Sociology of Nonverbal Communication
In day-to-day interaction, people across different cultures tend to rely heavily on language to communicate needs and establish understanding. However, communication also occurs in a number of nonverbal ways outside spoken language that typically include facial expressions, the absence or presence of eye contact, physical proximity, nonutterances, touch, gestures, and bodily movement. Studies of nonverbal communication stem initially from studies of animal behavior—in which nonverbal gestures and expressions are seen as legacies of more primitive or instinctual behavior and are therefore seen as largely unconscious or unintentional—or from cultural anthropology—in which nonverbal communication is viewed as largely intentional. In sociology, studies in nonverbal communication are associated mainly with symbolic interactionism, which shows how knowledge of nonverbal communicative norms (e.g., socially appropriate facial expressions and bodily gestures) and control are crucial to the competent presentation of self in everyday life.
Keywords Body Idiom; Deep Acting; Dramaturgical Model; Face Work; Focused Interaction; Looking Glass Self; Self-idea; Surface Acting; Unfocused Interaction
The Sociology of Nonverbal Communication
In day-to-day interaction, people across different cultures tend to rely heavily on language to communicate needs and establish understanding. However, communication also occurs in a number of nonverbal ways outside spoken language that typically include facial expressions, the absence or presence of eye contact, physical proximity, nonutterances, touch, gestures, and bodily movement (sometimes known collectively as "body language"), as well as unspoken assumptions that may affect any encounter between people (Hirsch, Kett & Trefil, 2002).
Contemporary scholarship on nonverbal communication is associated with sociology, cultural anthropology, communication, and media studies, and is oriented more generally toward looking at the ways people use nonverbal information to maximize their success in business, public, and professional life. Yet nonverbal communication—as unintentional communication—is arguably most important within the context of day-to-day encounters.
Studies of nonverbal communication stem initially from studies of animal behavior, in which nonverbal gestures and expressions are seen as legacies of more primitive or instinctual behavior and are therefore seen as largely unconscious or unintentional. Nonverbal communication has been popularized through books such as Desmond Morris's (1977) hugely popular Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior and programs that offer to school people in techniques that will increase their social power and improve their success at work or in dating. Common to such efforts is the idea that the attention people give to their external appearance and physical conduct has an impact on communication and can be understood by others.
In sociology, studies in nonverbal communication are associated with two main traditions. First, symbolic interactionism, especially as developed in the work of Erving Goffman, shows how knowledge of nonverbal communicative norms (e.g., socially appropriate facial expressions and bodily gestures) and control are crucial to the competent presentation of self in everyday life. In this framework, successful interaction with others depends on impression management, information control, and being ever attentive to what our bodies and faces are “telling” others. However, such management and control is not always possible, and sometimes bodily disruptions and differences present interactional challenges.
Second, phenomenology suggests how important sensory experiences and information are to the development of a sense of self and to interaction with others, although Western thought tends to deny the significance of such experiences and to privilege rational thought as the basis of self.
Contemporary scholarship on nonverbal communication has turned its attention to the ways people decorate and mark their bodies to convey information about belonging, group membership, and status.
The late nineteenth-century German sociologist Georg Simmel developed what has come to be known as a “sociology of the senses.” He observed that people are bound together through the various encounters, sensory experiences, and glances that are exchanged in everyday life (Frisby & Featherstone, 1997). These sensory experiences are the prime means through which people apprehend and appreciate each other, and sense-impression (what we hear, smell, and feel of others) is what primarily gives us access to an idea of who people are (Simmel, 1969, cited in Blaikie et al., 2004).
Simmel argued that visual contact was especially important for initiation and coordination of face-to-face interaction and that the "the eye has a uniquely sociological function" (cited in Blaikie et al., 2004, p. 2) since social interaction is based on mutual glances that both reveal others and disclose ourselves to others. In Simmel's work, making and keeping eye contact is so important in establishing social relations that breaking eye contact has a negative function (e.g., it signals shame or lack of confidence). This insight, obvious as it may seem to early twenty-first-century readers, was systematically developed by sociologists associated with what became known as the Chicago School.
The “Looking Glass Self”
Visual information is important for developing a sense of self and was central to the development of symbolic interactionism, an approach to understanding social life that emphasizes the importance of the role of images and symbols in social interaction. In particular, Charles Horton Cooley proposed a theory for the development of self as a creative agent in his 1902 book, Human Nature and the Social Order. This theory suggests that self-development emerges through interaction with others who reflect back to us an image of ourselves. The eyes and the face are important in self-presentation because they are so visible and exposed in Western cultures: they offer vital information about who and what we are and present a focal point for interaction. Of all the senses, sight is most privileged in Western culture as evidence of social reality, and there is a tendency to base what we know on what we can see. We “see” others by looking into their faces and into their eyes, and their facial expressions and gestures reflect back to us how others in turn see us.
Cooley names this process of seeing and developing a sense of self as the development of the self-idea, which emerges in three stages:
• How we imagine we appear to others,
• How we imagine others judge us, and
• The self-feeling we develop in response to our imagination of these judgments.
Cooley likens the self-idea to a mirror that provides us with a visual reflection of the external appearance of our bodies and faces. Use of a mirror, however, is an interactive process that creates a connection between the subjective self of the viewer and the external world of others (Hepworth, 2000, p. 46). When we look into a mirror, we interpret what we see through our imagination of what others see.
In addition to visual appearance, the exchange of gestures and symbols is central to understanding nonverbal communication within the symbolic interactionist framework. George Herbert Mead paid close attention to the role of images, symbols, and gestures in social interaction and self-development. For symbolic interactionists, the self is not the product of rational thought alone, but rather is the product of an ongoing, persistent social process characterized by constant interaction between self and others and between different aspects of self (Mead, 1934). Central to Mead's theory of nonverbal communication is how images and gestures mediate not only how others look at us, but also how we look back and at ourselves.
The self is characterized by habits or instincts that he calls “I” and by the organized beliefs learned from interaction with others (between “me” and the groups to which “I” belong). Part of the self is objective and expresses the gaze of others (e.g., social norms and expectations). Yet, “I” can stand back from “me” and reflect on “myself.” In part, this is possible not only through language, but through the conversation of gestures (e.g., mimicking others and, later, the games children play) through which children develop their sense of self and awareness of others.
The Dramaturgical Model
Erving Goffman develops these ideas in his dramaturgical model of interaction. In his classic text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1971), which is based on ethnography of life on a Scottish island in the 1950s, Goffman explores what makes it possible to enter into and participate in social encounters and in the presentation of self in those encounters. The dramaturgical model emphasizes that in social encounters, people give, receive, and manage information, most of which is nonverbal and directed toward performances. Performances are possible through roles that operate...
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