Paralanguage: What You Don’t Say Is Important

Communication is far more than speech and writing.   Most of us are unaware that we are communicating in many different ways even when we are not speaking.  The same goes for other social animal species.  We are rarely taught about this mostly non-verbal form of human communication in school even though it is very important for effective interaction with others.  Growing up in a society, we informally learn how to use gestures, glances, slight changes in tone of voice, and other auxiliary communication devices to alter or emphasize what we say and do.  We learn these highly culture bound techniques over years largely by observing others and imitating them.

Linguists refer to all of these auxiliary communication methods as paralanguage .  It is part of the redundancy in communication that helps prevent ineffective communication.  It can prevent the wrong message from inadvertently being passed on, as often is the case in a telephone call and even more so in a letter.  The paralanguage messages that can be observed through face to face contact also makes it more difficult to lie or to hide emotions.  Paralanguage is often more important in communication than what is actually being said orally.  It has been suggested that as much as 70% of what we communicate when talking directly with others is through paralanguage.

The most obvious form of paralanguage is body language or kinesics .  This is the language of gestures, expressions, and postures.   In North America, for instance, we commonly use our arms and hands to say good-bye, point, count, express excitement, beckon, warn away, threaten, insult etc.  In fact, we learn many subtle variations of each of these gestures and use them situationally.   We use our head to say yes or no, to smile, frown, and wink acknowledgement or flirtation.  Our head and shoulder in combination may shrug to indicate that we do not know something.

While the meaning of some gestures, such as a smile, may be the same throughout the world, the meaning of others may be completely different.  For example, spitting on another person is a sign of utmost contempt in Europe and North America but can be an affectionate blessing if done in a certain way among the Masai of Kenya.

The point is that non-verbal communications can’t be overlooked either when doing fieldwork or once you begin to design things around the insights gleened from the fieldwork, be it a new product design or a marketing campaign.


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