Nonverbal Communication in Organizations

 Click here for Nonverbal Assignment

  Click here for Nonverbal Exercises


What is Nonverbal Communication?  You guessed it--it is the messages we send without the use of words.  More specifically, it is what we do, and HOW we speak.  Our gestures, facial expressions, posture, how close we stand to someone, our vocal fillers such as uh and um, our tone of voice, what we smell like, what we wear, and how we use time are all aspects of the umbrella called:  Nonverbal Communication.


Most important part of NVC in organizations is impression management -- what image of ourselves do we portray to others while at work, how do we manage those impressions?

The function of nonverbal communication in business settings is to establish an image or impression of ourselves relative to someone else in terms of control and power.

How we relate to each other is often displayed through our nonverbal communication. This is considered "immediacy."


Click here for more information on Immediacy






Immediacy Behaviors Indicate:

1. Liking and Disliking. We are drawn toward people/objects we like, or evaluate positively and avoid those we dislike, or evaluate negatively.

Cues that indicate liking (high degree of immediacy): standing close to X, leaning forward, facing X directly rather than sideways, touching, direct eye contact, "reach out" gestures, a rich and resonant voice, ah, uh-huh's. Females are more likely to demonstrate these cues than are males due to socialization.

2. Status and Power. One's degree of influence or control in a situation. One who regulates the degree of immediacy. Person of lower status does not have the right to increase immediacy with one of higher status.

Cues that indicate high status and power: more space, relaxed posture, expansive movements/gestures, refusal of eye contact, initiate touching, projects vocal confidence with high volume and rate. Males traditionally demonstrate higher power cues than do females (i.e. females use more eye contact thus allowing males to refuse, males generally touch first and have deeper voices. These are, however, more directly related to individual personality than to one's sex.

3. Responsiveness. One's level of activity or passivity. The extent of awareness and reaction to others, intensity of the interaction. The less responsive is withdrawn and oblivious to others.

Cues indicating high responsiveness: lively and large body movements/gestures, uses more space, initiates touching, has vocal variety with full pitch range and verbal pacing. Active, dynamic, involved. Males demonstrate more of certain cues and females demonstrate more of other cues. Again, these are more directly related to individual personality than to one's sex.


Return to top of class notes


Nonverbal Communication at Work:

Spaciotemporal Dimensions

Overt Body Behavior

Feng Shui


click here for product page



Spatiotemporal Dimensions: all jobs take place in space and time.

1.  Space: This refers to location, color and lighting. The environment you work in influences your behavior.

    *Location of Work Areas: Traditionally, location defined lines of power and prestige. High ranking officials were on the upper floors, had larger offices, and had more windows. Some factories went so far as to use separate buildings for management and factory workers. Many organizations, however, such as Xerox and Alcoa, are moving managers out of the office, and into cubicles, or "team spaces". These are referred to as "neighborhoods", that are small workspaces with "teamwork" rooms and even "common areas" with kitchens. The idea is to bring people into an environment where "rank hath few privileges, teamwork rules, and privacy is a rare commodity".

Another new issue is what is referred to as the Auto Office, or people who work from their cars. Many individuals have cell phones, fax machines and lap tops that enable them to work in a mobile office. Others, yet, work from home.

    *Color: Whites and light colors are chosen for most businesses. This is associated with purity and honesty. Cooler colors help keep tempers down.

    *Lighting: Proper lighting can increase productivity, should be bright, but not harsh. Lots of sunlight is best.

2. Territory: This refers to the arrangement of space and treatment of space as territory.

    *Open/Closed Door: Closed door indicates prestige, importance, need for privacy to discuss important matters. Open door indicates willingness to converse and suggests no need for private or important discussions.

    *Permanence of Objects: The more permanent the object (the heavier, the higher the value, the more space it takes) the more prestige it communicates. This includes the size of the office, what is shared (office, phones, vax lines, etc.), decorations such as plants, pictures, diplomas, etc.

    *Home Territory: When the office is not shared, it is viewed as an extension of one's home, others only enter when there is a reason. We defer to that person when in her/his office unless we are of a higher status -- even if the door is open we will knock first.

3. Time: In this culture time on the job is very important. We use time as an (a) indicator of prominence or prestige of the person we are dealing with (we will wait longer for those of higher status Vs keeping people waiting for us), and (b) the amount of time we spend with someone indicates how important he/she is to us.  

Feng Shui

Feng Shui (pronounced Fung shway) is one way of looking at nonverbal design issues in an office. Donald Trump uses it in designing his high-rise buildings. Businesses are using it to improve office productivity. In a lecture at Ball State University (March 3, 1999), Feng Shui design consultant, William Land, stated that there is an 85% correspondence between how your life is going and how your environment is arranged. He stressed the importance of putting the natural environment back into the planning of our surroundings.

It is based on an ancient Chinese philosophy and looks at the placement and types of objects in a living space. It seeks to maintain a positive life balance, or "chi". The five elements are: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Each of these elements should be present in your work environment to create positive energy--which we assume is a good thing in an organization.

 Visit this article on feng shui to learn more about it. For a video on how to use feng shui in your office click here.


[Return to top of Class Notes]




Overt Body Behavior



1. Touch: The message sent through touch is dependent on the type of touch (caress vs slap), location on the body, and duration. Two important messages communicated on the job:

*Positive Expression of Status and Power: Superior initiates and controls touch. Simple contact with another may increase perceptions of credibility. Touches needed to accomplish the job, such as those from a dentist or a doctor, are called functional/professional touches. The handshake is a very common form of workplace touch.

    *Negative Touch: Unwanted touches may be perceived as negative. These may be considered in the category of sexual harassment. What is important to remember is that even though the person who initiates the touching may have good intentions, what is important is how the person receiving the touch feels. Generally, those of higher status have the prerogative to touch those of lower status. Self touch may also be considered negative, i.e.: rubbing the back of the neck, temples, etc. These indicate stress.

2. Facial Expressions: We manage our facial expressions so that others will like us and want to do business or work with us.

    *Emotions: It is usually taboo on the job to reveal emotional expressions such as sadness or anger.

    *Eye contact: Direct gaze, or eye contact increases your status and credibility. Those of a higher status can initiate and stop gazes. Mutual gaze signifies more equality. Gaze aversion, or looking away from someone, may signify lack of power, as if being scolded and looking down on the ground.

    *Smile: When smiling, we are perceived as being more intelligent and friendly. May also be associated with deception though.


 Look here for an interesting article on facial expressions from Training Magazine.

3. Gestures and Body Movement: How we move our body.

    *Mirroring: We are reflecting what the other is doing. We mimic the behaviors of another. This can include facial expressions, posture, and length of gaze.

    *Posture: More relaxed posture indicates how much power the individual believes he/she has over the situation. Those in the lower status position tend to have more stiff posture. Interestingly, superiors will be ranked as more considerate when displaying low status rather than high status behaviors. Sitting with arms and leggs crossed says "stay away," I am not open to talking to you now. Conversely, sitting in an open position with legs uncrossed and arms open indicate that you are ready and willing to engage in conversation. Perhaps the person in power has the choice of either relaxed or stiff posture, whereas the person in the lower position may not.

4. Vocalics: Our voice contributes to the way we are perceived on the job.

    *Rate: Good speakers use conversational style rates (moderate to fast). They are perceived as more attractive, educated, competent, and trustworthy.

    *Quality and Dialect: Those who speak without an accent are perceived as more credible, such as TV and news anchors. Lower/deeper voices tend to be more credible than high and nasal voices.

5. Physical Appearance: There seems to be a strong stereotype about what is appropriate and inappropriate in terms of physical appearance on the job. This seems to be more true for white collar than blue collar positions. This is changing rapidly though, work dress is tending to become more causal

    *Size, Height: Taller people are generally assumed to be smarter, more competent, and tend to get a higher starting salary than short people. Mesomorphic (athletic) body types are preferred. Endomorphic (heavy) and ectomorphic (skinny) are not preferred. Physical attractiveness can also be a hindrance. Attractiveness for males seeking a managerial position is an asset, but it is only an asset to females seeking a non managerial position.

 *Appearance: John T. Molloy's "Dress for Success" started the revolution on what to wear for success. This produced stereotypes which are still widely accepted in many organizations. "Informal Uniforms" are expected ways of dress for a particular position. We all have ideas about how teachers and corporate executives should dress. The trend now, though, is toward a more causal dress code. Casual Friday is common in many contemporary organizations.  




Return to top of class notes