Nonverbal Communication Affects Relationships
To successfully relate to other people, we must possess some skill at encoding and decoding nonverbal communication. The nonverbal messages we send and receive influence our relationships in positive and negative ways and can work to bring people together or push them apart. Nonverbal communication in the form of tie signs, immediacy behaviors, and expressions of emotion are just three of many examples that illustrate how nonverbal communication affects our relationships.
Tie signs are nonverbal cues that communicate intimacy and signal the connection between two people. These relational indicators can be objects such as wedding rings or tattoos that are symbolic of another person or the relationship, actions such as sharing the same drinking glass, or touch behaviors such as hand-holding. Walid A. Afifi and Michelle L. Johnson, “The Nature and Function of Tie-Signs,” in The Sourcebook of Nonverbal Measures: Going beyond Words, ed. Valerie Manusov (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005): 190. Touch behaviors are the most frequently studied tie signs and can communicate much about a relationship based on the area being touched, the length of time, and the intensity of the touch. Kisses and hugs, for example, are considered tie signs, but a kiss on the cheek is different from a kiss on the mouth and a full embrace is different from a half embrace. If you consider yourself a “people watcher,” take note of the various tie signs you see people use and what they might say about the relationship.
Immediacy behaviors play a central role in bringing people together and have been identified by some scholars as the most important function of nonverbal communication. Peter A. Andersen and Janis F. Andersen, “Measures of Perceived Nonverbal Immediacy,” in The Sourcebook of Nonverbal Measures: Going beyond Words, ed. Valerie Manusov (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005): 113–26.Immediacy behaviors are verbal and nonverbal behaviors that lessen real or perceived physical and psychological distance between communicators and include things like smiling, nodding, making eye contact, and occasionally engaging in social, polite, or professional touch. Mark E. Comadena, Stephen K. Hunt, and Cheri J. Simonds, “The Effects of Teacher Clarity, Nonverbal Immediacy, and Caring on Student Motivation, Affective and Cognitive Learning,” Communication Research Reports 24, no. 3 (2007): 241. Immediacy behaviors are a good way of creating rapport, or a friendly and positive connection between people. Skilled nonverbal communicators are more likely to be able to create rapport with others due to attention-getting expressiveness, warm initial greetings, and an ability to get “in tune” with others, which conveys empathy. Ronald E. Riggio, “Social Interaction Skills and Nonverbal Behavior,” in Applications of Nonverbal Behavior Theories and Research, ed. Robert S. Feldman (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992), 12. These skills are important to help initiate and maintain relationships.
While verbal communication is our primary tool for solving problems and providing detailed instructions, nonverbal communication is our primary tool for communicating emotions. This makes sense when we remember that nonverbal communication emerged before verbal communication and was the channel through which we expressed anger, fear, and love for thousands of years of human history. Peter A. Andersen, Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1999), 27. Touch and facial expressions are two primary ways we express emotions nonverbally. Love is a primary emotion that we express nonverbally and that forms the basis of our close relationships. Although no single facial expression for love has been identified, it is expressed through prolonged eye contact, close interpersonal distances, increased touch, and increased time spent together, among other things. Given many people’s limited emotional vocabulary, nonverbal expressions of emotion are central to our relationships.
Teachers and Immediacy Behaviors
A considerable amount of research has been done on teachers’ use of immediacy behaviors, which points to the importance of this communication concept in teaching professions. Virginia P. Richmond, Derek R. Lane, and James C. McCroskey, “Teacher Immediacy and the Teacher-Student Relationship,” in Handbook of Instructional Communication: Rhetorical and Relational Perspectives, eds. Timothy P. Mottet, Virginia P. Richmond, and James C. McCroskey (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2006), 168. Immediacy behaviors are verbal and nonverbal behaviors that lessen real or perceived physical and psychological distance between communicators. Mark E. Comadena, Stephen K. Hunt, and Cheri J. Simonds, “The Effects of Teacher Clarity, Nonverbal Immediacy, and Caring on Student Motivation, Affective and Cognitive Learning,” Communication Research Reports 24, no. 3 (2007): 241. Specific nonverbal behaviors have been found to increase or decrease perceived levels of immediacy, and such behaviors impact student learning, teacher’s evaluations, and the teacher-student relationship. Virginia P. Richmond, Derek R. Lane, and James C. McCroskey, “Teacher Immediacy and the Teacher-Student Relationship,” in Handbook of Instructional Communication: Rhetorical and Relational Perspectives, eds. Timothy P. Mottet, Virginia P. Richmond, and James C. McCroskey (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2006), 169, 184–85. Even those who do not plan on going into teaching as a career can benefit from learning about immediacy behaviors, as they can also be used productively in other interpersonal contexts such as between a manager and employee, a salesperson and a client, or a politician and constituent. Much of this research in teaching contexts has focused on the relationship between immediacy behaviors and student learning, and research consistently shows that effective use of immediacy behaviors increases learning in various contexts and at various levels. Aside from enhancing student learning, the effective use of immediacy behaviors also leads to better evaluations by students, which can have a direct impact on a teacher’s career. While student evaluations of teachers take various factors into consideration, judgments of personality may be formed, as we learned in Chapter 2 "Communication and Perception", after only brief initial impressions. Research shows that students make character assumptions about teachers after only brief exposure to their nonverbal behaviors. Based on nonverbal cues such as frowning, head nodding, pointing, sitting, smiling, standing, strong gestures, weak gestures, and walking, students may or may not evaluate a teacher as open, attentive, confident, dominant, honest, likable, anxious, professional, supportive, or enthusiastic. The following are examples of immediacy behaviors that can be effectively used by teachers:
- Moving around the classroom during class activities, lectures, and discussions (reduces physical distance)
- Keeping the line of sight open between the teacher’s body and the students by avoiding or only briefly standing behind lecterns / computer tables or sitting behind a desk while directly interacting with students (reduces physical distance)
- Being expressive and animated with facial expressions, gestures, and voice (demonstrates enthusiasm)
- Smiling (creates a positive and open climate)
- Making frequent eye contact with students (communicates attentiveness and interest)
- Calling students by name (reduces perceived psychological distance)
- Making appropriate self-disclosures to students about personal thoughts, feelings, or experiences (reduces perceived psychological distance, creates open climate)
Teachers who are judged as less immediate are more likely to sit, touch their heads, shake instead of nod their heads, use sarcasm, avoid eye contact, and use less expressive nonverbal behaviors. Finally, immediacy behaviors affect the teacher-student relationship. Immediacy behaviors help establish rapport, which is a personal connection that increases students’ investment in the class and material, increases motivation, increases communication between teacher and student, increases liking, creates a sense of mutual respect, reduces challenging behavior by students, and reduces anxiety.
- Recall a teacher you have had that exhibited effective immediacy behaviors. Recall a teacher you have had that didn’t exhibit immediacy behaviors. Make a column for each teacher and note examples of specific behaviors of each. Discuss your list with a classmate and compare and contrast your lists.
- Think about the teachers that you listed in the previous question. Discuss how their behaviors affected your learning and your relationship.
- How much should immediacy behaviors, relative to other characteristics such as professionalism, experience, training, and content knowledge, factor into the evaluation of teachers by their students, peers, and supervisors? What, if anything, should schools do to enhance teachers’ knowledge of immediacy behaviors?