusively focused on the sender, neglects the core characteristic of human communication, in which the recipient’s perceptions, impressions, and the act of comprehension assume a decisive role. It is impossible for the human sender to compel the recipient to take notice of a signal, to understand it in any given sense, or to come up with a certain impression. Signal identification and attribution of meaning remain the recipient’s domain.

The pragmatic aspect is by far more relevant for nonverbal than for verbal communication. The usage of language follows well-established provisions governing the meaning of words, the application of grammatical rules, etc., that remain largely unchanged throughout many generations. Speaker and listener are thus subjected to a framework of semantic and syntactic rules that limit the degree of freedom for both parties. No such conventions exist in the field of nonverbal communication, which is therefore particularly open (or vulnerable) to subjective impressions and inferences of all kinds.

The fundamental problem of nonverbal communications research, therefore, is finding out what meaning the recipient attributes to nonverbal ‘signs’. For apart from the very limited number of movements which stand in for a set phrase (e.g., nodding, head-shaking, shrugging), there is no dictionary one could consult as to the meaning of the gestural, facial, postural activity that unfolds right in front of the viewer’s eyes. That no semantic convention as to the meaning of nonverbal behaviours exists is, in turn, a logical consequence of the fact that the attribution of meaning is performed by the person who takes notice of these ‘signs’: due to the pragmatic nature of nonverbal communication it is the perceiver who decides what any given nonverbal action ‘tells’. 


  • Foundations of the theory of signs. Morris, C. in: Neurath, 0. Carnap, R. and Morris, C.  (eds.). International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.
  • Prejudice and Inferential Communication: A New Look at an Old Problem. Frey, S. in I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt and F. Salter (eds.) Ethnic Conflict and Indoctrination: Altruism and Identity in Evolutionary Perspectives, 2001.