Nonverbal communication accounts for more than half of the messages people convey to one another and, even if they are not aware of doing so, people readily interpret nonverbal messages. Messages of liking, openness, and power/dominance are all displayed nonverbally. The nonverbal messages people receive during interactions allow them to decode the underlying feelings and attitudes of strangers, and these messages can sometimes conflict with the information people are stating verbally (Weisbuch & Ambady, 2009). When that happens, nonverbal cues can be more revealing of the real message than are verbal cues (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992). Nonverbal information, such as the amount of eye contact people engage in or the personal distance people maintain during interactions, can also convey how much attention people are paying in an interaction or their willingness to listen to or engage with another person (Hall, 1966).
Interacting with people from different social groups can lead to anxiety, and such feelings are often conveyed nonverbally. Research shows, for example, that people can give off nonverbal cues that imply dislike of or discomfort with a member of a stereotyped group, even while trying to engage in a positive interaction (Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2000). Research also shows that people interpret nonverbal cues differently depending on the actor’s race/ethnicity. For example, Whites who are high in implicit racial bias are more likely to perceive anger in Black faces (Hugenberg & Bodenhausen, 2003).
Different cultures and subcultures have very different norms for nonverbal communication; for example, some cultures are high contact (e.g, they stand closer and touch more frequently) and others are low contact (e.g., they maintain more social distance and touch less frequently); how people interpret another’s nonverbal behavior depends on their own cultural norms (Chung, 2011). Differences can occur between social groups as well; women, for example, are more likely to keep their legs close together and their arms closer to their body than are men (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2013). Considering the ways in which nonverbal communication affects interactions can help people understand how their own miscommunications and their misinterpretations of others’ communications can lead to stereotyping and prejudice.
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